Nights of camping

The following conversation took place in the run-up to our annual summer camping trip recently.

Rachel has no interest in camping, so this ritual is all mine. I started the little ones young with a one-night trip within an hour from home so that we could come home if it’s a total disaster. As they have aged and we have developed our routines, we have gone further afield, exploring wide-ranging Minnesota state parks for two-night stays. We added a weekend fall trip, too.

Last summer, the kids began to ask why “we only go for two nights”.

Ladies and gentlemen, when the kids ask that question, you know you’re doing it right.

So this summer we are expanding to three nights. Tabitha was thinking about that change the other day.

I am straightening some things on the front porch, sweeping and tidying. Not thinking about anything in particular.

Tabitha (7 years old): If we’re going for three nights, is that 2 days and 2 half-days?

Me: Yes.

A few seconds pass.

I realize that I have an opportunity here.

Me: How did you think about that?

T: Every night is a day, except the last one, when we go home.

Me: What if we went for a whole week’s worth of nights? What if we went camping for 7 nights?

T: Easy. Six days.

Me: And?

T: Two half-days.

Me: OK. Ready for a hard one?

T: Yeah!

Me: There are 365 days in a year. So what if we went camping for 365 nights?

T: [slowly] Three…hundred…sixty…four!

Me: Nice!

T: I can even do 400.

Me: You mean 400 nights of camping? You know how many days that would be?

T: Yeah.

Me: All right. Tell me.

She does.

Later, she is in the shower. I am not-so-closely supervising nearby. I get an idea.

Me: Tabitha, what if we wanted seven days of camping?

T: How many nights?

Me: Right.

T: Eight. Am I right?

Me: I can’t trick you at all, can I?

T: Ask me another!

Again, a sign that things are going well. Contrast with her claim a couple years back, “Sometimes I don’t want to tell you about numbers because it’s just going to turn into a big Daddy math talk!”

I have to think hard to dig up something that will be more challenging for her.

Me: You want a hard one? A really hard one?

T: Yes!

Me: Last year, we went camping twice. Altogether, we camped 4 nights. How many days did we have?

T: Three…five…

It turns out that Griffin is lingering in hallway outside the bathroom. He chimes in.

Griffin (9 years old): Four.

Me: Two days, and four half-days.

G: Right. That’s four.

Me: But she’s thinking about it as four half-days, since they aren’t attached to each other. I can see an argument either way.

This summer’s trip was to Lake of the Woods in the far northern reaches of Minnesota.

Griffin posing with an oversized walleye statue in Baudette, MN

So what do we learn?

It may surprise some readers that I have filed this conversation under Algebra.

Like many of the other algebra posts, we are not using x or y, or making graphs or solving for variables. Instead we are thinking about a relationship, and about what that relationship looks like for a wide variety of numbers.

The relationship we are working with here is a simple one: one less. Tabitha had noticed that the number of full days we camp is one less than the number of nights we camp. She had even generalized the idea—notice that she didn’t count the days individually. She said, “Every night is a day, except the last one.” This answer doesn’t depend on any particular number of days; it works for all numbers of days.

What I did in this conversation was help her to apply this idea. By asking her about a wide range of numbers of days, she got to feel the power of her generalization. That is algebra.

The other important part here was continuing the conversation while she showered. Thinking in reverse is an important mathematical skill. We had started with how many days do we get with a certain number of nights? I moved us to how many nights do we need for a certain number of days? The fancy math word for the relationship between these two questions is inverse.

Starting the conversation

Camping trips, vacations, trips to grandma’s house…these are all opportunities to have the conversation we had. If your child doesn’t ask about it, you can ask your child. We are going to grandma’s house for three nights—how many days will you have to play with your cousins while we’re there?

More generally, there are two Talking Math with Your Kids moves I want to emphasize.

  1. It took me a moment to notice that Tabitha had offered me an opening for conversation. I was thinking about something else at the time. When I noticed it, I put those other thoughts aside to talk, ask and listen. That part of the conversation took probably 2 minutes. We can all spare 2 minutes to get our kids’ minds working. We just need to notice the opportunities.
  2. I followed up later on. Following up is good for two reasons: It lets you and your child examine an idea more deeply, and it helps cement memory of the conversation. We remember something we revisit multiple times better than something we only think about once.

