By Sara Torpey
No matter how you feel about math, love it or hate it, as a parent you want your child to excel at it, for many reasons. We know that math skills are in high demand these days; employers value applicants who are strong in math, even for jobs that are not in tech or the sciences. Any why is that? It’s because employers know that the skills involved in doing and understanding mathematics are vital components of critical thinking and problem-solving. So, these skills are important for the future, yes. But actually, the skills your children develop doing homeschool math are not just for tomorrow, but also vital for their daily lives, now.
Learning math makes our children better thinkers, and prepares them for a job market that gets more and more competitive every year. The more math they do now, the more prepared they will be when they are finally out in that big, wide world. So, how can we help our children be better at math? Here’s the thing: it’s easier to be good at subjects you enjoy. And as we all know, if we enjoy something, like a hobby or sport, we’re more likely to spend time doing it. The more we practice, the better we become. And the better we are at math, the better our brains are, and that’s awesome!
But, you must wonder, can math be as enjoyable as playing your favorite sport, or indulging in your hobbies? Absolutely! It might take a little extra effort for us as parents to show our children how math really can be fun (especially if we’re not convinced ourselves!), but it’s worth the effort. In fact, when we say “a little extra effort”, we mean just that, because it’s actually not hard to get our kids to excel at, and love, math! Here are 5 simple ideas that you can use, starting today, to get your kids thinking about math, and loving it!
1. Talk about the math around you.
Math is simply everywhere in our daily lives, and one of the ways that we can help kids learn math, and overcome their math anxieties, is to acknowledge that math is so… ordinary. Show them that math is not just for “experts”, it’s for everyone: kids, adults, everyone! Talk about the part that math plays in our day-to-day lives. When we compare prices at the store, plan the fastest route, estimate tips, adjust a recipe, measure materials to build a bookshelf, or analyze the number of steps we take in a day (Fitbit!), we’re doing math. Ask your children to talk about the many times they use math every day (and they do!). Give math a place in the ongoing conversation in your day, and it will become less scary, more fun, and ordinary. As you’ll see, talking about math is extremely important, and is a part of all the other tips that follow.
2. Play games.
Math is essential to board and card games, as well as sports, and puzzles. Basic number sense is developed by tallying and comparing scores, playing banker (for instance, in Monopoly), and keeping track of changing quantities. Thinking about probability is inherent to using spinners and dice, and shuffling cards. Even just understanding the rules to a game exercises serious logical thinking (and math, much like a game, is a collection of rules!). Maybe you don’t play tons of board or card games – that’s okay too. If your child enjoys sports, then they are thinking, a lot, about geometry and statistics (like angling a kick into a goal, analyzing batting averages, and lots more!). Puzzles like Sudoku, Kakuro, and Nurikabe are not only fun, but stretch our algebraic, logical, and visual thinking.
Math is part of all the games we play together, and we should talk about this with our kids. Talk with your kids about the likelihood of winning a game in a particular situation. Ask your kids to create new rules and then ask if the rules make the game more or less fair. You can even have kids build their own games, play them together, and talk about what they’d change and why after giving it a whirl. By playing games, your children are enjoying and using math, maybe without even realizing it! And if your kids use math without knowing they’re doing so, that’s fine, but it’s actually better if you point out the math that’s happening. Talking about the unexpected math your kids are doing while they’re having fun reminds them that they are mathematical thinkers and doers, and they should be proud of their math skills!
3. Ask your kids to help you with math!
Since I’m a math teacher, math is already a part of the conversation in our house. And once math is part of the discussion in your household, you can occasionally make “mistakes”, and ask your children to jump in and help. Sometimes I add things incorrectly, and then ask my kids to help me correct my arithmetic. When I am “stuck” trying to figure out how much flour I need to double a recipe, or I need to double-check that I put down the correct amount of change, my kids come to the rescue. I do this to help my kids build their math self-esteem, to keep math in our conversations, and to allow my kids that wonderful feeling that comes when you help someone conquer a math problem.
I also do this because when my children help me, the adult, with math, it helps them to see that making mistakes and being unsure is not just normal, but actually okay. Mathematics can make many of us anxious and afraid, and because of that, sometimes even one simple mistake is enough to derail the thinking process, and make math incredibly un-fun. We need to show our kids that when they make math mistakes (and they will), they shouldn’t feel stupid or ashamed, because making mistakes is a natural part of the process of doing math, and they can move past them. Teach your kids through experience: making and correcting errors, and being comfortable enough in your own skin to reach out and ask for help, is normal, even for adults!
4. Create with your kids.
Do you build furniture, create beautiful gardens, or bake amazing treats? Maybe you draw, paint, or sculpt? Or maybe, like our house, you always have a pile of LEGO® bricks or K’NEX lying around. It doesn’t matter what you build or create with, it just matters that you do create, and create with your kids, boys or girls. When children build, they are not only building physical things, but also their minds: they are building their spatial and visual skills, measurement skills, and number sense. They are solving problems, and learning how to translate their plans into things they can actually touch. They are testing hypotheses and refining ideas. They are learning how to estimate, and reacting when they overshoot or undershoot. They are doing math, real math!
Creating physical models also involves creating mathematical models. When you create a mathematical model, you are framing a problem or situation from a mathematical perspective. What kinds of geometric thinking is involved in digging the plots for your tomatoes? How do the quantities of ingredients and the baking temperature affect the cookies? How can we be sure that whatever it is we’re building, whether it be a doghouse or clay figurine, is structurally sound? What are the most important factors involved, and what are the choices that need to be made? School math experiences don’t always show the many incredibly practical applications of math. You can help your kids understand how the math they know actually gets used, in real life, while also doing something enjoyable!
5. Find room in your heart for homeschool math.
Rest assured our kids notice what we like, and what we don’t like, and they learn from how we behave. If you speak enthusiastically about math, your kids will become enthusiastic too. If you talk about how even adults still work to be better at math, your kids will be willing to practice math too. Take the lead to give your children the opportunity to hone their math skills: try a new kind of puzzle and let your kids catch you working on it, sign up for a weekly problem that you can work on together, or involve your kids with projects around the house that require mathematical thinking. The opportunities are endless!
And please talk about positive experiences you’ve had with math! Try to avoid, as much as humanly possible, talking about math as a roadblock, or as something terrible that you just need to get through and then forget. The opposite is true: math is a key that unlocks all kinds of wonderful brainpower, which in turn will unlock all kinds of wonderful opportunities in the lives of your children. Talk about how being good at anything takes practice – and math is no exception. When we show our kids, through our words and deeds, that we too practice and enjoy math, they will follow our lead!
No matter how you feel about math today, you can always find a way to love it a little more, and your kids will love it more too. And if you practice our tips above, and start really thinking about math with your kids, we bet you will love math more, and you’ll love it even more when you see your kids loving it!
Sara Torpey is a mom of 2 who lives and teaches in Bucks County, PA. You can find her creating fun math for families and writing about learning math with kids at exSTEMsions.com.
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