Math in the Moment

I am not a math person. Numbers make my head spin and I’ve always assumed that I was missing a few math screws in my brain. When I interviewed for my first teaching job, I made it very clear that “I don’t do math.” The next year, I grudgingly agreed to attend a math in-service just in case I might teach math some far-off day in the far-off future. When I repeated my refrain of “I don’t do math” to the instructor, she insisted that people like me were exactly the right types to teach math. While I’m still not teaching math (and still hoping that I never will), the training encouraged and gave me the confidence to integrate numbers into the day-to-day rhythms of our family life. Here are some simple strategies to start conversations around math and to turn math into something we do naturally instead of a subject that inspires dread of failure.

  • Math goes hand in hand with stories. This is true in many classrooms these days, but it can also be true at home. There are fantastic books where math is either a central theme or can easily be worked into the plotline while reading. One of our family favorites is How Much is a Million by David M. Schwartz. While I was reading this book to my seven-year-old, I shared the following question I once got on a college exam: “How many dump trucks would you need to hold all the toenails of all the people in the world?” Predictably, my son was enthralled by this grotesque image and started “calculating” right away! Another family favorite is The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins, a lovely picture book that not only teaches division, but touches on the values of sharing, community, and friendship. A more recent addition to our family library is the folktale One Grain of Rice by Demi, where the heroine uses some mad math skills to trick a selfish leader and save the people. Finally, although my kids are too young for this, my mom couldn’t resist buying Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and (don’t tell my boss!), yours truly totally loved it!
  • A few months ago, our extended family marked the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of my great-great grandfather’s birth. My son was fascinated by the existence of this distant ancestor, and since then, we’ve been talking about all sorts of people in our family. Along with the legends and stories, we also discuss their key dates: when they were born, when they came to this country, when they got married, when they had kids, and when they died, among other things. Aside from being a special opportunity to share our family history, it was a great way to learn how dates and years work. I would ask my daughter, “If Grandma was born in 1953, how old was she when you were born?” Or, “How old was Uncle David when people first landed on the moon?” The only disadvantage here is that my kids have grown very comfortable telling everyone they meet how old their parents and grandparents are.
  • My kids love cooking and baking with me. While I know this is supposed to carry great benefits (more buy-in when it comes to tasting food, unique bonding opportunities, fine motor skills), it drives me crazy when my daughter dumps in that extra teaspoon of baking powder. Once I realized that I could get in some extra math mileage, however, I decided that over-leavened cookies were worth it. For my younger kids, we simply count the number of eggs in the container before and after taking the ones we need for the recipe. My older kids know that banana bread means fragrant fractions. I show my kids the quarter measuring cup and ask how many of them I need for a half cup of sugar. They have to find the appropriate teaspoon for the cinnamon when it’s time to add spices. And, of course, marbled banana bread calls for a different amount of cocoa powder than double chocolate banana bread! As I tell the kids, “Let your taste buds do the math!”
  • We are getting to the complicated stage in life where my kids are figuring out the value of a dollar. Whether it’s allowance, the tooth fairy, charity, birthday presents, or jobs, my kids know that money makes the world go round. While there are important philosophical discussions to be had about kids and money, this is also a subject that easily lends itself to math. If the tooth fairy gives you two dollars for every tooth and you’ve lost three teeth, how much money do you have? How many more teeth need to fall out before you can buy that toy you’ve been eyeing? Do you want your allowance in bills or coins, and what are the different possible combinations? You may be growing a little entrepreneur with these simple questions!

My hope is that these small “math in the moment” interactions and experiences will help my kids overcome any (inherited!) fear of math and will open them up to the wonder and possibilities in the subject. I’m always so amazed at how much kids want to learn and how much they soak up. As parents, all we have to do is give them a few tools and a taste of what’s out there.