One Easy Way to Do More Math With Your Kids | exSTEMsions

One Easy Way to Do More Math With Your Kids

A magical math skill

I have a magical skill that allows me to turn just about any conversation with my kids into a math conversation. At the moment, my kids are too young to realize why I’m doing what I’m doing, but I have also employed this skill with teenagers, and even college kids, without breaking a sweat. And do you want to know the best part of this magical skill? You have it too.

Yes, you do! And putting this skill to work for your family is far and away the easiest way I know to do more math with your kids. No prep work is required, and it doesn’t have to take more than a couple minutes. Sounds too good to be true, right?

So how does this “magic” actually work?

The best way to explain is with an example. When I’m in the car with my kids, they talk, and sing, and yell, and argue, and talk some more, no matter where we go. And if you’ve ever been in a car with talkative children, then you know that sometimes it might be less conversation and more incoherent chatter. As a result, I sometimes feel the need, for the sake of my sanity, to direct the discussion. So I’ll look around when we are out and about - getting into the car, at the park, in the store - and I’ll say “Ooohhh! Look!” and wait a second for them to wonder what I’m looking at. And now that I actually have their attention, I ask a question. For example, I might say, “Look at all those geese over there in the grass. There are SO many of them. How do you think we can estimate how many there are without stopping to count?” And then, math ensues! I don’t even have to know “the answer.” I just have to be willing to hear their ideas about how they’re thinking about what they see, and maybe even contribute some of my own ideas to the discussion.  When that conversation has played itself out, maybe they’ll go back to chattering, or maybe I’ll ask another question, or maybe (and this is the best maybe) one of my kids will have a question of their own, and we’ll keep talking!

The recipe for math magic

There, just like magic, we had a math conversation. In this example conversation, my kids talked about math, and in the process we built number sense, estimation skills, and maybe even some geometry concepts. This is something I do with my kids all the time - at meals, while cooking, folding laundry, walking to the bus stop, playing outside - really, anywhere. There are three basic ingredients:

  1. Observation
  2. Curiosity grabbing
  3. Question


Apply these ingredients, and then all you have to do is participate in the discussion; listen to your kids’ responses, give an idea or two of your own, ask questions about why they think something will work in some way. And you have math magic!

Let’s examine each ingredient a little further.

  1. Observation. When I observe something for the purpose of a discussion like this, I’m looking around for anything even vaguely mathematical. I look for patterns, shapes, and quantities. I look for things that can be compared, estimated, predicted, or grouped; anything that might use numbers, build problem-solving skills, require my kids to make an educated guess, or think logically.
  2. Curiosity grabbing. To capture the attention of my children, I usually say something like “Ooh, look!” or “Hmm, that’s weird.” Basically, I try to avoid “Hey, let’s have a math conversation!”, since that’s a little too obvious. No matter how I get their attention, I try to do it in a way that shows curiosity on my part. I can’t expect my kids to be curious about how something works, measures up, compares, or repeats, unless I am curious too.
  3. Question. My goal is always to be pretty open-ended with the question I ask. Most of the time it’s a question I may not even know the answer to myself, so I tend to phrase my question as “How do you think…?” or “I wonder why…?” or “How could we…?” I’m a part of the discussion, so “we” and “I wonder” are appropriate, and I find these words helpful in creating a conversation, rather than an inquisition. Even when I know the answer (maybe it’s just an addition or multiplication question), I still state the question as openly as possible, because I want to know why my kids think what they think, and how they get to their answers. Keeping questions open invites this kind of information.

And there is a small disclaimer….

Unfortunately, some questions don’t fly. Sometimes I get all excited, get their attention, ask a decent question, and they just go “I don’t know… umm…” and go back to talking about whatever they were talking about. And that’s okay. It’s not a big deal if some questions go nowhere, as long as we’re having these kinds of conversations once a day, or even just a few times a week.

Why does this matter?

So, why is this “magical skill” such a big deal? Because it tells my kids, and it will tell your kids, some very, very important things.

  1. Math is all around us, all the time.  It’s there, waiting for us to notice it.
  2. Math isn’t scary; rather, it’s a vital part of everything we do, and it needs to be appreciated.
  3. It’s okay to wonder about math, to have different approaches in our thinking, and even different answers to the same question, as long as we can explain our thinking and talk together.
  4. Grown-ups think about math, and talk about it, and it’s okay for kids to think and talk about math too.
  5. Math is more than numbers. It includes skills related to thinking and solving that help us do lots of things better, including things not related to math.


Take two minutes today and try this with your kids. The more often you use your newly found magical skill, the better you’ll get at finding the math and asking a question about it. And every time you take a couple minutes to use your skill, your kids will grow at least a couple of their math skills. Not too bad for less than 15 minutes a week!

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Math in Daily Life
Learning with Children