Weighing onions

I have had several conversations with relatively new parents in which the question of how/whether to talk math with babies.

I always try to help such parents see math like they see reading. You read with your baby long before she knows what your words mean. An important reason to do so is to immerse the child in language. This is how she will learn language. Reading books increases the variety and quality of language the child is exposed to.

It’s the same with math. We can surround our children with number and shape long before they understand what these things mean. It is through this exposure that they learn.

For parents of children of all ages, this principle applies. Don’t worry about whether the child can get right answers; make a conscious effort to notice number and shape in your world together. It is through this exposure that they will learn.

To this end, Tabitha and I have been playing with the scales at the grocery store. Not the ones at the checkout; the ones in the produce department.

The other day we found a rather large onion.

Tabitha holding a large onion

Here she is holding the onion safely back at home.

Me: What do you think this weighs?

Tabitha (8 years old): Four pounds.

Me: Hmmm…I say a pound and a half.

T: Half a pound!

She is easily influenced. We put it on the scale. It’s a pound and a quarter. I celebrate my victory briefly.

Then Tabitha notices the bananas are nearby. There are several individual bananas lying loose. She grabs one and begins to put it on the scale.

Me: Wait! Not yet! Let’s guess what it weighs.

T: With the onion…two pounds.

We add it in and see that now it’s very close to one and a half pounds.

Pretty soon we are weighing bananas by the bunch and guessing whether an avocado is heavier than a banana.

We are surrounding ourselves with numbers and having a grand old time.

So What Do We Learn?

Immersing your child in numbers is low stakes and opportunities are everywhere. We grocery shop every week, but have only recently started playing with the scales. As a general principle, anytime you encounter a number in the company of your children, you can talk about it.

When the children are infants, they won’t participate. That’s OK. They’ll learn that numbers are things to talk about.

When the children are older, they’ll make wildly inaccurate guesses. That’s OK. They’re getting practice talking about numbers.

When the children are even older, they’ll start to turn their wildly inaccurate guesses into serious learning.

Along the way, they’ll initiate the conversations themselves because you will have taught them that numbers are things people talk about.

A tale of two conversations

Here are two conversations about hot chocolate.

The first one didn’t happen. The second one did. Read them both, then I’ll tell you about their meaning.

Both conversations begin on a cold November night in Minnesota. Unseasonably cold. Fourteen degrees, to be precise (–10 Celsius).

A cup of hot chocolate

Zero marshmallows for me on this cold night.

Tabitha (7 years old), Griffin (10 years old) and I get in the car to head for Tabitha’s basketball practice.

What might have been

Me: Wow! It is cold!

Tabitha (7 years old): You know what you do when it’s cold? You make hot chocolate.

Me: Ooooo! Good idea! We can do that when we get back home after practice.

T: Does it count as dessert?

Me: If you have marshmallows in it, it does.

T: I won’t have any marshmallows, then. So I can have some Jell-O.

Griffin agrees that this is the way to go, and the conversation moves on to other things.

What actually happened

Me: Wow! It is cold!

Tabitha (7 years old): You know what you do when it’s cold? You make hot chocolate.

Me: Ooooo! Good idea! We can do that when we get back home after practice.

T: Does it count as dessert?

Me: If you have two marshmallows in it, it does.

T: I’ll have zero marshmallows in mine, then, so I can have some Jell-O.

Griffin (10 years old): I’ll have one marshmallow, and a small serving of Jell-O. Wait, no! I know! I’ll cut a marshmallow in half!

I presume that this is in order to maximize his allowable Jell-O serving, while still retaining some marshmallow in his hot chocolate. It’s a scheme nearly as complicated as credit default swaps.

So what do we learn?

One small difference changed the course of the conversation—my use of a number word. I could have said, “It counts as dessert if you have marshmallows in it.” But I did say, “It counts as dessert if you have two marshmallows in it.”

Using numbers—two marshmallows instead of just marshmallows—invited the children to talk about numbers. It invited them to use numbers to maximize their benefit. It invited them to think about numbers.

This invitation is important.

A few years back, researchers paid careful attention to the ways preschool teachers talked with their students. Those teachers who used more number words and concepts as they talked with children stimulated greater growth in math than those who used less math talk.

This was not a study about math instruction; it was a study about the math language that these teachers used when they weren’t teaching math. “Yes, you three may help me.” versus “Yes, you may help me.” is the sort of difference that matters.

Using number words and math concepts in everyday speech invites children to notice and to think about number. That’s what Talking Math with Your Kids is all about.

Link to full study ($)

Ten hundred Doras

There was a while when Tabitha (five and six years old at the time) would try to get away without wearing underpants when she dressed herself. Those days are pretty much over, but I still like to make sure she has done the complete job, so I ask her from time to time.

