# How Many? An invitation to #unitchat

Make Math Playful is an unofficial slogan here at Talking Math with Your Kids. An important part of play is that there is not one right answer. Through Which One Doesn’t BelongI showed a way to make geometry playful. Now with How Many? I’m working on a way of making counting playful.

The idea has grown out of the TED-Ed video I did a while back, and the more I play with it, the more I see it in the world around me. My goal is to help parents, teachers, and especially children see it too.

Most counting tasks tell you what to count. Whether it’s Sandra Boynton’s adorable board book Doggies, or Greg Tang’s more sophisticated The Grapes of Math, the authors tell you what to count—or even count it for you.

How Many? is a counting book that leaves possibilities open and that seeks to create conversations. Creativity is encouraged. Surprises abound.

The premise is simple. Every page asks How Many? but doesn’t specify what to count. Each image has many possibilities.

An example. How many?

Maybe you say two. Two shoes. Or one because there is one pair of shoes, or one shoebox. Maybe you count shoelaces or aglets or eyelets (2, 4, and 20, respectively). The longer you linger, the more possibilities you’ll see.

It’s important to say what you’re counting, and noticing new things to count will lead to new quantities.

Another example. How many?

A few possibilities: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 12, 24, 36. What unit is each counting? Maybe you see fractions, too. 2/3, 4/6, 3/4, 1/12….others? What is the whole for each fraction? The number 3 shows up more than once—there are three unsliced pizzas, and there are also three types of pizza. Are there other numbers that count multiple units?

All of this leads to two specific invitations.

Let me come talk with your students.

(It turns out my schedule filled very quickly, and I’m no longer seeking new classrooms to visit right now—thanks to everyone for your support!)

If you are within an hour of the city of Saint Paul and work with children somewhere in the first through fourth grades, then invite me to come test drive some fun and challenging counting tasks with your students. I have set aside November 17 and 18 and hope to get into a variety of classrooms on those two days. Get in touch through the About/Contact page on this blog.

I’ve been using, and will continue to use and monitor, the hashtag #unitchat, for prompts and discussion of fun and ambiguous counting challenges. Post your thoughts, your own images, the observations of your own children or students, and I’ll do likewise.

How Many? A counting book will be published by Stenhouse late next year.

# On helping children to love math

Some version of the following comes through my email Inbox every so often.

My daughter does not like maths. How can I ignite the passion for maths? She’s 8 and I feel she’s got to learn the importance of maths but how can I do it?  A teacher told her Maths is not for everyone and she believes it. Help!

Here is a version of my standard response.

Your story strikes close to my heart.

You may well know that girls are much more likely to get these kinds of messages from teachers than boys are, and they are much more likely to internalize these messages, as their teachers are much more likely to be same-gender role models.

It is all heartbreaking.

And I’ve seen these forces first-hand this year with my 9-year-old daughter. Her teacher said to her in a parent-teacher conference, “Your mind is better with words than with numbers, isn’t it?”

This, despite extensive evidence that she is a super creative mathematical thinker. A significant fraction of that evidence is documented on my blog, Talking Math with Your Kids.

With my own children, I have taken the perspective that “loving math” or even “appreciating its importance” may not be reasonable goals. Instead, being able to see math in their lives, and becoming competent mathematicians is.

Of course I would love for my children to love math, just as I would love for them to love reading. But I can’t enforce those emotions. What I can do is infuse my children’s everyday world with shapes, patterns, and numbers just as I infuse their world with words and stories.

This blog is full of concrete examples of opportunities for this. The post about hot chocolate is probably the simplest and clearest example of how parents can make simple changes to support their kids’ developing mathematical minds.

I would also recommend spending some time reading the research posts. There’s a lot of useful and interesting research work going on in math education right now, especially as it pertains to elementary-aged children, parents, and math.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out if there is anything further I can do to support you and your daughter.

I wish you both the best!

Christopher

# Tessalation: A great new book

Tessalation is a terrific new picture book by Emily Grosvenor. The story involves a little girl whose mother needs a bit of peace and quiet, so sends her outside to play. While outside, Tessa (get it?) notices shapes fitting together without gaps everywhere she looks.

I helped sponsor Tessalation on Kickstarter this spring, and our hard copies arrived last week. Naturally Tabitha (9 years old) and I read it together right away.

Here are some of the things Tabitha, Griffin (11 years old) and I noticed and discussed while reading it, and afterwards:

• The turtles are delightful.
• While they are somewhat different turtles from the ones we’ve played with around the house for the last year, they have an important characteristic in common—two noses and two tails come together in both tessellations.
• There are tessellating leaves that look an awful lot like some shapes I’ve made and we’ve played with a number of times. We saw kites and hexagons and triangles in the leaves just as we have in the pink quadrilaterals below.
• We wondered whether this object counts as a tessellation. (It’s not from the book, but Tessa set a great example for us to notice and ask about tessellations in our world.)

