Posted by: Kate | November 14, 2010

Stealth Math

Willem’s doctorate is in Math Education: not the deep dark weird no-numbers math stuff, but how to effectively cram information into students’ brains, like it or not.  This means that a lot of his reading still involves concepts that are far beyond my earthy-crunchy psychologisty mind, but some of it is interesting even to mere mortals.

For example, let’s say your kid is struggling with basic elementary-school math.  How can you help at home, especially if the only way you made it through high school algebra involved superior eyesight and a seat near the president of the Mathletes club? Flash cards, right?  Maybe extra homework, or a tutor, or those workbooks they sell at bookstores?  Grade One is Fun! proclaims the stoned-looking turtle peering at you with a vague look of, “Look, I know I look ridiculous, but I have to fuel the crack habit somehow, all right?  Don’t judge.”

Anyway, no.  Turns out, the answer is, play board games.  Seriously.

Monopoly, for instance.  You all roll to see who goes first: that’s counting, and figuring out “greater than, less than, or equal to.”  Then you have to be able to convert the idea of “six” in the form of little black dots into moving your piece six places ahead on the board.  You get some basic geometry in there, shapes and proportions, and you get directionality: pass it to the person on your left, move your pieces clockwise around the board.

There are patterns: how the dice look, how the dots on opposite faces always add up to seven (kids just have to test that one.  Over and over.  It’s like magic to them, like, “How does it know??”  There’s strategy in hoping to roll a certain number, and talking about what two numbers have to show up on the dice in order to reach your desired space.

Then there’s counting money, to see if you have enough to buy a certain property, and addition/subtraction in the process of paying for something.  You’re doing early algebra when you’re trying to figure out, if one house costs $50, how much will four cost?  Not to mention the choice, right from the start of the game, of how you lay out your money.  Do you arrange it in careful little piles, in order of denomination, with your properties organized by color and  in the same order that they appear on the board?  Or do you have everything  organized from smallest to greatest face value, stacked all in a single pile?  Or do you just have this completely haphazard, seemingly random arrangement of bills and properties, which makes your father just a little bit insane… but from which  you can instantly extract whatever you need, and you have a reasonably accurate idea of the cash value of your little dollar soup?  (And, to those of you who’ve been here with me for a while… which of those styles do each of my children use?)

Even if the parents are doing the actual heavy hitting when it comes to making change and so on, the kids are still soaking in a lot of information. And math isn’t the only skill making an appearance.  Now that both kids are readers, one will read the Community Chest cards, the other reads Chance.  We’re able to throw a little history in once in a while, talking about what city the street names are drawn from, and we share family stories, along with warnings: don’t ever play Monopoly against my dad if winning the game matters to you.  I don’t think it’s possible to cheat at Monopoly – we’ve fired him from the job of banker and we watch him very carefully throughout – and so that means that he is just eerily, creepily, supernaturally good at Monopoly.  It’s uncanny.

And then at the end, everyone gets very quiet and starts to count…  Emily is handed a pen and paper, while Jacob sorts out his money in little piles of each denomination (more patterns, plus reading the face values on each bill).  Sometimes we write down each person’s total on separate scraps of paper and have Jacob will arrange them from lowest to highest, while Emily will calculate out how much more money she would have needed in order to win, or how much more money she has than the next person.  Sometimes we’ll get out a calculator so she can double-check her father’s amazing ability to calculate 10% of a given amount so quickly – even her mother can do it, and Mom’s not a math person! – or we’ll make up some crazy rule about mortgaging your property, or….

You get the idea.  The kids have no idea that they just received an hour-long math lesson.  We play Scrabble some, too – Jacob’s still too young, so usually he and I make a team, and I’ll tell him which letters and where to place them, or I’ll ask him to sort out my tiles from lowest point value to highest, or put them in alphabetical order… blah blah blah… my poor kids, their parents are a math professor and a psychologist.  If that’s not a ticket directly to crazymaking, I don’t know what would be.  My new favorite game with the kids is from the same people who make the I Spy books, where you have these crazily detailed scenes and you’re supposed to find, like, four hammers and a drinking glass and two llamas and Jimmy Hoffa.  Their board game provides each person with a placemat-sized scene, and then you flip a card and everyone looks from card to placemat to figure out which one of the card items is in their scene… very simple rules, and the kids love the little bell you ring when you’ve found your match.  And it earns the much-coveted status as Kate’s Favorite because it really is a whole-family game from about age 5 up… Jacob can beat the rest of us without the slightest twinge of letting the kid win to avoid a meltdown.

(We’ve never been the type of parents that always lets the kids win, or even often.  We try not to completely pummel them, and of course there are times we accidentally-on-purpose score on our own goal or miss a tic-tac-toe move, but we’ve always told the kids that a win will mean so much more if they actually earn it, instead of us throwing the game, and, upon winning-for-real, will begrudgingly admit that we might have been a little bit right.)

Anyway, I’ve been wanting to pass that along for at least a year, but never combined opportunity with memory.  Go grab some board games for the kids for Christmas, and then pat yourself on the back, because it turns out that you have been tutoring your children in math without even realizing it.  Just one more bit of proof that moms truly are superheroes, right?


  1. Speaking of superheroes and math games, a slightly more obvious math game (that I actually own a copy of because I enjoy playing it):

    You guys are such inspiring parents. 🙂 Keep up the good work!

  2. My dad used card games. We started with War and then moved onto blackjack as we learned to add and subtract.

  3. I shared this with my son’s first grade teacher – she thought it was full of wonderful points and is looking to implement some of it in class further.

  4. Five years ago we had a fairly serious car accident. Good news–we walked away with minor concussions; bad news–I learned about two weeks later, that my math ability was impaired from the injury. (Hard head, brain shake = math brain cells kaput.) I was pretty put out for awhile (my sister Nurse Rachet pointed out that “that’s what calculators are for, it could have been so much worse”–thanks for that, hrumph). However, I have reignited some of those cells (or retrained others) via knitting and calculating gauge. I still struggle a little, but I’m much better. It’s amazing what day to day activities, especially fun activities, can do to improve ones mind.

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