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Expert Q and A

Each month, you'll be able to get answers directly from experts covering a wide range of parenting topics. You'll also have a chance to share your own expert tips with other parents. Join the conversation!

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Sharing Everyday Math Experiences With Kids

by Carey Bolster and Frances Nankin


Carey Bolster and Frances Nankin

Carey Bolster is Co-Director of Cyberchase Mathematics Content. Frances Nankin is the Executive Producer and Editorial Director of Cyberchase. Read more »

Sorry, Carey Bolster and Frances Nankin is no longer taking questions.

Bridget in Atlanta, GA asks:

My two boys are home schooled this year, and they want to have nothing to do with text books. We play educational games and view some PBS programs. Can you give me some suggestions on how to get them exposed to more math?

Dear Bridget,

For some children, the textbook may indeed feel too structured when compared with the dynamics and fun that they can experience when doing 'hands-on' math. Educational games and PBS programs are great ways to extend your boys' math experiences. Cyberchase, for example, is specifically designed to support math education and reflects the curriculum standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The project (TV show, online games and print activities) encourages kids to see, think, and do math and appeals to their different learning styles.

Try visiting the web site (pbskids.org/Cyberchase) to find out more about it. The episodes are listed by math topics under "For Parents & Teachers/ Episode Descriptions." We recommend viewing a show uninterrupted with your children, and then talking about it afterwards. The following questions can help make your conversation more thoughtful:

  • What was the problem the kids had to solve in this show?
  • How did the kids figure out how to solve it?
  • Did you have a different way to solve it? How does your solution work?

You might have your sons draw pictures or write stories to answer these questions, and follow up by visiting the web site to play a math game related to the show. You might also use related print materials found online to extend their learning.

As well, here are some ways to make math a part of your kids' everyday experiences.

  • When measuring for cooking or baking, have your kids make the measures for you. Once they get used to the whole and fractional measures, limit what they can use so that they have to reason how to get the measure they want. (For example, measure a cup of flour using only the ΒΌ or 1/3 cup measures.)
  • Use colored candies to teach fractions. Ask how many are a certain color and what fraction of the whole batch that color represents.
  • Estimation is a powerful tool in mathematics. The next time you are traveling, have your kids estimate when you have traveled a mile, then verify it with the car's odometer. At the restaurant, challenge them to estimate the total bill.
  • Talk about the shapes of 'stop' signs, 'yield' signs, 'mileage' markers, designs on buildings or sidewalks, or even the lug nut on car wheels or fire hydrants.
  • Take apart cereal boxes to see how the 3-D shape is made from 2-D shapes.

Experiences like these will help your kids see that not only is math all around them, but that it is dynamic and fun. This will make that textbook more meaningful!

Candy from The Dalles, OR asks:

Both my third- and fifth-grade daughters have struggled in math and feel that they cannot do it. What are some ways that we can raise their self-esteem in the area of math? We give them a lot of praise and opportunities to do math both on paper and in daily life, but still they seem stressed when having to learn new math lessons.

Dear Candy,

Your daughters are not alone! Many children feel they cannot do math and are easily frustrated by the problems they are faced with at school. For these kids, it helps to show them that math is a tool they can use to make sense of the world around them. This becomes meaningful when we use math for a purpose, when we tie it to a real need, and help kids find their own ways to use it. (Please see our answer to the previous question for ways to do this.)

In reality, kids do a lot of math and don't know it! For example, when they turn to a page in a book, they have to know if the number of the page they are on is less than or greater than the page they are turning to. And when they watch a show on TV, they often have to estimate how much time is left in a show before they have to do something else. When walking or riding to school, they estimate every day about how far it is and how long it will take to get there. Pointing out their skills in these areas helps to build their confidence.

Having to do pencil and paper work can be scary because there is risk of a 'wrong' answer. Kids don't like to be wrong, nor do we. But in math, being wrong often leads to being right! You can help your children learn from their mistakes by having them talk out loud as they are doing their problems. Talking through each step when working a problem, whether doing it right or wrong, is a great way to overcome fear and frustration. As well, it helps if you demonstrate your own thinking when you have a problem you are trying to work out. Share your mistakes.