Tabitha (7 years old): I’m dressed!

Me: Are you wearing underpants?

T: Yup—Dora the Explorer.

ten hundred dora

 

Don’t worry. The child is not wearing these in the picture.

Me: Nice. How do you feel about your Dora the Explorer underpants?

T: I don’t really like Dora that much, but I have a thousand of them.

Me: That’s a lot.

T: I counted them once.

Me: All one thousand?

T: No. I don’t really have a thousand. I don’t even know how to count to a thousand. Just to ten hundred.

I pause for a moment. Does she mean one-hundred-ten? Can’t be. She must know that one-hundred-eleven comes next.

Me: Ten hundred. You mean like after nine hundred is ten hundred?

T: Yeah. That’s as high as I know how to count. I don’t even know how many a thousand is.

Me: A thousand is ten hundred.

T: Oh. Cool.

A few minutes later, I get an idea. I wonder how she would write ten hundred. She needs to get out the door for school so I make it quick. I ask her to read some numbers out loud as I write them.

  • 900
  • 832
  • 110
  • 1000.

For that last one, she says one thousand.

I ask how she would write ten hundred.

She writes, “1000”.

ten hundred

T: It’s the same.

Me: Because I just told you that. Right. How would you have written ten hundred before I told you it was the same as one thousand?

She shrugs her shoulders. Drat. Moment lost. We talk about hundreds for a moment. One hundred, two hundred, etc. up to ten hundred.

Then I have one more.

Me: OK. Last one, then off to school. How would you read this one?

I write 10,000.

She looks for a moment. And thinks.

T: Ten….

More thinking.

T: Ten thousand?

High five!

I zip up her sweatshirt and send her out the door to catch her bus.

So What Do We Learn?

A recent research article argued that children learn a lot about place value through everyday conversation, and that kindergarteners know a lot more about the structure of the number system than parents and kindergarten teachers (on average) think they do.

Here you can see that knowledge in action. Tabitha knows that 1000 is a big and important number. She knows the pattern that allows you to keep counting by hundreds. She has not put these two pieces together. A short conversation helped her put those two pieces together, and then to extend the pattern.

Starting the conversation

This didn’t start out as a math talk. It began as a clothing inspection. But the opportunity presented itself. Listen for those times your children use numbers, and ask follow up questions about them. You won’t get this much learning out of every such conversation, but if even 10% of those opportunities turn into a little bit of learning, the interest compounds.

I promise you that.

Making eight

I am writing a book. In the process of doing this, I come across homework assignments that parents find frustrating, and that they share on social media. These almost always get me thinking, and they frequently lead to math talks with my children.

This past weekend was one such instance.

Worksheet: "The whole is 8. One part is 8. What is the other part?"

Talking Math with Your Kids is not a place to hash out the details of whether this is a well written question, or whether this was an appropriate homework assignment for this child. We can discuss that on Twitter if you like, or through my About/Contact page.

Talking Math with Your Kids is about taking opportunities to have math conversations with our children. In that spirit, I share the conversation we had in our house.

Out of the blue, I asked Tabitha (7 years old) if I could ask her a math question. It was maybe Saturday afternoon. We had nothing special going on.

Me: Tabitha, can I ask you a math question?

Tabitha (7 years old): Yes.

Me: If I have eight things, and seven of them are in one hand, how many are in the other?

T: That’s not even a math question! That’s too easy!

Me: OK. But will you answer it anyway?

T: One.

Me: OK. What if I had five in one hand?

T: And you still had 8?

Me: Yeah.

She spent a few moments thinking.

T: Three.

I had a couple other questions, which I asked and she answered. The next day, I realized that I didn’t know how she knew that second one.

She was getting ready to brush her teeth on Sunday evening when I asked whether she remembered the previous day’s conversation. She did.

Me: How did you know it was three?

T: I counted.

Me: Like this? Five, then six, seven, eight?

T: Yeah. And that’s three. But actually, I kind of already had it memorized.

Me: Oh yeah? How did you memorize it?

T: Huh?

Me: Did you try to memorize it? When I want to memorize a phone number because someone told it to me and I don’t have a pen handy, I say it over and over to myself. Did you do that with 5 + 3?

T: No! I just have counted it out a lot of times.

Now, I should also mention that I asked Tabitha, If I had 8 things, and 8 of them were in one hand, how many would be in the other? She replied Zero without much hesitation. This If I have this many in one hand, how many are in the other formulation is probably less clumsy than the If this is one part, what is the other part? formulation on the original worksheet. But the intention is the same.

So What Do We Learn?

The kind of problem Tabitha and I were working with is called Part-Part-Whole. For young children, this is different from the standard “takeaway” problem because there is no “taking away”. I didn’t eat, lose, destroy or give away any of my eight things in these problems—I just have some in one hand and some in the other.

