# Make math matter to your child

By Betsy Flagler
Betsy Flagler, who lives in Davidson, writes the nationally syndicated Parent to Parent column.

Every step of the way in your child’s life, strive to make math make sense.

“Math is the path to anything you want to be,” says math teacher Colleen King. She created the site mathplayground.com for elementary and middle school students about 10 years ago. The site’s extensive games and puzzles can help kids feel more confident about their math skills.

Math can be a natural part of your children’s lives. For example, one mother of two remembers exactly how many stairs were in her former home in Connecticut, because as soon as her kids began to walk, they counted the steps. Day after day. In their new home in North Carolina, they’re still counting -- while bounding up the steps, baking in the kitchen, selecting fruit at the grocery store and measuring their heights.

Long before kids sit down at a school desk, they need everyday, hands-on experiences with math concepts. Abstract worksheets will be troublesome if kids have missed out on such concrete number-related fun as hopscotch, Go Fish, using timer and counting blocks or other toys. Math actually means something to kids when they have to figure out how to divide slices of pizza among friends or wait five minutes for their turn.

A simple watermelon is full of math puzzles. Kara Johnson, a kindergarten teacher for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, shares these fun ideas for watermelon math games:

• Give your kids some yarn and have them estimate how long the string should be to wrap around the watermelon. Cut and measure the “guess” string, then use another length of string to actually measure the watermelon. Compare the estimate and the actual length.

• Weigh the watermelon. Look for things around the house that would weigh more or less than the fruit. Weigh those items and check if you were correct.

• Count the number of seeds in a piece of the melon.

• Have a seed-spitting contest and use a measuring tape to see how far the seeds go.

Some of these ideas could also be used with pumpkins in the fall, Johnson suggests.

Children’s television can also be a valuable introduction to math concepts. Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University, wrote in a series for The New York Times:

“The best introduction to numbers I’ve ever seen – the clearest and funniest explanation of what they are and why we need them – appears in a ‘Sesame Street’ video called ‘123 Count With Me.’ Humphrey, an amiable but dim-witted fellow with pink fur and a green nose, is working the lunch shift at The Furry Arms hotel, when he takes a call from a room full of penguins. Humphrey listens carefully and then calls out their order to the kitchen: ‘Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish, fish.’ This prompts Ernie to enlighten him about the virtues of the number six.”

“Children learn from this that numbers are wonderful shortcuts. Instead of saying the word ‘fish’ exactly as many times as there are penguins, Humphrey could use the more powerful concept of ‘six.“’

Other ideas:

• Play educational board games or computer games, such as the ones on King’s site.

• Using a toy cash register, play “restaurant” or “grocery store” with your child. Let her count the play money during purchases.

• To pass the time at a restaurant, sort sugar packets into rows of one, two, three and four.

Engineer and athlete Deji Badiru, Ph.D., says to make learning fun whenever possible.

“Science and math can be fun when related to something that kids already love, such as sports,” says Badiru, author of “The Physics of Soccer” (iUniverse, 2010). “Understanding the physics behind soccer encourages combining popular recreational activities with educational activities.”

In the context of play, fundamental subjects such as math, science, engineering and technology make more sense and become less intimidating, Badiru says.

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