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Summer Fun: 12 Ways Parents Can Build a Mathematics Brain in Children

The most important thing we can do to ensure that our children speak mathematics when they are older is to make sure that mathematics is part of their world during their first 10 years of life.

At birth a human is given 100 billion neurons to play with each already connected to about 2500 other neurons. The baby then spends the next few years deciding which neurons to get rid of and which to keep, connecting the keepers with other neurons—up to as many as 15,000 connections per neuron. They do this with no special training or college degree.

Just as the brain of a child raised in Tokyo will save a different set of neurons from a child raised in New York as they map the sounds of the Japanese language into their neural network, so a child raised in an environment heavy in numbers and inquisitiveness will have the nerves to be at home in a world of math and science.

If you want your children to be literate, use a lot of words. If you want them to be numerate, fill their world with numbers.

Here is a starter list of some specific things parents can do this summer:

  1. Count birds. Then count kinds of birds. Record your findings. Compare how often you see a robin with how often you see a tufted titmouse. Wonder why. If your interest in birds doesn’t take, take an interest in the numbers inherent in their interests.
  2. Involve kids in your work in the kitchen, the garden, the shop—measure, count, compare. Add, subtract, multiply and divide out loud. Use fractions and convert them to decimals and percents and back again. Speak the jargon. (Kids love big words.)
  3. Do a cooking project with them once a week.  Use a fraction or multiple of the recipe.
  4. Have a set of blocks in their room with a special shelf where they all just fit. Allow them to make a mess and then require them to tidy up before they go to bed, putting every block back so that it all fits. Do it with them until it’s fun.
  5. Use numbers in everyday activities like planning a party or setting the table (how many people are coming to dinner, how many places, spoons, forks, napkins, etc. Do we need as many knives?)
  6. Involve them in the math when you go shopping.
  7. Wonder how far it is or how high it is. Estimate the heights, widths, weights, and volumes of things, then compare with measurements.
  8. Talk about sizes and shapes, timing and distances and their relationships using numbers.
  9. Tell stories that have numbers in them.
  10. Play games like “careers” and “casino” where you have to add, subtract and compare numbers to win.

If this kind of behavior sounds socially deviant to your ears, get over it, …and heck, why not do this kind of thing all year long?

One carpool parent counted cars on the way to school. Starting a year ago looking for PT Cruisers, the three kids evolved a complicated point system for each kind of car: Mini Coopers and PT Cruisers, are half a point; a bug is one point; smart cars and police cars, 2; a Prius is 5 points. Smart car convertible? Game over. You win. It is still a matter of some debate whether parked cars count. Sometimes they count colors looking to collect the whole rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. (Indigo is currently under debate.) The most amazing thing is that all three children keep track of all three scores with the greatest of ease as all those numbers keep changing. (Motivation and self-determination make a big difference don’t they?)

Another family started collecting pennies in a glass jar. Everyone put pennies into the jar, and from time to time estimating how many pennies, checking the estimate by counting, wondering how much they could buy with what they had. When they saw something they wanted in the store, they made a note and compared with what they had in the jar. When that got discouraging, they decided to include all coins. (The six-year-old noted that a dime has the power of 10 pennies but took up less space.) They started keeping a journal. This led to giving every child an allowance and then to taking responsibility for getting the income they needed for the expenses they wanted.

Invent your own with an eye to their interests. Creativity is inherently fun.

How well they do at any of these activities doesn’t matter. What matters is making mathematics and curiosity about the physical world a conscious part of children’s lives. A home devoid of numbers will have the same impact on school-math as a home devoid of words will have on reading and writing.

In the farmer’s market last week I saw a boy of no more than eight minding the mushroom table.  He knew exactly how much everything cost, and counted out the change with no apparent effort.  His mother (who usually tends the table) was off doing something else, and not even there to coach him.

Most children will find elementary school math cinchy if their brains saved the right neurons when they were little. Making sure mathematics is not a foreign language can be simple and fun—simply speak math at home.

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14 Responses to “Summer Fun: 12 Ways Parents Can Build a Mathematics Brain in Children”

  1. LaToniya A Jones July 6, 2011 at 9:10 am #

    Yes! See, Say, and Do Math at Home! A little exposure, motivation, and conversation goes a long way to helping children embrace and understand math! Knowledge matters!!!

