Let the children play

Talking Math with Your Kids has been on something of a summer hiatus as I’ve geared up for Math On-A-Stick at the Minnesota State Fair. It has been a wild ride.

I have spent the last four days playing and talking math with kids of all ages for eleven hours a day.

My number one message coming out of this work is Let the children play.

Have a peek at our flickr photo albums to see what’s been going on. Here’s a sample (Thanks to Kaytee Reid for sharing these beautiful images).

I have been paying close attention to how children behave in this space we’ve built. I’ll just write about the plastic eggs today, but they stand in as an example for all of our activities.

When children come to the egg table at Math On-A-Stick, they know right away what to do. There are plastic eggs, and there are large empty egg cartons. The eggs go in the cartons. No one needs to give them instructions. (This is by design, by the way.)

A typical three- or four-year old will fill the cartons haphazardly. She won’t be concerned with the order she fills it, nor with the colors she uses, nor anything else. She’ll just put eggs into the carton one at a time in a seemingly random order.

But when that kid plays a second or third time, emptying and filling her egg carton—without being told to do so—she usually begins to see new possibilities. After five or ten minutes of playing eggs, this child is filling the carton in rows or columns. Or she’s making patterns such as pink-yellow, pink-yellow… Or she’s counting the eggs as she puts them in the carton. Or she’s orienting all of the eggs so they are pointy-side up.

The longer the child plays, the richer the mathematical activity she engages in. This is because the materials themselves have math built into them. The rows and columns of the egg crate; the colors and shape of the eggs; the fact that the eggs can separate into halves—all of these are mathematical features that kids notice and begin to play with as they spend time at the table.

We have seen four-year-olds spend an hour playing with the eggs.

I have observed that the children who receive the least instruction from parents, volunteers, or me are the most likely to persist. These are the children who will spend 20 minutes or more exploring the possibilities in the eggs.

The children who receive instructions from adults are least likely to persist. When a parent or volunteer says, “Make a pattern,” kids are likely to do one of two things:

  1. Make a pattern, quit, and move to something else
  2. Stop playing without making a pattern

We adults have a responsibility to let the children play. We can be there to listen to their ideas as they do. We can play in parallel by getting our own egg cartons out and filling these cartons with our own ideas.

But when we tell kids to “make a pattern” or “use the colors”, we are asking the children to fill that carton with our ideas, rather than allowing them to explore their own.

Here are some ideas children have explored in the last few days. I look forward to the next week’s worth of wonder. (Photos all shared by visitor and volunteers through Twitter and Intagram—handles are in the image titles. Many thanks to all for your generous sharing.)

[Product Review] Tupperware Shape-O Toy

You know this thing.

This thing has been around for many, many years. You may not know that it is officially the “Tupperware Shape-O Toy” but if grew up in or near the United States anytime since about 1960, you have encountered this toy. It is the rare math-y toy that is actually awesome in the ways it was intended to be.

(See discussion of the Multiplication Machine on this blog for an example of a math-y toy that is awesome in unintended ways. See your local Target for a wide selection of math-y toys that are not awesome in any way at all.)

We had some fun on Twitter last fall when a math teacher and father, Dan Anderson, invited speculation about which shapes would be easiest and most difficult for his 1 \frac{1}{2} year-old to put in the holes.

[Fun fact about Dan Anderson—if you heard last year about how Double Stuf Oreos are not actually doubly stuffed, it was his classroom that got the media ball rolling.] Anyway, here is his ranking—following his son Calvin’s lead:

And here is an amusing video of a cute kid playing with one. The parental participation in the play may be a bit heavy-handed but the spirit is right—encouraging and playful.

Notice that the triangle is harder for him to fit in than the square, and that it’s tough for him to distinguish the hexagon from the pentagon.

Tons of fun to be had with this classic!


Talking math with your daughters

The conversations we have with our children affect their thinking. Of course they have their own interests, but the conversations we initiate have an impact.

The New York Times’ Motherlode blog (subtitle, Adventures in Parenting—we’ll talk about the equating of parenting with mothers another time!) quoted a University of Delaware study a while back:

Even [when their children are] as young as 22 months, American parents draw boys’ attention to numerical concepts far more often than girls’. Indeed, parents speak to boys about number concepts twice as often as they do girls. For cardinal-numbers speech, in which a number is attached to an obvious noun reference — “Here are five raisins” or “Look at those two beds” — the difference was even larger. Mothers were three times more likely to use such formulations while talking to boys.

The researchers note that these differences are not intentional. They were observed in the course of free interactive play between mothers and their children.

The potential consequences are important. The researchers speculate in the abstract to their published research article:

Greater amounts of early number-related talk may promote familiarity and liking for mathematical concepts, which may influence later preferences and career choices. Additionally, the stereotype of male dominance in math may be so pervasive that culturally prescribed gender roles may be unintentionally reinforced to very young children.

So do Tabitha proud, OK? Go ahead and use the two of us as a model for talking math with your daughters.


And with your sons.

If it’s true for other language…

…it’s probably true for number language too.

University of Pennsylvania researchers have studied the quality of parents’ speech to their toddlers, and its relationship to the children’s vocabulary later on. “Quality” of speech was measured by how well an adult observer could guess a common word uttered by the parent, when the observer could see the parent and child, but with sound muted.

In the researchers’ words:

Strikingly, this parent-input quality difference at child age 14–18 months [about 1.5 years] significantly correlated with the children’s vocabularies at 54 mo [about 4.5 years].

The ways in which parents were talking to their children at age 1 had an effect on the number of words the children knew at age 4.

The way you talk to children like this…

Tabitha at 21 months (a bit OLDER than the subjects in the beginning of the study)

Tabitha at 21 months (a bit OLDER than the subjects in the beginning of the study)

…has a profound impact on what they know when they are like this…

Tabitha at 54 months, the age of the subjects at the end of the study.

Tabitha at 54 months, the age of the subjects at the end of the study. She is on her way to her first day of Pre-K.

It probably goes for number words and shapes, too.

So let’s get out there and talk math with those little ones!

Count stuff, use number words at every opportunity, point out and talk about shapes. Start them young. And if you haven’t started them young, start now.

It’ll be fun, I promise.

I will help you.

Click here for a newspaper summary.

Click here for a pre-publication version of the paper (PDF, link checked and valid, August 2013).