In summertime, the living is easy, but making sure your children don’t forget all the math they learned in the past school year can be hard. Still, just as you work to keep them interested in reading by having books around the house, you can keep them interested in numbers by helping them see the math that’s all around them — and how they, and you, use it every day.
Here are a few tips to do just that. I cannot guarantee zero resistance, but I’ve seen lots of families have great results with them:
1. Deal with your own hang-ups first.
Be honest. How do you really feel about math? If you have mixed feelings, or just plain dread when your child needs help with math homework, you’re not alone. Plenty of people were bored, frustrated, or felt stupid in math class while they were in school. Usually, this happened because they had a less-than-inspiring teacher, and — since math is cumulative — even if they had a great teacher later, they may have continued to struggle because they didn’t get a strong enough foundation. To make things worse, if their families were also math-averse, then they were unlikely ever to embrace math.
If any of this applies to you, don’t despair. The math-phobic buck can stop with you. Even if you get anxious when someone reminds you of that long-ago algebra class, it’s very important to check the negative number talk, especially in front of your kids. This is particularly important for mothers with daughters, since studies have shown girls are more likely to limit themselves in math if their same-gender parent lacks confidence in it or badmouths it.
So, no more “Oh, I’m so bad at math!” or “You’re never going to use any of this away from school,” or — and this is particularly important — “You have to be a genius to do this.” Remember, you don’t have to be a genius to learn or enjoy math, and there is far more to the subject than the trig acronym SOHCAHTOA or the algebraic expression x + y.
“Mathematics has more than 60 subject areas,” says Maria Droujkova, a math education consultant and the founder of Natural Math, a website that helps families think of math as an adventure, not a chore. The site offers online courses, books, and other resources. “One of the most counterintuitive things for parents is you have to do it for yourself, then share the love with your children. You need to find some parts [of math] to love. That is very doable.”
2. Make it your own journey.
Again, math is not just about that algebra you hated. For most of us, there were parts of math class we actually enjoyed. Think back on what those topics were, and go back and explore them with your child.
“Find what you find interesting,” Droujkova says.
“Most people like patterns in nature,” she adds.
One such pattern is the Fibonacci sequence (in which each number is the sum of the two preceding it: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, …). You can explore this sequence in everything from flower petals and pinecones to artichokes and pineapples.
“Have a scavenger hunt at the farmer’s market,” Droujkova suggests, putting fruits and veggies that follow the sequence on your list of items to be found and explored. And since nature can be unpredictable, you can also sneak in some botany by explaining why some cases (like four-leaf clovers) deviate from it.
3. Keep it natural.
There’s no question that kids can be a tough audience and will quickly catch on to your attempts to educate them during their precious vacation. So don’t. Or at least, don’t seem like you are. Try the time-tested Socratic method. Instead of lecturing them, ask a question about the activity you are doing to encourage them to think about math.
“Ask, don’t show or tell,” Droujkova says.
You’ll be surprised to find that once you’ve gotten out of that show-and-tell mode, you’re more comfortable noticing how much math is out there, whether you’re shopping, planning a trip, or trying to stay on schedule.
“Look for opportunities to open mathematical conversations in everyday life,” says Tracy Zager, an elementary school teacher and author who blogs at Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You Had. “My kids and I have had great conversations drawing a garden plan to scale, figuring out the best deal in the grocery store, counting anything and everything, cooking, and so on.”
Best of all, you don’t need to know all the answers when you have those conversations. You can work toward figuring out the solutions together.
“The main thing I’d like to encourage parents to do is to remove the pressure they put on themselves to know the answers, and to be right,” Zager says.
4. Take the pressure off.
That lack of pressure, by the way, goes both ways.
“In the home environment, we shouldn’t focus too much on right and wrong,” says Christopher Danielson, author of Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies and community college math instructor who blogs at Talking Math with Your Kids. “It’s about keeping that part of the mind active.”
Instead of making it your goal to get to the right answer, aim to explore together, and see what you find.
5. Remember that different ages have different needs, and act accordingly.
Younger kids may be easier to entertain with counting games or patterns, but that doesn’t mean you need to give up on the older ones. Studies have shown that it’s crucial to engage children between the ages of nine and 14, also known as the tween and young teen years. But dealing with preadolescents and adolescents takes a certain finesse.
“You have to be more strategic,” Danielson says. “They are willful and sensitive to being manipulated. But they love challenges and opportunities to demonstrate that they know things, especially if the parent does not.”
Danielson engages his ten-year-old son in different ways.
“I’ll talk out loud about something I’m trying to figure out, or assign him a job that requires mathematical thinking, like fitting a bunch of stuff in a box, or estimating how much of something we’ll need when planning or shopping.”
For teens, especially older ones, you have to tailor it to their interests, Droujkova says.
“Find what they need and want, and work with that,” she says. “Don’t add to the pressure. Research with your teen.”
For example, if your older teen is studying linear approximation in calculus, a great way to illustrate how close numbers are to each other is to assign each of them a note on the scale. A higher number can sound higher than a lower number, which is deeper, and the number in between will be a note in between the high and the low.
6. Mix it up so no one gets bored, including you.
And speaking of calculus, there’s no need to be afraid of mixing some more advanced math concepts into your activities, even with the youngest kids. Droujkova has a suggestion for finding the area under a curve: Have them draw one, then use Lego towers to fill in the space under it. Then, they can count each Lego brick in the towers to get an idea of the area. If your kid loves Minecraft, she can do the same thing on a computer.
“Then ask simple questions, like, ‘How do you make it neater?’” she says.
If that sounds like too much, and you prefer to stick to more conventional concepts like budgeting or recipes, that’s OK, too.
“The plusses are that you already do it,” Droujkova says about these day-to-day concepts. “But you won’t get much out of it. It gives you comfort, but not a sense of adventure.”
And shouldn’t life, even (especially) when you’re doing math, be an adventure?