  2. Jane Ratsey Williams July 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

    Loved this article. The game of SCRABBLE is also a great and fun math tool. Our best players are from music and math backgrounds! Give our website a look!

    Jane Ratsey Williams
    twitter @schoolscrabble

  3. Great ideas! I’m going to save this and hand it out to my first grade parents at the beginning of the year. I wish more parents would see how valuable this is. I loved your line “and heck, why not do this kind of thing all year long?” You should retitle your post!

  4. gloria schirok July 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    Children love to find new strategies to solve math problems. I’m always amazed at what my six year old grade ones can do. I’ll pass on the great ideas to my children to use with their kids.

  5. Susan Raisch July 7, 2011 at 6:18 am #

    My son is tutoring a young girl in math this summer. I can’t wait to share this with him! I think we have to get used to talking in numbers as adults because many of us developed “math phobia” and it carried on through. Numbers CAN be fun and kids feel so great when they are competent in that language. Thanks for this!

  6. Todd July 7, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    Thanks for the extra motivation. We began teaching our child math about the same time we taught her to read (before she could speak). Now, at age five and before she begins Kindergarten this fall, she handles complex literature (at perhaps a fourth or fifth grade level), sounding out very difficult words with obscure phonetic rules with ease, writes in a journal and composes letters to her grandmothers, and can read and perform basic math problem solving which includes addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

    Perhaps she is gifted above her peers, but I am more prone to believe that we have simply discovered the innate mental capabilities inherent in all little children. My evidence for this belief is thus: a couple of times when she was playing with peers who were not as literate (or numerate) as her, I spent a few minutes giving them a “lesson” I had given our daughter and was pleased to see them instantly absorb knowledge. Many parents have commented that they want their children to play with mine in the hopes that something from my daughter will rub off. I’ve sought to convince them they have far more knowledge than my daughter and must realize they have immense educating power.

  7. Rick July 7, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    Thank you, all.
    Todd, I am so glad you would credit the richness of her environment more than the genes. I have learned that there is no point debating nature vs nurture. Educators (parents and teachers alike) should act as if intelligence is something that can grow. Brain research has confirmed that this is true, and there is no point in labeling a child “gifted” or “challenged” or “normal,” in fact it can have negative side effects.

  8. jan devoil July 7, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    I love this article, such simple ideas and easy for anyone to carry them out. Hope you don’t mind me sharing them with my parents at school?

  9. Elizabeth July 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    Thank you Dad. You were doing this all the time, and we never new. Really, I never knew that i was being taught anything while having a blast in the woods, or beach, or kitchen, or livingroom. It’s just as exciting to watch for the opening moments to give a little math to my children. and “thank you for sharing!”

  10. Deborah McNelis July 8, 2011 at 6:54 am #

    Thanks for sharing this post Rick! It is so extremely important that those 100 billion brain cells are making connections through hands on interactive experiences with real objects like you have described. This is the way children make the strong pathways for later learning. It happens best when children have the opportunity to experiment, explore and do trial and error at their own pace. (And not through DVD’s!)
    During the preschool ages the best math development activities are ones where the child does sorting and comparison. They can compare and sort by color, size, shape, texture, etc.
    It is always great to see the optimal types of experiences promoted. Thanks again for this post in contributing to the healthy brain development for all children!

  11. Rick July 9, 2011 at 3:53 am #

    Thank you everyone for your contributions. For best results in our efforts to bring out the best in children see them as already intelligent experimenters engaged in brain-building. We want to assist in work that is already in progress–work that will continue with or without us.
    Thanks, again.

  12. Kimeri July 11, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    Hi Rick,
    Thanks for the blog post about math; as a former elementary teacher, I was constantly encouraging parents to do the very activities you suggest. With my own children, we have incorporated math literacy into our home alongside reading, writing, music, healthy living, responsibility, inquisitiveness, wonder, and passion. There is so much that children learn from their parents and their environment–with those neurons firing and filing all the time! As a current administrator and curriculum developer, I will share this post with the teachers and student teachers at our school this fall, encouraging them to share it with parents. Thanks again for the inspiration!

  13. Rick July 12, 2011 at 3:49 am #

    Thank you, Kimeri. Thank you, especially for reminding us all that for full brain development is necessary for optimal development of any one part.

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