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.

Join the fun on Twitter.

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.

Birthday Chocolate

Today is my birthday. Griffin (12 years old) gave me three chocolate bars as a gift. He gave me candy because he is deeply aware of its value in life. He gave me dark chocolate because he knows it’s my preference.

He is frequently disturbed by how slowly I eat these gifts of candy he gives me.

Here’s how my after-work greeting went this evening.

Griffin (12 years old): Happy birthday, Dad.

Me: Thanks.

G: One thing I’ve noticed about you is that you eat the candy I give you incredibly slowly.

Me: I know. But actually I ate half of one today.

G: Half of a bar, or half of all the bars?

Me: Half of one bar. And then maybe I’ll have another half tomorrow.

G: Oh brother.

Me: And since I know 3 divided by 1/2 is 6…

G: You ate one-sixth of it.

Me: And it’ll last me 6 days.

Having arrived home a bit chilly and damp from the bike ride in the 45° rain, I went downstairs for a shower and he returned to his iPod.

So What Do We Learn?

I haven’t written a lot about this boy recently because he is in a phase of rejecting everything the adults around him care about. All adolescents go through some form of this. He is doing it with gusto.

In any case, the groundwork we’ve laid in the early years has paid off. When math is useful for his purposes, he will use it. Here, he wanted to prove his point that I am a painfully slow candy consumer. That made it important to clarify that I had not eaten half of my candy, but only half of one bar of candy.

We play around with units like this frequently. It has contributed to both children’s place value understanding, as well as their fraction work.

Starting the Conversation

Ask frequently about the units that are attached to the numbers in your lives. When you’re cooking, ask, Should we use 3 eggs or 3 dozen eggs? Ask about how many pieces of candy a pack of Whoppers is at Halloween.

Look at these pictures—one at a time—and ask How many? Challenge yourselves to find different numbers, and different units. (For example, there are 15 avocado halves, 7.5 avocados, 8 pits, 7 holes, and 1 cutting board).


Counting grapes

I am pretty sure I have mentioned this before, but one of my proudest achievements has been watching a “Talking Math with Your Kids” hashtag (#tmwyk) blossom on Twitter in the past few months. Now, on a nearly daily basis I (and you, if you join us over there) get to see conversational gems such as Kindergarten kids talking about Spirals and cool math prompts such as Counting Grapes.

Michael Fenton—a father and math teacher—sent this photograph into the #tmwyk world recently. Naturally, I had to talk with Tabitha and Griffin about it.

Two bowls—one with five grapes, one with eight half-grapes

The conversation with Tabitha (7 years old), I captured on video.

Here’s the transcript:

Me: Which one of these bowls has more grapes?

Tabitha: (7 years old): [points to a bowl, probably the one on the right but hard to tell] Obviously!

Me: What do you mean, ‘obviously’?

T: I mean look at this! One, two, three, four, do you mean halfs?

There is a thoughtful pause.

T: Actually…

She points to the bowl on the left.

T: Cause these are halves

Me: But how do you know that there’s more here than here?

T: Cause look.

She uses her thumb and finger to indicate that halves of grapes are getting put into pairs to make whole grapes.

T: One, two, three, four

Now she shifts to the bowl on the left and counts the whole grapes individually.

T: One, two, three, four, five.

So what do we learn?

The key moment is right here: I mean look at this! One, two, three, four, do you mean halfs? (This occurs 8 seconds into the video.)

That is when she notices—on her own—that half grapes are not worth the same as whole grapes. It is where she shifts her attention from items (of which there are 5 on the left and 8 on the right) to whole grapes (5 on the left, but only 4 on the right).

The rest is tidying up details. The learning happens in that one brief moment of insight.

Starting the conversation

Ask your own child this question when you have a spare moment. Don’t correct or interrupt. Just listen. Object if their explanations are incomplete, but otherwise just listen.

Technical notes (and acknowledgements and thanks)

This was our first video using Google Glass.

There will be many more, I am sure. I’ll write more about this in the future, and I am happy to discuss with any interested parties. (You can hit me through the About/Contact link here on the blog.)

In the meantime, I want to thank Go Kart Labs for their sponsorship and financial support. They funded most of the cost of my Google Glass through a generous donation. These folks are smart, kind and interested in the overall goal of the Talking Math with Your Kids project, which is developing a world full of intelligent, creative and curious citizens. Upstanding people who do beautiful web-design work here in Minnesota.

