Dessert is a good time to get the children’s attention for a little math talk.
A few weeks back, a smallish serving of M&Ms was about to be given to each child, from a large one-pound bag.
In keeping with my assertion that a day should never pass without asking my kids at least one how many? question, I asked Griffin to choose the size of the serving (but unbeknownst to him that this was the purpose.)
Me: Give me a number between 10 and 20.
Griffin (eight years old): What’s the point?
Me: I won’t tell you until you choose.
G: I won’t until I know why.
This is my own doing. I have long told both children that people need to have reasons for asking you to do things, and that satisfying these reasons is more important than following directions blindly. This is an important element of problem-solving and critical thinking. It does have consequences; I understand this.
Me: Tabitha, pick a number between 10 and 20.
Tabitha (five years old): Twelve.
Me: OK. That’s how many M&Ms you each get for dessert.
G: Oh, then I pick 20.
Me: No. The first number I heard. That’s the one I’m using.
G: You should use the biggest.
Me: Nope. The first.
T: Next time, I should choose….thirteen.
This is beautiful, is it not?
I love the realization that things had not worked out for her maximal benefit. I love that she knows some thinking needs to be applied to the situation.
And I love dearly that the result of this thinking is an increase of a single M&M. Griffin comes to her rescue.
G: No, Tabitha! It’s between 10 and 20!
T: Oh. I should choose…nineteen.
So what do we learn?
This was totally devious on my part, and I do not recommend that you behave this way with your children. We do learn, though, that strategic thinking with numbers is something to be learned. The strategy of thinking through the biggest possible number within the given constraints is not obvious to young children. Looking for a bigger number is a prerequisite to thinking hard about the biggest possible number.
We also learn, of course, that I am a horrible person.
Starting the conversation
Again, I do not encourage you to manipulate your children in this way. Although in my own defense, neither 12 nor 20 M&Ms is such a bad deal for 5- and 8-year olds near bedtime.
The pick-a-number game is fun for lots of things, though. Taking turns (whoever gets closest to the number I wrote down gets the first turn) is a classic example, but you can think up lots of your own. After the picking, talk about the selection. What would have been a better choice, knowing what you know now? What would have been a worse choice? Why did you pick the number you did? Et cetera. Listen to your children’s strategies and share your own.