This business of Talking Math with Your Kids isn’t about cute kid stories. Sure, my little guys are cute (the cutest, in fact). But that’s not what this is about.
This is about choices. More precisely it’s about noticing the moment when parents have a choice between (1) talking math with their kids, and (2) not talking math with their kids.
It’s also about identifying what a parent needs to know in order to (1) notice that there is a choice, and (2) make the choice to talk math.
Here on the blog, I’m documenting the moments when I make the choice to turn an everyday conversation into one that gets my children thinking about math.
Let’s use the analogy of sports. My children are woefully ignorant of the world of organized sports. We don’t watch much on TV, we don’t head out to ballgames very often. I play Ultimate once a week May—November, but they only come along a couple of times a year. They love to run and bounce and jump and exercise in a hundred different ways, but neither one could name a single Vikings player, nor tell you precisely which sports are presently in season.
This is because many times over we have made a choice not to turn the conversation to sports. It’s not because they couldn’t understand sports, or because they or I have a great distaste for sports; it’s just not how my wife and I spend our time and energy in interacting with our children. We make choices.
I argue that the same is true for math.
Every single day, parents have opportunities to talk math with their kids. Every day, we can help our children notice and wonder about number, shape and likelihood. It’s not difficult. It’s a ton of fun. But it does require a bit of knowledge and it requires a bit of awareness.
I take both kids grocery shopping pretty much every weekend, and I have since each was an infant. It’s a routine for us in which Mommy gets some quiet time around the house and I get some extended time around town with my little ones. This time of year, the excursion includes the farmer’s market. (Which, by the way, if you are ever in St Paul on a Saturday morning, you must attend; it’s one of the best in the country for sure.)
There is a tremendous amount of construction in the area right now, so the walk from where we park is circuitous and requires sharing a short stretch of street with an occasional slow-moving automobile.
Me: Can you guys grab my hands please? A car is coming.
Tabitha (five years old): We each get a hand!
Me: Yeah. Good thing I only have two kids, huh?
T: Yeah, if there were more kids, there wouldn’t be enough hands. Like Yusef [our next-door neighbor who has three children].
Me: Oh, right. Good point. What if Natalie came too, though?
T: Then there would be an extra hand to carry a bag. You don’t have that.
Me: Right. Sorry. That means you’re going to get hit by the bag a few times. At least it’s not full yet, though.
Me: Do we know anyone with fewer children than hands?
Me: Good. I hadn’t gotten to her yet. I was thinking about Jenn, but she has Wynne and Emmett; and I was thinking about Addie, but she has August and Leo. Then I thought about Jimmy, but he has Laila and Otis. I hadn’t thought about Dawn yet. She just has Mateo, doesn’t she?
T: Yeah. So she would have an extra hand for a bag.
I argue that I made a choice here, and that it’s one all parents can learn to make. When Tabitha noticed that each child got their own hand, I chose to value and reinforce this observation. When my daughter noticed number, I chose to make a conversation out of it. I responded to her observations and asked follow up questions. The result is that we talked about one-to-one correspondence on the way to the farmers’ market. There’s only one number in the whole conversation; the rest is about whether Set A (children) has more or fewer members than Set B (parental hands available for holding). This is a remarkably sophisticated idea.
Yet, there is nothing particularly sophisticated about my end of the conversation. My ability to reinforce and extend Tabitha’s number noticing behavior has nothing to do with having passed graduate exams in Modern Algebra and Real Analysis (which I only barely did, anyway, and in which a certain number of pity points may or may not have been awarded).
But I am still exploring what a parent does need to know in order to notice these moments, and in order to use them to continue the conversation.
I do know that, as with sports, there is a habit that gets set. By now, my children notice number and shape in the world, and they bring the conversations to me. But that’s the result of years of enculturation.
My kids know that quantity and shape are interesting things to talk about. I’m not sure they know they know this is called math.