Units of measurement

This post is edited and remixed from a post on my other blog last summer.

Loyal reader Jim Doherty wrote in to report the following conversation with his 4-year old daughter Mo.

They are on a long drive to a hotel.

Mo (4 years old): How far are we?

Jim: We are 20 minutes away.

Later, having arrived safely, the family heads to the pool. Mo is practicing the fine art of jumping from the edge of the pool into her father’s arms. An important part of this art is to increase the risk by jumping greater and greater distances.


Tabitha reconstructs a jump of considerable size for illustrative purposes.

Mo: (four years old) Back up, Daddy!

Jim: This far?

Mo: More!

Jim: Here?

Mo: More! You need to be five minutes away!

Jim: Do you mean five feet away?

Mo: No! Five minutes!

At this point, Papa Doherty is flustered. Is Mo messing with him? Is she confused? Is he at fault for answering Mo’s earlier How far? question with a time rather than a distance? What should he do?

My hunch is that Mo is not messing with her father. Instead, she has taken his cue for talking about how far, and she is playing with it. This is how children learn—they hear something and they try it out.

Here is how we might turn this conversation into a bit more math learning. Imagine Jim’s next response this way:

Jim: OK. Tell me when I’m there. But then don’t jump right away; I want to ask you a question before you do. [Daddy backs up slowly…]

Mo: OK! There!

Jim: Right. Here’s my question: Do you think it will take you five minutes to get to me from where you are?

Mo: Yes.

Jim: Do you know how long five minutes is?

Mo: That far.

Jim: No, no. Can you think of something we do together that takes five minutes?

Mo: No.

Jim: It takes us about five minutes to read [INSERT TITLE OF FAVORITE PICTURE BOOK HERE] together. Do you think it will take that much time for you to get to me?

At this point, I have no idea how Mo will respond (which is what fascinates me so much about talking math with kids). I do know that pretty soon, she is going to want to jump, and that whether that’s right away or after a few more exchanges doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that she’s been asked to think.

This line of discussion lays the foundation for thinking about distances, times and their relationships to each other. It supports Mo’s attempts to participate in the conversation about measurement.

My conversation with Tabitha about the height of our hill last summer was in a similar spirit; we worked on the meaning of height when she asked me to lie down on the hill.


Griffin wanted in on the action. Here is his jump shot.

A short waffles conversation

Those Eggo mini-waffles are paying off.

We had this conversation the other day…

Me: There you are, Tabitha. Two sets of waffles.


Tabitha (six years old): That’s 7. No…8!

Me: [washing dishes with my back turned to her] Right. Two sets of four is eight.

T: That’s not how I know.

Me: You counted?

T: No.

Me: Oh. How did you know, then?

T: Three plus three is six. And there’s 2 more.

Me: [Big smile and thumbs up for encouragement]

So What Do We Learn?

I recently pushed Tabitha past the limits of her patience by asking about lobsters and half-lobsters. But in doing so, I was continuing to lay the groundwork—how she thinks about things is interesting to me. I want to know, I value and reward her thinking. So she talks about it.

When you consistently talk math with your kids, you will make progress. It may seem slow at times, but you’ll make progress.

Mathematically, there is something really wonderful going on here. She is trying to figure out 4+4, but it’s not a fact she has handy. So she thinks of 4 as 3+1.

Now it’s 3+1+3+1, which she rearranges as 3+3+1+1, which is the same as 6+2.

She uses a fact she knows (3+3) to find one she does not (4+4). This is an example of using derived facts, which Griffin did also in a recent conversation about the number of fives in an hour.

Starting the conversation

Listen for the times that children announce how many things there are. Ask them how they know.

Another example: Griffin had his ninth birthday party recently at a local swimming pool. The cake was provided; the high schooler who brought over the cake asked me his age and proceeded to count candles from the pack. It was hot; the candles must have slightly melted into the container because she was struggling and took a good minute or two to dislodge the candles, leaving them on the table before disappearing.

She had left eight candles behind.

For a nine-year old’s cake.

Needless to say, this was a topic of great conversation among the children present. Somehow Griffin didn’t notice. But his friend from up the block, W, did. She asked me, “Hey wait! Why are there only 8 candles?” I don’t know, I replied, but how did you know there were 8? She gave me a funny look. Did you count them one by one? “No,” she said, “by twos…2, 4…”

It is that easy.

You just have to put up with a few strange looks from children sometimes.