When it comes to math, it seems like there are two types of people: the ones who cringe, and the ones who say, “I love math!” We all want our children to be in the second group, but sometimes the thought of teaching math can unnerve even the most level-headed homeschooler. Luckily, there are lots of ways to give children (and parents!) a very gentle start on the road to math mastery. It just takes a little imagination.
Math explorations in the early grades often introduce the four processes (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) playfully, through stories, rhymes, games, and pictures. Engaging the imagination helps children anchor abstract concepts in an experiential way. This helps them remember what they have learned and apply it in novel situations. Math is no good if you can only apply the skill in one way. In order for math to be of practical use, you have to develop flexible thinking.
Math stories are word problems brought to life
Math word problems—a cringe-worthy memory for many adults—are designed to help students apply math skills in practical situations. Math stories are really just expanded word problems, ones that feature engaging characters who need to use math to solve their daily problems.
For instance, in Oak Meadow first grade, students are introduced to four playful gnomes:
Plus, who is always adding more and more items.
Minus, who has holes in his pockets and keeps losing things.
Times, who always finds double and triple the amount that others find.
Divide, who always wants to make sure everyone has equal amounts.
These gnomes can have all sorts of adventures, limited only by your imagination. Kids aren’t too particular about their stories—they seem to like all stories, especially ones told by someone they love.
You can use your own environment to spark new adventures. Maybe you are planting a garden. The gnomes can help you! Maybe Plus is planting a garden, too, and he decides to plant squash for each of the four gnomes. Times can help him figure out how many seeds he’ll need if he wants to plant four mounds of squash with three seeds per mound.
Or maybe you are planning a trip. So are the gnomes! They have to figure out how much food to take (“How many are going? We’ll each want two apples”), or how many hours it will take (“We’ll travel three hours a day for six days”), or how many miles will be left after they have walked halfway. Those clever gnomes can help you figure out anything.
Act out and draw the story to add another layer of understanding
Encourage your child to use tangible items (manipulatives) to help visualize the math questions; some people only think of using manipulatives for very young learners, but students can be encouraged to use them as long as it is helpful. When tangible items are used for groupings, patterns, and counting, numbers become real and relevant. Rather than just memorizing abstract symbols on paper, using pebbles to show math facts can ground numeracy in the child’s physical body, not just the brain. This holistic “knowing” is long lasting and unforgettable.
Maybe you’ve told a story about a gnome who has a bunch of acorns that he wants to give away to his friends, the squirrels. He wants to be fair and make sure each squirrel gets the same amount. Your child can have a pile of nuts while you are telling the story, and try to figure out how to group them so that each pile is equal. Maybe there are 12 nuts and three squirrels. After your child figures out how many nuts for each squirrel, you might say, “Oh! Another hungry squirrel has arrived. We’ll have to divide the nuts again.” Or maybe one squirrel leaves so there are only two. How many nuts does each get now? When children work with numbers in this concrete, imaginative way, it’s an easy transition to translate the pictures and stories into numeric equations.
News flash: Endless worksheets of math problems aren’t necessary! Students only need to do as many problems as it takes to become comfortable and confident. Using stories and tangibles, the number sense is developed in a solid, grounded way. Drawing pictures for the math stories also helps make the abstract more real.
Stories can be used to introduce other math symbols and concepts in addition to number sense. In second grade, the radical division sign is introduced by a story of Barnaby the Squirrel who builds a shed to store his nuts. When hungry animals come asking for food, he draws a picture of his storage shed, with the nuts inside of it and the animals standing outside of it, and then draws on top of the shed the equal share of nuts that each will receive.
Place value and regrouping (carrying and borrowing) are introduced through the kindly Mr. Placevalue, who learns that too many people have tried to move into his Ones House. He solves the overcrowding by moving a group of ten into the Tens House, where people always live in groups of ten.
Everyone is delighted with this solution, and after “carrying” all the bags for the one family of ten moving to the Tens House, everyone gets settled with plenty of room to spare. When the Tens House gets too crowded, ten families of ten are moved next door to the Hundreds House. Tangibles and/or drawings that accompany the story can help students grasp the concept.
Kids can make up stories, too, and then you can “act” them out (with nuts, buttons, seeds, or whatever is at hand) and then draw a picture about them. This picture is then translated into a mathematical equation, one that makes sense on a very practical level.
The great thing about stories is that you can keep adding to them and making up your own adventures. Give it a try and see where your imagination takes you.
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DeeDee Hughes is the Director of Curriculum Development for Oak Meadow Independent Learning, where she loves creating educational experiences that have relevance and meaning for independent learners.