Why Interactive Digital Math Stories? Let’s Count the Reasons…

By: Samantha Creighan, Ph.D., Adjunct Assistant Professor at Teachers College and Research Director at Speakaboos

We’re excited to announce the release of Monster Birthday Surprise, the second of three stories aiming to introduce early math concepts that are a collaborative effort between Professor Herbert Ginsburg of Teachers College and Speakaboos, generously funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

You might be wondering, “why put math in stories?” When creativity, engaging storytelling, and strong curriculum come together, the potential is infinite. In terms of learning math, digital stories offer certain affordances beyond what a teacher or parent can do without this kind of technology. In particular, we know they help make abstract concepts concrete and visual.

What do I mean by that?

Well, for example…

If I point to the following and say “five” to a child learning words and numbers, what does that mean?


Am I referring to the objects themselves? A feature of the object like their size or color?

Google tells me that “five” means “equivalent to the sum of two and three; one more than four, or half of ten; 5.” Well, if the child doesn’t know “five” how likely is it that this helps?

It also says “a group or unit of five people or things.” So to help the child, I can point to them again and say “five drums.” That helps a little bit.

If I point to them a third time, this time one-by-one from left to right as I say “one, two, three, four, five. We have five drums altogether” that helps a little bit more.

Now finally, imagine that the child and I are reading Monster Music Factory, the first of the series, together.



On this page, as the character Zoller Controller says, “How many drums do we have? One. Two. Three. Four. Five!” we simultaneously see the sets of drums animate. This is important because it helps us know that five doesn’t just mean the fifth drum, but the set counted so far. She then presses the numeral 5 on the machine and a box labeled accordingly drops down and the drums plop into the box. We have helped the child connect the concrete set of drums to the abstract symbol “5.” Through the course of the story, we help the monsters use different counting strategies, such as pushing things aside and lining things up, and help get these much needed instruments to the Whirling Wailers concert.

So how does the example above illustrate how stories in digital form help enhance the math learning? What makes this more concrete?

  • Narrative gives context. Each time I added a bit more context to the scenario above, it helped make it easier to understand what “five” means. The story provides context clues for a child to learn about various number concepts. Moreover, there is a story reason behind why we’re counting instruments and engaging characters that help kids feel connected.
  • Animation brings the math to life. Animation can illustrate counting concepts and strategies much better than a paper version of the same story.
  • Use of math language and symbols. In addition to the number words and numerals (see what I did there?) these stories are packed with rich math vocabulary like more than, plus, equals, the same as, fewer than, and numeral. Knowing and using math language is a good predictor of later math achievement.
  • Physical manipulation of virtual objects. The best part of these stories is they are interactive, meaning that the characters encourage the reader to count objects along with them or on their own, and the characters and objects respond to what the child does. Digital makes this type of interactivity and feedback possible.

The most important goal for these stories is to get kids (and their parents and teachers) engaged in mathematical thinking in a meaningful way that can extend beyond the stories once the device is turned off. While the actual impact of these stories remains to be evaluated, a sample size of one almost-4-year-old nephew who chose to play Monster Music Factory the whole time everyone else in the room watched a very popular animated movie demonstrates that kids like these stories and will read and play them over and over again. I think I’d say that’s a pretty big win for Oona, Marluk, and Tigga, and a pretty big win for math!

  • Click here to read Monster Birthday Surprise
  • Click here to read Monster Music Factory

And, stay tuned for the third story in the Monster “math” series!

About Dr. Creighan: Samantha Creighan, Ph.D. is the Research Director at Speakaboos. She uses her knowledge of children’s thinking and learning to contribute to all aspects of content development and production and facilitates and assists with formative testing of all Speakaboos stories. Samantha also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her scholarly interests include researching how children learn from and with technology, and mathematical and literacy development. She received a Ph.D. in Cognitive Studies in Education from Teachers College and a BA in Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University.