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.

10 thoughts on “Weighing onions

  1. Hello there, this GLOBAL ALBUM you are doing good thing, if all of us can do just that, I really believe there be no more kids or youth in jail so many many thanks…

  2. What weighs more, a pound of big onions or a pound of small ones? How about a pound of bananas or a pound of onions? How many such questions does it take for a very bright and mathecized kid to not need to hear any more such questions?

    Also, seems like a damned good time to ensure that you do metric measurements, too, before she (or any kid) is locked hopelessly into the English system of weights and measures. My 20-year-old son was shocked to learn that Canadians sell/buy gasoline by the Imperial gallon and it’s not the same as ours. This after traveling to Buffalo and back through Ontario with me two Junes ago and spending a night near Hamilton, stopping for food and gas the next afternoon on our way home. Apparently, I should be weighing more bananas in the fruit section with him.

    • One practical tip for parents of very young children: put mathematical cues up around your house. For example, we put numbers on our stairs (homemade jobbies, nearly costless) and also little shape pictures. They trigger us to say something mathematical every time we walk on the stairs.

      I absolutely love measurement with the kids, including estimating before measuring. Both metric and US customary. Putting aside the benefits of learning a specific measurement standard, metric use leads to frequent talk of large numbers (200-600 grams is a common range of things we weigh in our house) and decimals, while US measures link with fractions nicely (notice how this came up in Christopher’s post). We are lucky that the money systems my kids have experienced also have these relative features.

      One area where US customary usage seems clearly mathematically superior to ROW is naming musical note lengths. Whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, etc allows a good and straightforward connection to fractions and powers of 2. Compare that with semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver, semiquaver (I guess they finally got the right idea eventually).

  3. Wish my parents would have thoughts on that concept. It would have given me more of an interest in matj/

  4. My son is 5 and he loves using the scales in the produce department. Almost every week we buy a 3 lb bag of pears. He has noticed that they always weigh at least 3 pounds but some of them weigh closer to 3.5 pounds. We put a few bags on the scale until we find the one that is heaviest. We get some strange looks but he has a great time and is learning a lot about weights and fractions.

  5. Reblogged this on The Future School and commented:
    Once again, it’s so easy to incorporate maths in daily lives. As parents, we ought to be creative and engage our kids from a young age about mathematical concepts.

  6. My son and i have a game at the grocery checkout to guess the cost of what we’re purchasing and who guesses closest. Aside from maths It has the added benefits of value for money and paying attention to the cost of things

  7. Pingback: Math Games with Younger Kids | gameskidzplay

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