“I want 5 chicken nuggets, put them like 3 and 2.”
My 6-year-old declares just before dinner. We’ve been including math into our talk since she could talk. Tonight she anticipated my next question, how would you like the 5 nuggets arranged on your plate? Talking math is something that we do everyday because it’s fun, interesting, descriptive and relevant. Plus, I think it’s the best way that I can support her mathematical understanding at home. How many? was a regular part of our early discourse.
She: “Mommy, I want grapes.”
Me: “Okay, how many grapes?”
She: “Two! Because I’m two!”
Me: “Here you go!”
She: “Mommy, that is not enough!”
Me: “Oh. You want more? You said two. How many do you want?”
She: “Twenty, or a hundred? I don’t know.”
Me: “Okay, you help me count and tell me when there is enough for your belly.”
She: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. That’s enough. I guess I want 8.”
How many, like many of our mathematical conversations, has evolved. How many more? and How would you like them arranged? are more interesting questions now. Sometimes my questions lead nowhere, but occasionally we find ourselves in the middle of a truly rich discussion. One day, I pulled out a small bag of jelly beans for us to count. I asked her, How many jelly beans do you think there are here? She has never been a big fan of estimating.
She: “Why would we guess when we can just count to figure it out?”
Okay, okay… I arranged them into a circle, because I wanted to see her strategy for keeping track. At first, she counted around and around. Eventually she reached 39 and wasn’t sure what came next. Then she paused.
She: “I don’t really think there are that many jelly beans here.”
Me: “Yea, it doesn’t really look like 39, does it. Do you think there are more or less?”
Me: “How can we know for sure?”
She: “I’m trying to count them!”
Me: “It’s tricky when they are like this. What should we do?”
She: “Okay. I got an idea. I’ll start with the white one and pull it out a little so I know where I started.”
Me: “Let’s see if that works.”
She: “Okay, there are 19.”
I continued our discussion by trying to convince her that I could make more jelly beans, but she didn’t believe me. I spread them out in a big long line and declared that there were now more jelly beans.
She: “Mommy, there isn’t more jelly beans! You just moved them!”
Me: “Are you sure?”
Me: “Okay, but I think there might be more now.”
She: “Well, maybe we should count them.”
She was quite pleased when the count came out the same, and I was quite pleased when she asked me to rearrange them again. I guess she wasn’t so sure the count would stay the same after all. We tried a surprising number of arrays and arrangements during this discussion! She was counting and giggling and counting and giggling.
She: “It’s always the same! It’s just 19 every time!”
Me: “Wow! That is surprising. I really thought we were making more jelly beans.”
She: “Mommy, you can’t make more jelly beans. You can just move them, silly.”
Me: “Oh. Now I know.”
I tried to keep the discussion going by asking her how we could split these jelly beans so that we both got an equal amount, but she told me we should just share them nicely.
So not all of my questions lead to an interesting exploration, but I keep asking.
Here is a list of questions that have led us into interesting discussions at home. Sometimes I’ve had to ask them more than once because they didn’t take on the first try, but I’m quite perseverant when it comes to math talk!
And because we have a culture of questioning in our house, she has begun to ask her own questions.
I can’t always answer her good questions and I mostly don’t try. It’s more fun and interesting when I pretend that I don’t know anything! She sticks with her ideas longer and we both enjoy a longer walk through NumberLand.
Look who else is talking:
As a math teacher, my first recommendation to parents who wonder what they can do at home is, try to include more math into your everyday conversation. However, not everyone is certain how to engage in math discussions with their kids. Here are three resources for inspiration: