Teaching Math With Art Helps Children Remember Key Concepts

Teaching math with art is an excellent strategy. The connection between the two is often overlooked in articles about teaching math, but the truth is that using art in math significantly improves retention of key concepts and vocabulary. Once you see the relationship between the two, you will no doubt begin to see opportunities everywhere to use art in your math classroom.

Benefits

All students are gifted, and teaching math with art gives artistically gifted children a chance to shine. For right brained children (who are often left handed) art engages the right brain which is a critical part of their ability to learn math concepts and vocabulary. (Playing Baroque music in the background helps with this as well.) In addition to these benefits – art activities are fun for everybody, and since authentic learning is linked to emotion, it makes sense to incorporate art whenever possible in your math classroom.

When and How to Include Art in Math Instruction

Related art projects are perfect for centers. Upper elementary and middle school math teachers may also need quick ways to incorporate art without using a lot of class time. Dry erase boards installed all the way around the classroom make it easy to give children opportunities for art in a short period of time.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, either. I have used shower boards for years, screwed or nailed on walls, on top of bulletin boards - even on cabinet doors. The idea is for there to be enough space for all students to go to the boards at the same time. Kids love the time we spend there, and we get a lot of math done. We draw every single day, and my students’ listening skills improve dramatically. This time is also good for ongoing review.

Along with math word walls, teaching math with art is the best strategy I know for helping children understand and remember math concepts and vocabulary.

LEARNING CYCLES

The brain works in cycles and remembers beginnings and endings best. Dry erase boards provide opportunities for lots of stops and starts during instruction as well as an opportunity for movement. When students have been working for a while and I can see that they are beginning to “wilt” or lose their focus, I ask everyone to go to the dry erase boards, often to draw a picture related to what we are learning.

Math Stories

Remember the story about the “sick” (improper) fractions? The dry erase board is a good place for students to draw ambulances to accompany that story. Of course, I work to help them develop an understanding of what is actually happening mathematically, but the art serves as a vehicle for memory (no pun intended!) so that students are able to recall the concept.

Ambulance for taking sick (improper) fractions to the hospital

Tractor ambulance drawn by an eighth-grade student


Geometry

The study of geometry is rooted in perspective. Since the study of art teaches perspective, pairing of the two just makes sense. In order to truly develop an understanding of geometry, it is my opinion that children must do more than simply look at examples in books. They must have experience creating those shapes themselves which is why I often ask that they draw them on the dry erase boards. It is also why I assign Hidden Shapes art projects.

Multiplication Facts

To review their multiplication tables, I have students recite the rhymes from Anita Turner's Rhymes 'n' Times and then draw pictures related to them. For example, the rhyme for 4 x 8 is “4 x 8, 32 bluebirds on the gate” so I have them draw 32 bluebirds.


More Math Art Projects

  • Angle Animals - Students must draw animals with mouth open to certain angle specifications.
  • Hidden Shapes - Required shapes are hidden in artwork.
  • Arc Pictures - Pictures must use only arcs - no line segments allowed! Simple rubric may be modified to include more details if you wish.
  • Word Wall Super Heroes - Kids of all ages love super heroes, and for this project math vocabulary words come alive when they get to use them to create their own super heroes.
  • Exponent Visualizations - Students represent an object raised to a power to reinforce the meaning of exponents.
  • Trap-a-Zoid Project - A trap must be drawn in the shape of a trapezoid in order to capture a Zoid that is on the loose from another planet. Students must write a paragraph telling where their Zoid is from and how to take care of him.

You need to feed it mac and cheese. You have to give it a bath or he will smell like a foot. You dress it in boy or girls clothes because we don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. And put it to bed at 5:00 because it gets sleepy at that time.


Tip: Ask the art teacher at your school to help children learn perspective. It is already starting to show up in my students' drawings, and it helps them better visualize solid figures. She is a great resource for teaching math with art! (Thanks, L.L.!!)


  • In the Neighborhood - Students draw two parallel streets crossed by a third street which serves as the transversal. Different buildings are then drawn in alternate exterior or alternate interior angles following this simple rubric.

This sixth grader went a step further to create an additional transversal.

  • Snowman Buttons - Students use the three "snowballs" in the word "add" to draw a snowman, a reminder that they must line up the "snowman buttons" (decimals) when they add (or subtract.)
Visual for helping kids remember to line up the decimals when they add (or subtract.)



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Properties of Math

Properties of math seem to be difficult for my students to grasp. So I incorporate art and create silly examples to help them relax and reduce the stress which many of them experience as a result of math anxiety.

Identity Property of Addition

The Identity Property for Addition states that any number plus zero is that number. So while students are at the dry erase boards, I first dictate, "Eight plus zero equals ______" (8) which they write at their space at the board.

Next I dictate "A number 'n' plus zero equals ____" (n)

And finally, "An elephant (they must draw an elephant) plus zero equals _______" (an elephant)

Students have so much fun drawing their elephants that they forget that they are not supposed to understand the concept!

Identity Property of Multiplication

The Identity Property of Multiplication states that a number times one equals the number.

So I follow the same basic procedure as with the identity for addition, except that this time I may use the example, "A bulldozer times 1 equals _______" (a bulldozer.

Students may then create their own artwork in math centers, providing the time you need to work with small groups of students which is really the only way to catch kids up.

Commutative Property

For the commutative property I can pretty much have them draw anything at the dry erase boards, then in the middle of their work, ask them to commute (swap places) with another student and finish each other's drawings.This helps them remember that when numbers "commute," they "swap places."

Students have created some beautiful examples in math centers, too, as you can see from the example below.

Associative Property

This one may be the most fun of all because I ask them to draw a picture of someone with whom they associate which means that they are often drawing pictures of one another. It reinforces the meaning of "associate" (I tell them the parentheses are round lunch tables at which the numbers/variables are "associating"). Since we are having fun, emotion is there so learning is going to happen!!

Distributive Property

For this one I ask students to draw something school-appropriate which they would like to "distribute" to everyone in the class if they had the money.

This one is fun, too, and kids seem to really enjoy deciding what they would give to each member of the class. This prepares the way for me to explain the distributing of multiplication to every term in parentheses.

Angry birds is the ideal illustration for this, and drawing them is one of my students' favorite math center activities.