If you focus on the strategies your daughters use to solve problems, you can help them discover that there may be more than one way to solve them, thereby building their confidence when faced with new problems and increasing their self-esteem.

Jodie from Fairfax, VA asks:

I am a parent of a nine-year-old little girl who is in third grade. She is having a lot of trouble in math. I continually have to help her and try to keep her interested. She gets mad when I try to help her. She is a special-ed student on medication for attention issues, and that also makes it hard. Can you give any suggestions?

Dear Jodie,

It is not unusual for a child to have difficulty concentrating on math problems for a long period of time. Not only do attention spans vary from child to child, but they also vary with the type of problems the child is working on! Consider letting your daughter work on an assignment for a specified short period of time, then have her stop and come back to it later. She might do this several times before the assignment is completed.

It is also not unusual for a child to get frustrated with parental help, especially if it is not asked for. One way to handle this is to tell your child that you will only offer to help if she asks you to. Then stick to that promise! The child then has the option to approach the math assignment in her own fashion, and feels secure in the knowledge that she can ask for help when she needs it.

Many children benefit from attacking a math problem if they pretend to be the teacher. You might try having your child teach a problem she is comfortable with to a stuffed toy. Teaching in this fashion can help build confidence. It also helps kids articulate what they are thinking as they solve a problem. You may have to interject at some point to check your child's understanding. Try, " What if your toy didn't understand? Can you show it a different way?" Or "Your toy did it this way. Do you agree with this?" Then, when faced with a more difficult problem, the child has a comfort zone she can fall back on to lessen those feelings of stress.

The most important thing you can do is to help her feel less pressured. Look for opportunities where you can smile, laugh, and poke fun at yourself as you work to solve a problem. Demonstrating lighthearted -- but positive and persistent -- behavior often relieves some of the pressure a child is feeling and makes it easier for her to accept the difficulties she may be having.

Abdulkader from Melbourne, Australia asks:

Cyberchase is my son's favorite program. His favorite part of the program is when the kids solve a problem. But he is not good at understanding problems similar to those on the show when they arise in real life. What is your advice?

Dear Abdulkader,

A young viewer recently said about a show she'd seen, "I liked how they figured out how to figure it out!" Children - like your son - are natural problem solvers and we know from both observation and research that their Cyberchase viewing is not passive. Their minds are working hard, solving problems right alongside the characters in the show. We also know from research that children gain significant benefits from watching other children solve problems - benefits that include increased confidence in their own ability to solve problems and the higher self-esteem that accompanies that feeling.

While your son may not be good at understanding problems similar to those on the show, we suspect that repeat viewing of the same episode would give him the exposure and time he needs to generalize about other problems. Think about how we learn as adults: Few of us are able to readily transfer what we learn from a specific problem to other problems of that type. We need time and friendly discussion that enhances our understanding.

By the way, we consciously created the 'For Real' live-action portion of the Cyberchase show to expose kids to another approach to the same type of math problem. Our goal is to give kids another way to think about the math that helps them recognize it in the real world.

Try playing a game in which you ask your child, "I wonder how ...?" Do this at home, when traveling, while playing a sport or shopping. Ask about things they do and see. For example, "I wonder how I could find the number of windows on that big building." After solving the problem, follow up with a new question: "I wonder how many different ways we could find this answer." (Also see our suggestions above for thought-provoking questions you can use to talk about the show after viewing.)

Over time, as kids become more adept with how to begin solving a problem, they build a set of strategies, and they are able to apply what they have learned to new situations. In this way they gain experience in solving problems and build their own reliable skill set.

Nancy from Trevor, WI asks:

I was wondering if you could tell me what math programs or websites are available for and best suited to helping children whose first language is not English.

Dear Nancy,

Good question! While we are definitely not experts in this area, we can confidently suggest that, when the first language is Spanish, you contact TODOS: Mathematics for All (www.todos-math.org). The mission of this organization is to "advocate for an equitable and high quality mathematics education for all students ... by advancing the professional growth and equity awareness of educators." The Resources section of their web site may give you additional ideas. As well, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (www.nctm.org) may be helpful.