All in all, Tessalation is perfectly aligned with the Talking Math with Your Kids spirit. It creates a richly structured and playful space for parents and children to notice things and to converse. The language is fun. The images are beautiful. Tabitha and I highly recommend it.

Quick notes: Tessalation will be a component of August’s Summer of Math box. It’s not too late to sign up! Also, we’ll soon have a Tessalation/Tiling Turtles combo pack available. You can order the book right now from Waldorf Books, and e-books from Amazon.

# The Summer of Math

Hey parents! Listen closely. Do you hear that? It’s the sound of school letting out for the summer!

You’ve got your summer camps planned, your squirt guns at the ready, and you’re all set to hit the library as many times as needed to keep your kids reading all summer long.

Now you need a plan to keep their math minds active.

At Talking Math with Your Kids, we’ve got you covered.

Announcing The Summer of Math.

A small sample of the fun to be had this summer!

Here’s how it works. You can head over to the Talking Math with Your Kids store, pay for a subscription to The Summer of Math, and all summer long we’ll ship you awesome, fun stuff that will keep you and your 5—10 year old busy playing and talking math.

You’ll color, count, make patterns, designs and shapes. You’ll read together, draw, and challenge yourselves. You’ll notice. You’ll wonder. You’ll play. And when school starts back up in the fall, your kids will remember this as the best, mathiest summer ever.

The details

Each month June—September, we’ll ship you a box that contains a bunch of great stuff—at least one book, at least one related set of mathy things to play with, and at least one special surprise. For example, in June you’ll get one beautiful math coloring book, one terrific activity book, all the supplies you need for both of these, a set of spiraling pentagons (so you can make your own awesome designs like those in the coloring book), and a little something extra we cannot yet divulge.

Plus a newsletter where we’ll share additional ideas, questions, cool math stuff we’ve been doing, and reports you send us of the mathy fun you’ve had this summer.

We’ll ship the first week of each month. One week before we ship it out, we’ll send you an email letting you know exactly what’s coming your way (except for the surprise—that’s always a surprise!) You can let us know if you need to add, delete, or swap anything out. We can easily credit you for things you already have (but it’s not likely you’ll already have much of what we’ve got planned), or substitute something new and awesome for it.

We’ll have a Facebook page where we’ll share our mathy adventures and encourage you to share yours.

What are you waiting for? Click on through and join us for The Summer of Math!

# Talking Math with Your Kids update

As spring approaches, it’s time to update readers on what’s going on behind the scenes at Talking Math with Your Kids.

# The blog

The pace of posting has slowed way down in recent months. Rest assured that we’re still talking math around the house, and that my dedication to helping others do the same remains strong. I have lots to write, but not much time to write it because…

# Math On-A-Stick

Two years ago, I began to wonder how to expand the work of this blog beyond the parents who have the time, technology, and inclination to read blogs.

One year ago, I pitched an idea for this to the Minnesota State Fair.

And last summer we inaugurated what is now an annual event: Math On-A-Stick. Planning is under way for year two, with help from the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics, The Math Forum, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the Minnesota State Fair, and the Minnesota State Fair Foundation.

The number one question at the Fair was Where can we buy the turtles?

At the time, the answer was “Nowhere”. We had asked permission from their designers, Jos Leys and Kevin Lee, only to cut them for Math On-A-Stick. Soon afterwards, I got permission from Jos to make and sell these turtles. I also got permission from Kevin who adapted Jos’s design for laser cutting using his own software (which is a ton of fun, and which you can buy from him) Tesselmaniac.

# The store

The Talking Math with Your Kids Store, at talkingmathwithkids.squarespace.com, opened late last fall with tiling turtles as the main offering. It is now stocked with a number of things to support parents and children in math activities and conversations—Pattern Machines, Tiling Turtles, Spiraling Pentagons, a gorgeous coloring book, and more on the way soon.

Click on through and have a look if you haven’t done so yet.

# A book

I recently submitted the final manuscript for Which One Doesn’t Belong? A Better Shapes Book. There will be both a home/student edition, and a companion guide. It is being published by Stenhouse this summer.

# More

The big ideas continue to flow, and further collaborations are in the works. Keep an eye on this space. In the meantime, you can expect a few new posts in the coming weeks as my attention shifts from book-writing mode.

And don’t forget to follow the fun on Twitter at the #tmwyk hashtag, where people share young children’s beautiful ideas and questions on a daily basis.

# 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.)

# Talking Shapes with Kids

I have been spending time talking with kindergarteners, first and second graders in schools about my shapes book (coming from Stenhouse, Spring 2016). Many more school visits are ahead of me. I have written up some reflections for a more teacher-ish audience than this blog attracts. If you’re interested in the ways young children talk about shapes, and in what I hear in their ideas, hop on over to the sister-blog Overthinking My Teaching for the details.

You may be delighted to learn how much math there is in the simple collection of shapes below.

# Spirals

A few weeks back, this short cryptic video came to my attention thanks to the magic of Twitter.