Playlists

Parenting is a tremendous amount of work. Within that work are beautiful moments of love and joy. For Tabitha and me, these moments often involve music. We had an impromptu dance party in the kitchen the other night that began with my putting on some music to do dishes by.

When Griffin was born, I began maintaining playlists. Each year, I collect songs that the kids liked, or that I was listening to, or that reminded me of them in some way. Some years I remember to burn these to CDs to share with family members. But I never delete them.

That first playlist is titled “Griffin year 1”.

Do you see the math here?

Tabitha (5 years old at the time): Are you done with my year 5 playlist yet?

Me: Yes. I finished that when you turned 5. Now I’m working on your year 6 playlist; I’m collecting a bunch of songs during the year and it will be done on your birthday.

T: Why isn’t this my year 5 playlist?

Me: Good question. Well…your first playlist I started before you turned one…

T: When I was zero years old.

Me: Right. Then when you turned one, I started your year 2 playlist. That’s what it means to be 1 year old; that your first year is over and you’re in your second year.

So when will I work on your year 10 playlist?

T: When I’m 9.

Me: How do you know that?

T: I don’t know. I just do…

So you’re working on Griffy’s year 9 playlist now? [Her brother Griffin was 8 years old at the time.]

Me: Yes. Nice. I was just about to ask you that, but you thought about it on your own. Good thinking.

T: Will you still be working on them when I’m an adult?

Me: I would gladly still work on them when you’re an adult. I don’t know if you’ll want me to at that point, but if you do, I will.

T: Oh, I will. Hey! Can you play my favorite song about the flower?

And so began the dance party.

So what do we learn?

There is an important idea about counting and measuring here. During your first year, you are zero years old. Something that measures within the first inch on a ruler is zero inches long (plus a fraction).

This is not obvious by any means. If you have ever been frustrated by the fact that the 1900s were the 20th century, or that ours is the 21st, you understand the problem.

Starting the conversation

These are fun things to talk about. Almost always, going back to the beginning is helpful for making sense of things. So ask your child about 2014 being in the 21st century, and why they think that is.

Or maybe start making an annual playlist. You won’t regret it.

Doll years

Out of the blue on our recent camping trip, Tabitha had an announcement for me.

Tabitha (6 years old): I am 12 in doll years and Griffy is 16 in doll years.

Her brother Griffin is 9.

T: So how old are you in doll years, Daddy?

Me: Well, how do doll years work?

Photo Oct 12, 1 34 29 PM

T: Well, I’m 12 and Griffy’s 16.

Me: Is it twice as old? Then I would be two times as old, so nearly 86.

My birthday is coming up next week. This has been a point of discussion around the house recently.

T: No! It’s 6 times!

Me: You’d be 36 then.

T: No. I am 12 in doll years.

Me: Oh! Six years older not 6 times as old!

T: Yeah.

Me: Then Griffy is 15, not 16. And I would be almost 49.

So What Do We Learn?

Children build lovely and complicated imaginary worlds. For a long time, Griffin and Tabitha would play “creatures” together. Whole societies of stuffed animals, dolls and plastic figurines rose and fell. These societies had celebrations and tragedies. There was Creature Christmas that could take place at any time of year. Also a Creature State Fair. Et cetera.

Combine this parallel creature/doll universe with learning about the passage of time and pretty soon doll years are going to pop up.

Griffin and I talked about tortoise years and dog years a while back. At the time, Griffin was 8. He was comparing life spans of tortoises to those of humans, as we do with dogs to generate the 7 dog years per year comparison that is commonly known.

Tabitha is firmly grounded in comparing by counting and addition, as is appropriate for a 6 year old. Somewhere between third and sixth grade, children transition from always comparing by addition and subtraction to being able to compare by multiplying and dividing. This difference is what Tabitha and I are discussing in this conversation. She says Six times but means Six more.

Starting the Conversation

Listen for the comparisons your children make. Here, Tabitha compared ages. But heights, dollar amounts, number of Tootsie Rolls in a candy dish, et cetera; all of these are possible comparisons that children will naturally make. Ask a follow-up question. How do you know? is a good place to start. What if? is a lovely follow up. For example, What if there were a newborn baby in our family; how old would it be in doll years?