Today, when (and if) the sun comes out, take a child outside and measure the shadow of something, and say, “Today, June 21st, is the longest day of the year. Let’s see how long the shadow is. Let’s pick something and mark the end of the shadow so that we can watch the shadow get longer as the summer goes on.”
All sorts of questions could come up depending upon the age of the child and the interests of the participants, for example:
What could we use to measure?
Could we use one of Daddy’s shoes? My shoe, Baby’s foot,
How could we use a tape measure?
What is the relationship of Daddy’s shoes to my shoes?
What is the ratio?
Do we need to pick a fixed time?”
…and so on and so on.
It is common for parents to ritualize story time every day. This is a good thing. To read to your children before he or she goes to bed is the most important thing parents can do to ensure that their children will grow up to be readers. It not only models something that you value, it builds your relationship, and gives you a time to be with your child in loving, fun, calm, quiet, spiritually enriching ways. Stories are the staff of mental life and relationships.
What if we had a curiosity ritual? This week we play around with sinking and floating; next week we notice the flight of balloons, or the creation of bubbles. What if parents were ritualistic about doing a cooking project with their kids every weekend?
Why do Americans do so badly in mathematics? Because mathematics is a foreign language in America. The vast majority of children grow up in a number-poor environment. We’ve forgotten that the language of mathematics is founded in curiosity. We too often think of mathematics as rules rather than as questions. This is like thinking of stories as grammar. Being curious together can be a really special part of the relationship in families.
To learn any language it is best if the child swims in the milieu of the language. The reason bedtime reading is so important is not that it is a time to TEACH reading, but that it makes reading a part of a child’s reality—the reality which their brains are constituted by nature to master. If we want our children to master mathematics, we need to make sure that the phenomena of the physical world (Science), tools (Technology), how they work (Engineering), and measurement (Mathematics) are a conscious part of their lives, not just something they take for granted and hope others (certain rare mathematical geniuses) will miraculously take care of.
If shadow measuring became a weekly ritual—something you did every Sunday at noon for no good reason except to give a nod to the god of curiosity—many more questions would come up, be pondered and answered as the children got older. The questions would get more sophisticated as time went by:
As the days get shorter, what do you predict will happen to the shadows?
Does the length of the shadow increase by the same amount every day? (a core concept in calculus)
Is the relationship between the length of the days and the length of the shadow an inverse relationship or a direct relationship?
Why do the shadows get longer, when the days get shorter?
Why does it look like the sun goes around the earth, when actually the earth goes around the sun?
What is the height of the flagpole? How could we find out without climbing it?
“Daddy, who was Pythagoras?”
Kids ask these kinds of questions naturally (“Where do babies come from?”) all the time. All day long as they explore their world, they notice phenomena and try to make sense out of them. Most of the time, they ask and answer such questions in the privacy of their own minds. Every once in a while we get a glimpse of that mind, when they ask an adult. When they make what sounds like a statement of fact, the adult should take it as a question.
From birth, children are natural scientists. From Birth! (Sorry for shouting.) Children want to understand the real world and organize it so that they can wrap their brains around it—almost literally. Numbers, mathematical disciplines, scientific questions, tools and the way they work are the very stuff of the lives of children and adults alike. Mathematics is the language of the physical world, the more it is part of normal, everyday conversation, the better their minds will be prepared to understand the numbers that school throws at them.
Here’s a short list of idea starters for things the family could keep their eye on, measure variables which change over time or change as the result of other variable that can be measured.
Angle of Sun to planet.
The effect of rainfall on level of local bodies of water.
Effect of snowfall to flow of water in Spring.
Timing of flowers in the Spring – which and when.
A/C use as it relates to electric use and resulting bill.
Keep going with your own.