Several of the Cyberchase print materials are available in Spanish. Cyberchase en Casa, for example, gives you activity cards developed for parents. You can download these from the Cyberchase website (pbskids.org/cyberchase).

Gary from San Francisco asks:

How do I explain fractions to my four year-old daughter? She has been showing interest for the past 3 months. I try to use everyday experiences such as cutting an apple or a piece of toast.

Dear Gary,

For children, using physical examples, as you suggest, is a great idea. Give her concrete experiences that are directly related to the questions she asks. But, because of her age and developmental abilities, we caution you against trying to "teach" her about fractions. Fractions can be difficult for children to understand because in our everyday experiences, we use them in two different ways. Fractions represent equal parts of a whole, right? But that whole may be your single apple or slice of toast, or it may be a group of objects, such as a bag of multi-colored colored candies. Children twice your daughter's age have trouble with this, so we suggest you go slowly.

Children become confused when writing fractions using not one, but two numbers. The bottom number tells how many equal parts the whole has been divided into, and the top number tells how many of those parts you have. Your 4-year-old daughter has scarcely had time to absorb how we use whole numbers to represent objects, let alone using two numbers to represent fractions!

Visit our website (pbskids.org/cyberchase) for more ideas. Under "For Parents and Teachers" you can use the search function to get a list of all the Cyberchase episodes and materials available that are related to fractions.

Karen from Arlington, VA asks:

My daughter is in third grade, and this is the year she is supposed to learn her times tables. She is generally quite good in math, but we are having trouble memorizing these. She is getting some of the easier ones, but we have a ways to go. Any suggestions for fun ways to learn times tables that work?

Dear Karen,

Memorizing the times tables is often a frustrating experience for children because the memorization does not come easily and mastery takes time. Yet educators agree that doing so is worth the effort because it makes understanding division easier. Using flash cards (for visual reinforcement) and recorded songs (for audio reinforcement) are both excellent ways to help your daughter with her memorization. Here are some other suggestions.

Use animal legs. For example, a spider has 8 legs. Ask: How many legs does 1 spider have? (8) How about 2 spiders? (16) How about 3? And so on. Your child can draw pictures to show the number of legs, and repeat the multiplication facts out loud. Play the same game with cats or dogs (4 legs), and insects (6 legs), and birds (2 legs).

Help your child look for patterns in the multiplication facts. Multiply by 2, for example, and the product always ends in 0,2,4,6, or 8. When you multiply by 5 and look at the product, the number in the ones place is always 5 or 0. Multiply by 3 and there are several patterns you can see. Here's one: The sum of the digits in the product is always 3, 6, or 9. For example, the product of 3 times 9 is 27, add these digits (2+7) and you get 9!

Make a Hundreds Chart. On a grid or graph paper, write the numbers 1-10 in the first row of squares, 11-20 in the second row, and so on until you complete the 91-100 row. Then use the chart to locate and color the multiples of different numbers. Try multiples of 3, for example. The products are always 3 digits apart. Have your child color in the squares that show these products. The pattern will show "skip two numbers, color the next." Color multiples of other numbers and talk about the patterns.

Make flashcards in the shape of a triangle to show 'number families' - three numbers that include the two multipliers plus the product. On one card, for example, you might write a 3 on one corner of the triangle, a 12 on another corner and a 36 on the last corner. In this way, your daughter can see the complete "number family" and learn to keep them together in her mind. By covering any one number with your finger, she can look at the other two numbers to tell you the one you've covered. This method unifies the multiplication and division math facts from the very beginning.

Kristen from Sykesville, MD asks:

My child is taught math in units that deal with a specific topic or concept, like adding whole numbers. The units seem disconnected and as a result she does not see the connections between the topics. What can I do at home to help her?

Dear Kristen,

This is a great question. We often use math to solve problems around the home and miss opportunities for sharing with our kids. For example, if you were going to build a deck or dog house you would use measurement, draw pictures (representation), determine how much material you need to order (estimation), and, of course, figure the cost (number operations). If you are building something, involve your child in the process, being careful to point out the different kinds of math involved so that the child realizes the connections.