Because Part-Part-Whole involves a different way of thinking, it’s a good idea to practice some of these problems. It helps children to build a better understanding of addition and subtraction relationships if they see all the various ways these relationships appear in their worlds.

Tabitha herself pointed out an important principle of Talking Math with Your Kids: Many things that you hope to remember, you can remember by encountering them frequently. Tabitha has never sat down with flash cards to memorize her single-digit addition facts. Yet she is in second grade and is starting to feel confident with them.

She and I talked about familiarity—how maybe learning 5 + 3 is a little like learning the name of someone you see in your neighborhood. You don’t recognize the person as being the same person the first few times you see them. But eventually, if you see them frequently enough, you do recognize them, and you might introduce yourself. Pretty soon, you know their name. And if you just can’t seem to remember it? That’s when it’s time to drill yourself. That’s when you repeat the name over and over and over.

Starting the Conversation

Ask the questions I did. This is an easy conversation to have. If your child isn’t confident with addition and subtraction facts, ask about six in one hand instead of jumping to five in one hand. 

More broadly, look for Part-Part-Whole opportunities to talk about. This is an important interpretation of subtraction, and one that is often neglected. Examples include apples (Our fruit bowl has 8 apples—5 are red, how many are green?), pets (There are 8 pets on our block—5 are cats, the rest are dogs. How many dogs?), et cetera.

Fun with tiles

It is no secret that one of my proudest achievements is creating a lovely space on Twitter where people share stories of children’s math talk. Come read along on the #tmwyk hashtag.

That’s where I came across this tutorial-in-photos.

Math blocks how-to photos

I decided to make myself some. I modified the design a bit (but the food coloring is a genius idea! I used that for sure.)

Then I left them out on Sunday morning and waited for a child to happen along.

Tabitha making a zig-zag pattern with the math blocks

Sure enough, Tabitha began making things.

I ate breakfast in the other room.

Ten minutes later, she came in carrying two tiles, put together so that the blue triangles made a square.

Tabitha (7 years old): A square is just a diamond, but I don’t think all diamonds are squares.

Me: Can you draw me a diamond that isn’t a square?

T: The skinny ones wouldn’t be squares.

Me: Yeah. I think I get it. Draw me one, though.

She proceeded to do so. It took a couple of tries.

I lost the paper, but the result looked something like this.

Skinny diamond

Then, a few moments later she asked a new question.

T: Aren’t all 4-sided things squares?

Me: The doorway isn’t. One of those tiles has four sides but isn’t a square.

I  quickly draw a parallelogram in my notebook.

Non-rectangular parallelogram

Me: This isn’t

I drew another 4-sided shape.

Concave quadrilateral

Me: This isn’t either.

T: That has 3 corners, not 4. So it can’t be a square.

Me: Show me the three corners.

She counted the three corners that point out from the center of the shape, missing the one that points back inward. She paused.

T: Oh…four.

So What Do We Learn?

Opportunity to think about math is important. Something as simple as leaving an interesting math object out for children to play with can lead to fun math talk.

Tabitha was working on the definitions of square and diamond in this conversation, and she was paying attention to the properties of shapes. This is important work for elementary children. When children are very young—before about first grade—they are learning to identify shapes based on appearances. As they move further into elementary school, they need to start paying attention to properties—the number of sides, the number of vertices (“corners”), etc.

Starting the conversation

Make some of these tiles. The materials cost me less than $20 (mostly for the wood—I probably could have gotten it a lot cheaper), and the dying and painting took about an hour on a Saturday evening. Then leave them out.

Or leave out a bunch of squares, triangles and rectangles you cut out of construction paper (you can do this for under $3 and less than 10 minutes of cutting).

Then let the children play and be ready to talk.

 

Math in the alphabet

The children attended a well-run chess day camp this summer. Good people running things; a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Lots of varied activities to keep kids’ bodies engaged as well as their minds.

Sadly, this takes place on the complete opposite end of the Metro area from where we live. We had to drive all the way across St Paul, Minneapolis and deep into St Louis Park during rush hour. Ugh.

This led, one day, to my trying to find a topic of conversation to keep at least one of the children occupied while we drove home. I recount for you this conversation below.

Me: Tabitha. Can I ask you a question?

Tabitha (7 years old): Sure.

Me: What letter comes before I in the alphabet?

T: H. That was kind of an easy question.

I love that she has turned into a critic. If I am not challenging her, she calls me on it.

What she has not seemed to notice yet is that these questions she deems easy are just my openers for the good stuff.

Me: Yeah. Here’s a harder one. What letter comes two letters before S?

There is a fairly long pause here. This is a harder question because of how most of us know the alphabet—forwards. If we want to know what is 2 less than 71, it is not so hard to count backwards. We have lots of experience counting backwards. But we don’t have so much experience saying the alphabet backwards, so we need to make up a strategy.

