First Grade Arithmetic Main Lessons

Blog Image - First Grade Arithmetic Lessons.png

In this post, I'll write about the first grade winter and spring Arithmetic blocks. Click here to read more about the Quality of Numbers block and here for an overview of how to teach first grade math.

Teaching from Whole to Parts

One of the keys to teaching first grade math is to start with the whole before moving to the parts.

For example, rather than teaching 3 + 9 = 12, you would start with twelve small objects (such as acorns) and then look for the different ways you can regroup that number twelve.  You’ll discover that twelve can be 9 and 3, but it can also be 10 and 2, 5 and 7, and so on.  Or it could be three groups of four or four groups of three.  You might have twelve acorns because you picked up five and then five more and then another two.  Or you might have twelve acorns because you gathered twenty but then you buried eight (and then forgot where they are, you silly squirrel!).  There are so many ways to look at just the number 12!

With this whole to parts approach, you’re teaching your child to think mathematically and fluidly. Rather than just learning rote facts, math becomes a game and a concrete way to explore the world of numbers.

Arithmetic Toadstool | Lavender's Blue Homeschool

Arithmetic Toadstool | Lavender's Blue Homeschool

Introduce all four processes

When you teach from whole to parts, you’ll soon realize that all four arithmetic processes (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) are related to each other.  So it’s only natural to teach them all together. There’s often an assumption that addition and subtraction are easier than multiplication and division, but if you’re teaching with imagination and hands-on problem-solving (keep reading!), that isn’t necessarily true.

Teach imaginatively

First graders thrive on story.  They’re entering the heart or feelings stage of development and it’s important that they feel emotionally connected to what they’re learning.

Stories help children understand and also remember what they’re learning.

Your math stories can come from many sources of inspiration.  You could use fairy tales, nature tales, or stories you make up.  In the Waldorf school and homeschooling traditions teachers often use stories with animals, gnomes, or fairy tale type characters to teach math.  There’s usually a character for each of the four processes who also represents one of the four temperaments (phlegmatic, melancholic, sanguine, or choleric).

For the Lavender’s Blue first grade curriculum I chose to write original stories based on the math gnomes tradition started by American teacher Dorothy Harris.  I put a fresh spin on these popular stories, weaving in nature and the sense of adventure that first graders love.  So fun.

Abigail Addition, an Arithmetic Gnome | Lavender's Blue Homeschool

Abigail Addition, an Arithmetic Gnome | Lavender's Blue Homeschool

To get a feeling for the Lavender's Blue stories or for inspiration to write your own, check out the First Grade sample pages in the Lavender's Blue Library and scroll down to page 28 for the arithmetic overview (or skip to page 43 for the beginning of the gnome story).  By the way, the math gnome stories were such favorites for our first grade families that I wrote more for second grade!

Teach concretely

In first grade it’s important to keep your math problems concrete.  Use manipulatives and start with hands-on problem solving before you move on to writing and learning math facts.

Problem-solving with manipulatives makes arithmetic visual, kinesthetic, and easy to understand.

You can spin math problems for practice from the stories you tell or from everyday life. Consider the difference between asking, “What’s five plus five?” versus showing five beads in one hand and five in the other and saying, “I’ve just picked five blueberries and then five many do I have altogether?”

Teaching first grade addition | Lavender's Blue Homeschool

Teaching first grade addition | Lavender's Blue Homeschool

Bring your lessons to life with art and movement

In Waldorf-inspired homeschooling, one of the goals is to keep lessons alive with plenty of movement and artistic experience.  In your arithmetic main lessons you could:

  • Do times tables movement and other active math

  • Play games

  • Act out your math stories

  • Model the numbers and math symbols with beeswax

  • Practice math facts on the trampoline or balance beam

  • Make an illustrated main lesson book

  • Learn poetry, jump rope rhymes, and finger games

Your first grade child does not need to suffer an aversion to math.  Math does not need to be boring or tedious or lifeless.  It can really be fun for both you and your child, I promise! 

And when you make math fun, you’re making it engaging and multi-sensory, which means your child will understand and remember it better over the long term.

Arithmetic Elfin Forest | Lavender's Blue Homeschool

Arithmetic Elfin Forest | Lavender's Blue Homeschool


  • Waldorf Education in Practice: Exploring How Children Learn in the Lower Grades by Else Gottgens is a fun read and full of teaching gems.  The chapter on math has lots of ideas.

  • Inspiring your Child's Education by David Darcy is a treasure trove of active teaching ideas and includes short chapters on Number Challenges, Movement Math, and Artistic Math Ideas.

  • Lavender’s Blue First Grade is a complete Waldorf-inspired curriculum with a uniquely strong math program.  It includes detailed instructions for teaching math, fully planned out main lesson blocks with illustrations, active math for the year (with all the verses on audio), and original stories for a beautiful and strong start in math! Click here to learn more and purchase.

Need help with First Grade planning?

Sign up here for the First Grade Planning Checklist (it's free!)