Boxes of Math are here

I and dozens of families across the US, Canada, and England had a blast with the Summer of Math last summer, and now I’m gearing up for the school year version: Boxes of Math.

Starting small with a single option for kindergarten and first grade (five- and six-year-olds, roughly), Boxes of Math will have some overlap with last summer’s Summer of Math, but are targeted at this more narrow age range and the math they’re learning in school.

Boxes of Math consists of:

• A small welcome and introductory shipment before the New Year

• A box for counting and patterning in mid-January

• A box for shape study in late February

• A box for number structures and operations in late March/early April

Each box will have a book, one or more things to get your hands on, and a newsletter with ideas about fun ways to play and to continue the learning in your everyday lives.

Why Boxes of Math?

Inside these boxes are things that help create conversations. They get children thinking about the most important ideas of elementary math.


A few of the objects that will fill the boxes of math.

Most children who struggle with math later on aren’t familiar with these ideas. They know facts by rote, but not in relation to each other. Or they cannot retain the facts because they see no relationships. They can name triangles, but don’t see all polygons as made out of triangles. They can count large numbers of objects fluently, but they don’t notice whether these objects are arranged in rows and columns.

Those are the things this website is all about.

Struggling or not, all children benefit from exercising their math minds through play and conversation.

Boxes of Math offers children and caregivers opportunities to play, experiment, and talk in ways that bring these ideas to life. Noticing rows and columns is a natural outcome of playing with pattern machines. Playing with 21st Century Pattern Blocks is an extended exercise in putting shapes together and taking them apart.

The target outcome of Boxes of Math is children (and families) with a similar relationship to math as they have to literature. They talk about it, see it in their world, and use it to understand their lives in richer, more beautiful ways than before.

Sign up, give it as a gift, pass the word on to friends and neighbors, won’t you?

What Math Looks Like

I’ve been working on some presentations, and I’d like to share with you some images I’ve collected and made along the way, without further commentary. Enjoy.

Which One Doesn’t Belong? is in print!

I am delighted to announce that Which One Doesn’t Belong? A Better Shapes Book is in print and shipping from Stenhouse Publishing this week.

There is a student/home edition, and a set that includes a teacher guide.

I’ll be at Math On-A-Stick at the Minnesota State Fair August 25 through Labor Day. Stop by for a selfie and to get your copy signed!

(Note: The books are not for sale at the fair—nothing is for sale at Math On-A-Stick.)

Math teacher seeks primary classrooms to talk shapes

I made a shapes book recently. The response has been a ton of fun. I have heard from parents of preschoolers, from primary grades teachers, upper elementary teachers and middle school teachers. All have reported having interesting and sometimes surprising conversations with their children and students.

I have heard from high school teachers, including a class studying set theory.

But I feel as though I am missing out on the fun. I want in.

If you teach kindergarten, first or second grade in the Twin Cities (MN) area, and you would be willing to have a visitor come talk geometry for a half hour in the coming months, shoot me a note, please. If you know such a teacher send them this post, please.

We’ll work out the details and I’ll see you in class!

Easter candy

Easter Sunday saw St Paul, Minnesota waking up to weather perfection. Sunshine, low seventies (Fahrenheit), cloudless sky. Truly amazing.

There was a loon on Lake Phalen!

This was the sort of April weather that brings Minnesotans out of their homes to rediscover their neighbors.

So it is with Griffin, Tabitha and me on this warm spring morning. We are enjoying the warm sunshine on our front steps when L (five year old girl), O (3 year old boy) and their mom come biking, biking and strolling (respectively) down the sidewalk.

L is on a neighborhood mission delivering handmade Easter greeting cards.

It turns out that she has also pocketed some goodies from her own Easter basket. While we chat, she pulls out a bag of Cadbury mini eggs. In case you are unfamiliar, these are the size of pebbles. They are chocolate inside with a crunchy candy shell. Like an oversized egg-shaped M&M. Each little bag contains about a dozen.


So. Much. Candy.
This is likely a small fraction of the candy L has consumed by the time she stops to chat.

Anyway, mom notices the bag as soon as it emerges from L’s pocket. (Side note—mom is across the street! Holy SuperMom powers!) She warns L not to eat any more of these; arguing that L has had enough candy for one morning.

L (5 years old): Please?

Mom: If you give everybody one, you can have one.

L proceeds to cheerfully open the package, hand one to Tabitha (who eagerly and gratefully receives it), one to Griffin and one to me.

I begin to think about what question to ask to get some math talk going.

But L is ahead of me.

After enjoying both her egg and a long thoughtful pause, she pokes her finger back into the bag. She begins to rummage around and asks:

L: Tabitha, do you want a second one?

So what do we learn?

Children use math to their advantage.

L knew what mom meant. Mom had compromised on the candy, allowing her one piece. L knew that. And she knew that the process was repeatable.

One does not always mean one. One might be taken to mean each. “Each time you give everybody one, you can have one.” This is also a reasonable interpretation of mom’s words.

L was rule bending here. But she was also building the precursors of ratios. For every one you give a friend, you can have one. This is a ratio. Giving a friend two and having two fits this rule just as well as giving a friend one and having one. Ratios are one of the more challenging ideas behind multiplication and division relationships, and fractions.

What is maddening for parents is at the same time great thinking practice for children.

Starting the conversation

This was a brilliant compromise strategy on mom’s part. I doubt that she intended to encourage L to think proportionally, but that doesn’t matter. More likely, she was trying to encourage the admirable social skill of sharing. By including numbers in her compromise, she opened the door for L to think.

As I have mentioned before, anytime your child wants to open a negotiation, there is an opportunity for math talk. Sometimes we parents need to give a flat out yes or no. But when negotiations are feasible, we can get our children thinking.