My wife began a tradition that she now regrets. After turning out the lights in the kids’ shared room at bedtime, she would tell the children to picture something in their minds. This was typically a soothing or amusing scene related in some way to the days’ events.

As time has passed, the *picture* has become more elaborate, the children’s expectations higher. Tabitha in particular can be demanding. I was told the other night that the picture I provided was not long enough, for instance.

Most of the time, when it’s my turn to provide the picture, I begin to speak without a clue what the resulting image will be. Sunday was one of those nights.

**Me**: Picture that you are riding in the car and you come to a sudden stop because there is an elephant parade. A very long one consisting of 27 elephants marching one directly behind the other.

Now…the strange thing about this elephant parade is that each elephant is a bit smaller than the one in front of it, and each one has an additional leg.

So the first elephant is the usual elephant size and has four legs. But the second one is a bit smaller than the first and has five legs. The next is a bit smaller still and has 6 legs.

Like I said, the pictures have gotten elaborate and expectations are high. Also, I mentioned that they are not preplanned, right?

The elephants with an even number of legs have the same number of legs on each side; even the ones with many legs. Like a centipede.

But the elephants with an odd number of legs have the same number of legs on each side and one in the middle.

So you sit in the car watching this very strange parade go by. Picture that.

**Griffin**: (8 years old) How many legs does the last one have?

Let’s pause for a moment. This was his question, not mine. Real world be damned, this is a habit of mind thing.

The number of legs on the last of the fictional elephants is not a number that matters in any way. Griffin’s intellectual need arose from narrative. This is a stupid story, but a story nonetheless. Number is the driving force in the plot and the boy wanted resolution.

**Me**: Oh. Good question. Lemme see…The first elephant has 4 legs. Then 26 elephants later is 26 more legs, so 30 legs on the last one I guess.

**G**: Yes! I knew it! [fist pump under the covers]

**Tabitha**: (5 years old) I thought it was 32.

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You are fabulous!

This is great in so many ways.

I love that the pattern/math matters more than the reality of crazy small elephants fitting all those legs. It is a beautiful thing.

Reblogged this on Shade Tree Math Teacher and commented:

This is cool…

That’s really interesting; I can see why there was the appeal. I, too, am trying to figure out what’s at the heart of questions and ideas that engage/motivate pupils. Maybe it’s about richness? If it’s a compelling real-world-based problem, there’s all the detail of the world that can be brought to mind; in an example like this, the beauty and fun of the idea makes it pleasing to think about. Plenty of food for thought. Thanks for sharing:)

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