We all use math in our everyday lives. Many of us consider ourselves to be "math phobic", "math deficient" or "mathematically challenged." Perhaps we communicate these ideas to our children or perhaps we and our children truly are any or all of the above. In educational institutions, where math is taught largely in the abstract and without practical application, particularly in the elementary grades, this inability comes as no surprise.
Have you ever tried to teach someone how to tie shoelaces by describing the process? Did you learn to cook pancakes by reading about the process of mixing flour, eggs, milk, and baking powder? Was your driver's license awarded to you after reading an article on how to parallel park? Let us hope not.
Most of us learn best in the arena of practical experience. Given enough opportunity to practice a skill in context, we can learn to tie shoelaces, cook, drive, and even sew, iron, build a house, wire a lamp and - yes - apply mathematical principles in appropriate and accurate ways. Of course, there are those who need extra help because of neurological, physiological or other deficiencies or differences, but most of us learn best in the arena of practical experience.
My father was a talented clothing manufacturer with a tenth-grade education. He ran a successful women's skirt business for years, supervising the cutting and design of fashion skirts in expensive fabrics. He discovered late in the 1950's that circle skirts of various sizes were not accommodated well by the widths of fabric available to him, expensive fabric whose waste would mean less profit. As he was an honest businessman, he refused to cut corners - both literally and figuratively - and all of his skirts had to be made of one piece. Now, the waste would have driven up costs substantially had he not called into service his relatively educated son and daughter, eleventh and eighth grade students, who helped him to solve the problem of how to minimize his fabric costs while keeping his high standards.
As parents, we sometimes forget that our children are problem solvers of the first order. Not only is it good for us to help them to achieve competence in problem solving, but it is also great math practice if we allow them into the problems we need our own math skills to solve.
Abby and Josh own a bookstore. Books are stored in a storeroom in the back of the store. The dimensions of the room are ten feet high by twelve feet wide by eighteen feet deep. Most book boxes are eighteen inches by twenty-four inches. How many boxes can fit into their storage room? Their children, if they have had sixth grade math, should be able to help them with this inquiry, whether or not they need the help. Asking their children would not only involve them in a family activity but also show the children that those endless drills in school are toward a purpose prized by Mom and Dad.
Nate and Terry's toddler busily engages in stringing different colored beads on a shoelace. He uses patterns that repeat. Their older child is sequencing frames of a newspaper comic strip which the parents have cut apart. These parents are teaching their children the valuable skills of sequence and pattern and they are reinforcing it by using the children's hand-to-eye coordination so that they learn it by moving.
Mary and Ted's children, Amanda, Charles and Sarah, are in the third, fifth and eighth grades. The children bicker in the car while on family road trips, which creates an unpleasant and unsafe environment. Mary and Ted have tried videos, games, food and word games. What they have not tried is calculating gas mileage, distance from point to point, map reading for scales of distance and shortest route drills, and license plate number games. While word games do require active participation (whereas videos and food do not require positive interaction), they are not experientially based or necessarily based on context. That is, they are based on a source of information but not on the current family activity. If children are given the tasks of calculating mileage per gallon and cost of transportation, they take a position in the planning and execution of the trip.
Maps are an almost limitless source of math experience, from the task of finding the shortest distance between two points to determining miles between points by using a scale and a ruler. License plate games, such as remembering numbers or finding mnemonic devices to remember the numbers, encourage both observation of surroundings and keep the children actively involved in using numbers and arithmetic operations.
We have grown all too determined to use entertainment and passive means of passing time. Using these family experiences to actively participate in mathematical pastimes not only gives children the skills to use their drills in relevant context but also brings the family into close proximity in a constructive and enjoyable manner.
Consider the following expression, quoted from a poem by William Wordsworth: "The child is father of the man." When you plant in your young child the belief that she or he is powerful in what she or he has learned, you create a more powerful and competent adult, powered by confidence and competence.
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