Helping Children to Love Math

Middle School student working on a math problem with a calculator; The Branch School; Private School in Houston

What do you think of when you hear the word math? Does it bring up awful thoughts of your childhood? Does it make you break out in a sweat? Math can be a very scary word for many people. It has the ability to make both children and adults feel bad about themselves. But how can we support our children and help them to see math as fun and exciting? How can we make math be a word that brings joy, a sense of challenge and a desire to tackle and defeat any problem with confidence? Many of the answers to these questions lie in how we as adults approach math both in ourselves and with our children.

As parents, do you say to your children, “I was never any good at math,” “I hated math in school,” “Boys are so much better at math than girls!” or “I am just not a math person?”  All of these comments send a message to your children that math is a frightening subject that only certain people are good at doing.  It tells them it is okay to not get it, and it is okay to hate it. What if instead we turned this statement around and said to our children, “I wish I could learn more about math, show me what you know.”  Or, better yet, find engaging activities that you can do together that involve math and that show your children that math can be fun! Think of the joy in sharing an “aha” moment with your children that can change both of your perspectives about math. You can show them that everyone can learn and improve their mathematical abilities. You can help both of you to see and appreciate the beauty of mathematics everywhere.

Kindergartners playing a block game with their teacher; The Branch School; Private School in Houston

These moments lie all around us. They aren’t necessarily in doing flash cards or homework together. It can be as simple as building with blocks with a young child, discussing the shape of the blocks, which blocks are longer, which blocks are heavier. Or asking them how they can build a taller structure after their structure has crashed to the ground. Another idea for young children is puzzles. Let them try, make a mistake and try again. Talk to them about what works and what doesn’t, or why the pieces fit and why they don’t. With elementary and middle school students, give them real-world problems that help them to realize math is purposeful and engaging. Let them plan a vacation based on a budget you give them. And then go on the vacation! Take them to the grocery store and discuss why one item is a better buy and when you would buy the better deal and when you might choose the more expensive item. Go out to dinner and have each of you guess the total bill with tax and tip. The person closest to the total picks the next restaurant! Have everyone at the table calculate the tip and discuss the different ways everyone at the table solved the problem without a calculator. Another option is to discuss discounts when shopping for clothes. It can be fun sharing how much you saved shopping rather than how much you spent! Try not to give step-by-step solutions to problems, but rather let your children visualize a solution and try various methods of solving the problem. You want them to make sense of the math, not see it as a set of rules that have to be followed without really understanding what they are doing. Games are also excellent ways to increase mathematical reasoning skills. Games like Guess Who, Set, Rummikub, Connect Four, Rush Hour, Yahtzee, and Blokus are great for developing flexible thinking, learning collaboration and just having fun. Try thinking aloud as you are solving mathematical problems or playing games so that your children can hear your reasoning. Then have them reason aloud too so you can listen to their reasoning. It helps to let them see you solving problems successfully as well as making mistakes. Both mistakes and successes are important for your children to see. Let your children notice that math is everywhere. All you have to do is find a problem that makes your children ask questions, look for solutions, ask more questions and apply what they are learning to find answers.

Many people fear math and don’t even want to try, because they don’t want to make mistakes. But making mistakes is how we learn. Studies show that our brains grow, synapses fire and connections are made when we make mistakes. We should all be celebrating mistakes, valuing them for what we are learning from them. As parents and teachers, we should want our children to feel comfortable making mistakes. We should allow them to learn from them and not feel bad for making them. Make sure they know that their mistakes are allowing their brains to grow!

Fourth grade students working with the teacher on fractions; The Branch School; Private School in Houston

Another way you can support your children is to praise them for what they have done, how hard they have worked, rather than telling them they are smart. Let them know that the struggle is important and helps them improve. Studies show that praising children for their hard work is much more effective than praising them for being smart. It gives them the desire to take on more challenging work rather than being afraid of failing and losing the label of being smart. This will give them the courage to take more risks.

To conclude, have fun doing math with your children. Let them see you make mistakes, see you learning and see you enjoying having fun with mathematics. We want our kids to recognize that math is everywhere and it is something to be celebrated and not feared. We want them to take on a mathematical challenge with the confidence that they can do it, and even if they make a mistake or fail at first, they have the ability to learn from it, try again and succeed! We want them to see themselves as mathematicians that have no limits!

Some of the above ideas were taken from Jo Boaler’s book, The Elephant in the Classroom.