How One Dad Discovered the Secret to Helping Our Kids Enjoy Math

I’m going to admit something here that I hope my kids never read: I cheated in almost every math class I ever had from 7th grade onward. Numbers scare me. Start talking numbers to me and my brain immediately conjures up images of breezy beaches and ice cold beer as a defense mechanism.

I’ve tried to remember how it all started, this intense hatred of math that has afflicted me nearly my entire scholastic career but I can’t pinpoint any specific incident. Though one major math milestone in everyone’s life really stands out: multiplication tables. In the third grade, each kid in my class had a brown construction paper ice cream cone stapled to the wall. Every time they memorized a series of multiplication tables they’d get an ice cream scoop. For some reason my brain just couldn’t memorize the numbers. Only thing I can liken it to as what it feels like as an adult when I have writer’s block. The words don’t come. Back then the numbers wouldn’t come. So I watched as everyone else in class earned their scoops and I didn’t. That’s where it started, I guess. My math anxiety.

My math problems worsened as I progressed through elementary and into junior high school and I resorted to cheating. Flipping to the back of the math book for answers, letting others do my homework, copying test answers from friends. Solving math problems feels like hard, manual labor to me. In fact, I’d rather be digging ditches than solving number riddles.

But maybe that’s because math was always presented to me as work. Memorization. Maybe if math had been introduced to me in the same manner as books, who knows?  I could be a math professor right now. Shut up! It could have happened. But it’s too late for me now. I’m a lost cause. I know how to leave a 20 percent tip and that’s about all the concern I have for math now. Except for the fact that I don’t want to pass my math anxiety down to my kids. I want to teach them to be excited about math. Which is why I appreciated this article in The New York Times written by a real math professor who talks about how can we encourage kids in a difficult task like math without doing so in a way they’ll come to resent.

Ever seen a pre-school teacher encourage kids to put their toys away? They sing a song, clap their hands, they make it a game. It’s the same thing with math; make it a game. It is a game. Numbers don’t have to mean work. As Jordan Ellenberg writes, he found the answer to teaching math to his 8-year-old son in baseball. As he explains:

He plays Little League with a fierce concentration I seldom see at home. And I’ve learned a lot about what kind of math parent I want to be from an unexpected source — his coaches. Baseball is a game. And math, for kids, is a game, too. Everything for them is a game. That’s the great thing about being a kid. In Little League, you play hard and you play to win, but it doesn’t actually matter who wins. And good coaches get this. They don’t get mad and they don’t throw you off the team. They don’t tell you that you stink at baseball, even if you do — they tell you what you need to do to get better, which everybody can do.

What Ellenberg is saying is parents need to stop “teaching” math and start coaching math instead:

What does it mean to coach math instead of teaching it? For C. J., it means I give him a “mystery number” to think about before bed. “I’m thinking of a mystery number, and when I multiply it by 2 and add 7, I get 29; what’s the mystery number?” And already you’re doing not just arithmetic but algebra. For his little sister, who’s 4, that’s too formal. But say we’re at the grocery store and we need four cans of soup and she brings me two, and I say, “So we need three more, right?” and she says, “NoDaddy!” That’s really funny when you’re 4. It’s a game, and it’s math.

Lots of games are math-based and you can turn just about any part of your day into a math game. But it isn’t just turning math into a game, either. It’s revamping your entire approach to math. You coach your child in swimming or gymnastics, cheering them on and encouraging them, so why not coach them in math as well?

Image courtesy of ThinkStock

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