Gardening is another example where you could share the math you do and talk about the different concepts you are applying. When planting flowers or vegetables, you need to determine the area of the garden (measurement) and perhaps measure the perimeter if a fence is required. Then you need to check to see how much room each mature plant will need (estimation), determine the number of rows you have room for (number operations), the distance between rows and plants (number operations), laying off parallel rows (geometry), and finally, planting the seedlings (measurement again).

You might look at a project you're undertaking and list the steps you would go through to solve the problem. Then label the math involved and share with your child

Here is another fun activity that uses alphabet cereal or pasta. Sort the contents into piles by letter (sorting). Now write the letters of the alphabet horizontally on a large piece of paper and place the letters one above the other so they make a column above or below the letter you wrote (organizing information). This forms a bar graph (graphing). Help you child analyze the graph by asking questions like: Are there the same number of each letter? Which letter(s) appeared most or least ? Are there any letters that are not in the box? (Analyzing data).

When you buy a new box, have your child use the information to predict the number of each letter in the box, and then test the prediction by using the same steps as before. Note you could use a similar procedure for M&M's or Skittles if you sort them by color.

Finally, watch for things your child does that use math. Ask questions about the steps she is using and then analyze these in terms of the math involved. Be excited and make comments like, "Wow, you just used measurement!"

Barbara from Dunedin, FL asks:

I feel insecure about my own understanding of mathematics. I want to help my child with his homework, but I am somewhat uncomfortable. Do you have any ideas that might help me?

Dear Barbara,

It is good to hear that you are concerned about your child learning mathematics and know that math has to extend beyond the classroom if your child is going to understand it. You are not alone when you feel insecure helping your child with his homework. Many parents relate the difficulties they had learning math and how they avoided the subject when they were in school, even though they knew math was important. "I was never good in math" is a common quote. But it shouldn't be!

Interestingly, you probably do not have the same feeling about helping your child with reading. You are concerned about your son's reading skills, and take a positive approach. You may enjoy reading to him, and do this often, helping him to build his own positive attitude toward reading. You know that the more you read with him, the more successful he will become.

It makes sense to apply this same approach to mathematics. Here are some dos and don'ts to consider:

  1. Don't pass on a negative attitude toward math. Saying "I was never good at math" only makes your child feel afraid. (If my parent was never good at it, I probably won't be good at it either!) You want to convey an attitude of curiosity. You can say "I'm not sure I remember this -- let's work on it together. If we get stuck, we'll ask for help." You can also say, "Wow! I didn't learn this until high school. Good for you!"
  2. Do let your child see you do math. Let him see you balance your check book, figure out what store has the best buy for an item you want, estimate how much chicken to buy, find where a picture should be placed on a wall, keep score at miniature golf, or buy gas for the car. Let him see that you do math everyday and that it helps you manage the things you have to get done.
  3. Do your mathematics thinking out loud. Let your child hear how you are figuring out when to put the roast in the oven so it will be ready for dinner. When measuring, say aloud, "Now how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?" Then answer yourself, or if you don't know, look it up in the cookbook. It is OK to use a reference. Count your change out loud.
  4. Don't make math seem boring and dreary. Instill in your child the same level of comfort and excitement you share when you read to him. Play math games, get puzzle books and work them out together. A friend used to put a puzzle on the refrigerator and would keep it there until someone solved it. Granted, sometimes he had to act stumped and give hints to be sure his child came up with some of the answers.

Additionally, do watch Cyberchase with your child so you can talk about what is happening. Check out the For Real segment, which often contains activities you can do with your child. Also look at our website (pbskids.org/cyberchase). (See above for more.)

Finally, remember you are using math everyday and using it well. You are better at math than you think you are, and you can use this realization to build a "can-do" attitude in your child.

Sorry, Carey Bolster and Frances Nankin is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Comments

Jason writes...

Math is by far one of the most important things your kid can learn. It's amazing how much faster their brains pick up stuff up early so working with them at early stages couldn't be more important in my opinion. I even us math working with train horn kits if you can believe that!

Kaleb klein writes...

When I was a kid I always used games in order to learn math. It was easier to learn and never got bored.
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