Thanks to kids connect (@KinderFynes on Twitter)

For more than a year now, I have been posting links and other short bits on Twitter using the #tmwyk hashtag. In the last few months, it has gained momentum. A day rarely goes by without someone posting something interesting or delightful or surprising there.

But back to the video.

We get a very brief glimpse of a classroom of Kindergarteners on a walk. At the moment the video captures, they are trying to decide whether the object on the wall is, or is not, a spiral.

That image in the video was not a spiral because “Spirals are connected”.

So I drew this.

Griffin’s reply: That’s three things connected, not one thing.

So I drew this (sort of).

The part I actually drew was two disconnected spirals. He drew the short line segments on the ends.

Griffin: If you close them off like this, it’s an outline of a spiral.

Next I drew this.

I was wondering whether spirals needed to be roughly circular.

Griffin: In this one, you are looking at a spiral from its edge.

Finally, this one.

I cannot recall his response. We were on the porch on a warm lazy sunny spring morning at the end of a long long winter. We may have gotten distracted.

## So what do we learn

This is how I teach critical thinking. Not just at home, but in my work, too. Get the child to make a claim and to give a reason supporting it. Cook up a problematic example and ask for a new claim. Repeat. Quit before angering child.

WARNING: It is my experience with my own children—as well as with my students of all ages—that they learn these lessons well. This means that over time they begin to argue back intelligently, and that they begin to pick apart my own claims and arguments.

A while back, bedtime was spiraling out of control. The kids share a room; they would be wound up at bedtime and the transition to sleep was not happening smoothly. We had a big, big problem on our hands.

We solved the problem with 10-minute reading time. The kids have to be in their beds. We dim the lights. We set a timer for 10 minutes. It has to be quiet during that time. Then we turn out the lights, give them something to picture in their minds, and sleep comes more easily.

Complete transformation. It is awesome.

One night, Tabitha (5 years old at the time) wanted to color. We talked and agreed that she could do it “sometimes”. As is the nature of 5-year olds, she soon wanted to know the limits.

The following conversation took place on a Wednesday night.

Tabitha (five years old): I know I can’t color every night but can I tonight?

Me: Yes.

T: Then read, then color the next night?

Me: I don’t know. I think reading twice before the next color is better.

To be clear. It was not my intention to get into a math conversation at this point. I just wanted her to go to bed (Warning! Link Not Safe for Work, and Possibly Offensive to Sensitive Ears. But Funny).

No, this move on my part was truly about literacy, not math. I don’t want 10-minute reading time to turn into 10-minute coloring time. I really, really like the idea that books will become part of my kids’ independent bedtime routines.

But Tabitha loves to know the rules she’s playing by. And when those rules are based on numbers, they’re going to lead to math every time.

Me: Right. That sounds like a good ratio.

Whoa.

Couple things.

First of all, I used the term ratio with absolutely no expectation that she would process it, and I am quite sure that she did not. I have long been an advocate of using good vocabulary with my children—there is no shame in not knowing the meaning of a word, but also no sheltering them from the fact that these words exist. This is at least partly the source of their substantial vocabularies. But I do not believe she knows the word ratio.

Secondly, Tabitha’s reformulation of the 2:1 ratio as 4:2 blew me away. It nearly slipped past me without notice. I was focused on getting them to bed; we were in the truly final phase of that process. I had pretty much tuned her out.

But when I looked at her, I could see she was expecting a reply. She needed to know whether she could get two coloring nights in a row by doing four reading nights in a row.

So I replayed her question in my mind, counting the reads.

Me: Yes. That would be fine. You may do that.

## So what do we learn?

Together with the recent Easter Candy conversation, this makes clear that young children are thinking about early ratio ideas.

And what is the same about these two sets of tiles?

In each cases, it is the ratio.

In the first case, there is one blue for every yellow up top and also down below. This is what L was working on when she offered a second chocolate egg to Tabitha.

Traditionally we think about ratio as a sophisticated fractions topic that needs to wait for early adolescence. I certainly would not want to be held accountable for teaching 5-year olds ratio and the associated notation. But their everyday experiences allow for them to think about these ideas. As parents, we can keep an eye out for those opportunities and talk about them when they arise.

## Starting the conversation

Both of these ratio conversations with 5-years olds have resulted from constraints. Five year olds love to test rules. “Yes” and “No” are inflexible and allow no wiggle room. This is sometimes desirable. Yes, you must leave now to get to school on timeNo you may not leave the house without pants. Yes you must look both ways before you cross the street.

But when we are guiding our children’s behavior, we would be wise to allow some space for the little ones to test the boundaries. Does it really matter—in the big picture—whether L eats one chocolate egg or two? Does it really matter whether Tabitha colors two nights in a row instead of reading? I say no. Neither of these things really matters.

What matters is that L does not continuously gorge on candy, and that Tabitha has some alone time with books. Constraints rather than absolute mandates seem to have encouraged mathematical thinking in both of these cases while also addressing the big picture.

# 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.

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.