T: Q and R.

Letter squares for q, r and s

Me: Q is two letters before S, yes. Now you ask me one.

T: What letter comes after Z?

Brilliant. What a great question. I wish I had thought of it myself.

Letter squares for w, x, y, z and three blank squares

Me: Oooooo. Good one. I say A. I say it starts over.

T: Nope.

Griffin has been listening in but not participating. He sees his chance to get in on the action.

Griffin (9 years old): Negative A.

Me: Wouldn’t that be what comes before A?

G: No. It comes after Z. It’s negative A.

T: Nope. Not that either.

Me: OK, then. I am stumped.

T: Nothing.

Me: Huh?

T: Nothing. No letter comes after Z.

So what do we learn?

This is a more sophisticated version of another mathy letters conversation I had with Tabitha a while back. Back then, we were trying to figure out which of two letters comes first in the alphabet. Here, we are more paying careful attention to precise placement (two letters before, not just before).

The other interesting thing going on is our three different ideas about what comes after the end.

My idea: After the end, we go back to the beginning, like the days of the week.

Tabitha’s idea: There is nothing after the end. It just ends.

Griffin’s idea: The end is like zero. When you get to the end, you repeat what you already had, only using negatives.

It is OK that we didn’t resolve who is right.

Starting the conversation

About a year ago, I started making a habit of having the kids ask me the next question. I highly recommend it.

You know how your children are always testing the limits of rules in everyday life? Like you say, “Do not touch” and they see how close they can get their finger to the forbidden object without actually touching it? That is normal and necessary behavior on the part of children.

They will do it in the world of ideas, too. Tabitha did not choose “What letter comes after Z” at random. She chose it because she knew it would be interesting to talk about. It probably would not have occurred to me to ask it. Our conversation was richer because she did.

 

Pistachios

My father buys things in bulk. Not the bulk bin, dispense-a-little-bit-into-a-plastic-bag bulk. Costco bulk. Sam’s Club bulk.

The children and I spent some time with my father and stepmother (who are wonderful, loving people) at the Wisconsin Dells recently. We shared a rented condo. They brought bulk snacks.

Did you know that you can buy graham crackers in a container that holds four of the usual boxes of graham crackers?

What need does one family have with FOUR BOXES of graham crackers?

More to the point, they brought pistachios. I forget to check whether it was a three-pound bag or a four-pound bag but it was an awfully large bag of pistachios.

The image below is a small fraction of the total.

Sandwich bag stuffed full of pistachios in their shells.

While we were in the condo, Tabitha (7 years old) took her first interest in pistachios. Her brother Griffin (nearly 10 years old) has been a fiend for them for years. One day, Tabitha announced something to me.

Tabitha (7 years old): I threw out eight pistachio shells.

Me: And what do you learn from that?

T: I ate four pistachios.

Me: How do you know that?

T: Four plus four is eight.

Me: Nice. And five plus five?

T: Ten!

We carried on this vein for a little bit before we got distracted.

A couple days later, I was rushing around preparing for a work trip. Tabitha was again snacking on pistachios.

T: Is 13 an even number?

Me: No. Why do you want to know?

T: I must have counted my pistachio shells wrong. I must have missed one. So it’s 14.

Me: And what does that mean in terms of pistachios?

T: I ate 12. No. That can’t be right.

Me: Oh! I think I know how you got 12!

At this point, I was headed downstairs to get something to put in my suitcase. By the time I got back up, both of our minds were on to different things.

We never did get to a solution, nor did I find out how she got her wrong answer.

So what do we learn?

Tabitha is playing around with the every pistachio has two shells relationship. She is thinking about ratios: Two shells for every one pistachio.

A child does not need to have mastered multiplication, or fractions, or division to think about these things. I have written about ratio thinking from young children before. Ratios come naturally from repeating a process. Eating a pistachio produces two empty shells every time. Sharing candy produces one piece of candy every time. And so on.

Starting the conversation

In light of this, help your child notice for every relationships. There are four wheels for every car. There are four legs for every chair. There are two wings for every bird. Point these relationships out and have your child do the same. Consider the exceptions (have you ever seen a 3-legged chair?) Count up how many wheels there are on two cars, and on three cars.

Eat pistachios.

Postscript

I have two theories about her answer of 12 pistachios for 14 shells.

1. She tried to figure it out by thinking about 10 and 4. Half of 4 is 2. She added that back to the 10 and forgot that she still needed to find half of 10.

2. She subtracted 2 from 14.

I like theory 1 a LOT better than theory 2 because it matches the ways she has been thinking so far. Using subtraction seems unlikely when she knows this is a different sort of problem.

But of course I do not know for sure.