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.

Canned pumpkin

Fall baking in our house requires canned pumpkin. We were out so I asked for Tabitha’s help at the grocery store, where the pumpkin in on the bottom shelf.

Me: Put four of those bright orange cans of pumpkin in our cart, please.

Tabitha (6 years old): I don’t know if I can carry four.

Me: Do two, then two more.

Photo Nov 17, 10 15 20 AM

T: [With two cans of pumpkin in her hands] I know, because two plus two is four.

Me: Right. You could do three and one, I suppose.

T: OK. Give me one back.

She takes it, picks up two more from the shelf and brings the three cans over to me.

T: I did two and three.

Me: So we have five cans?

T: No! You gave me one back, remember?

Me: So two plus three minus one is four?

T: Yeah.

So what do we learn?

Decomposing numbers is fun.

We tend to think of 2+2 as something to do, and that the answer is 4. But in this case 4 is the thing to do, and 2+2 is one of several possible answers. When we think about different ways to make 4, we are decomposing 4.

Tabitha can keep track of the moves in our complicated decomposition at the end (You gave me one back, remember?) but she does not have practice with the math notation that captures all of these moves (Two plus three minus one is four). That is one of my roles in the conversation.

Starting the conversation

Tabitha gave me the ideal beginning to this conversation—she pointed out that there were too many cans for her to carry. It shouldn’t be difficult to put your own child in such a situation. The grocery store sells lots of things that children can carry a few of, but not a lot of: apples, oranges, cans of soup, etc. Picking up toys at the end of a play session at home or school, or books at the library—all of these are opportunities for you to name the number involved, then suggest a way to decompose it.