I have two children, and they are so similar, and so different, all at once. One of their big points of divergence is sports. My daughter enjoys sports, but is equally happy building, creating, or imagining, whereas my younger son is incredibly sports obsessed. His obsessions fill me with visions of the future, driving to fields in faraway places, and trying to entertain myself during endless practices, games, and tournaments. I’m sure many of you can relate to this, whether you are in this reality now, or can see it coming. My son seems tuned toward sports in a way that my daughter is not. Recently, in talking about this with another parent, he said to me, “Oh, yeah, I was totally like that at as a kid: really into sports, and not into school things, like math.” It took all that I had not to look at that other parent, who is a dear friend actually, and say “WHAT?!” because really, to me, if you are into sports, you are into math, and “school things”. Really. You are.
Maybe you don’t agree. Well, then let me convince you. Pick your favorite sport. In my house, it’s baseball, but really, any sport will do. First, how do you know who wins? You keep score. What are you doing when you’re keeping score? Math. Next, where is your sport played? On a field? A diamond? A court? A course? No matter what it is, the size and shape are regulated. The length, width, and markings are carefully measured. The space inside the field or court is broken up into smaller sections, and those are done precisely. When players use the field, they have to consider distances, boundaries, angles, and trajectories to make decisions about what to do, where to go, and how fast to get there. Guess what? Math.
Now, let’s go beyond the basics and think about players. How do you know if you are improving as a player, or if a player on your team is actually playing well? You keep track of their statistics. Yup, math again. And in baseball, for example, the statistics are absolutely endless. There is nothing about what a baseball player or team does or doesn’t do that isn’t counted, averaged and analyzed. (The same applies in football, soccer, basketball, hockey, swimming… you name it, there are stats involved.) And these statistics are continually in flux, with every game, every at bat, every run, every pitch, and every strike. And the player stats are often combined with aspects of that very precise field we talked about earlier. There are greater odds (probability!), for example, of hitting a home run to a certain part of the field under certain weather conditions. And then we can talk about team rankings and the absolutely convoluted mess that most playoff systems are (be it for teams of 8-year-olds, or professionals) where the calculations for who is in which spot are sometimes so complicated that even the coaches and players are confused!
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that playing sports involves math. Now, one more step. If your child loves sports, like my son, math is vital. This is how they will measure their skills, keep tabs on their favorite players and teams, make comparisons, keep score, and build “fair” practice fields. As they do these things, they’ll do lots of math, it’s natural. And they’ll even do some really important problem solving (if say, they want their field to be just like a regulation baseball diamond, but on a smaller scale) and critical thinking (what happens to your batting average if you strike out 3 times in a row?). This math is like an extra gift that comes with sports. The more deeply into sports your child is, the more math they’ll do. They may not even realize it’s happening.
You, as a parent, can make this even better. You can take their love of sports, and help them get into the math that they’ll rely on to measure, track, and play. How? Ask them questions. “What’s going to happen to the pitcher’s strikeout ratio if he walks the next three batters?” “How many times would you have to run around the bases to run a mile?” “What does it really mean that the ball goes 87 mph out of the pitcher's hand? What can we compare that to?” The more questions you ask, the more math they’ll do. And the math will be connected to something they love, so they’ll be happy to do it. For kids that love sports, doing math related to the thing they love engages their brains, and helps them to make real-world connections between their favorite game, and mathematics.
Math is certainly all around us, if we look hard enough. When we look at sports, though, the connections are clear, and sometimes easier to highlight. Let’s make the most of those connections and help the kids that play sports turn their love of sports into love of math too!
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