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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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How to Handle Homework Hassles

by Mary Leonhardt

Mary Leonhardt is an expert author focusing on children's literacy. She is leading a discussion on ways to motivate children to do their homework. Read and Comment »

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Super Cyberchase Science

by Frances Nankin & Michael Templeton

Frances Nankin & Michael Templeton

Michael Templeton is Co-Director of Cyberchase Mathematics Content, Frances Nankin is the Executive Producer and Editorial Director of Cyberchase. Read more »

Christine from West Hartford, CT, writes:

What kinds of things should I be doing to encourage a toddler-aged child to enjoy age-appropriate math and science concepts?

Dear Christine,

Believe it or not, toddler-age children are already discovering for themselves many concepts related to math and science. They are practicing estimation (about how far must I reach to get that toy?), classifying (the book goes on the book shelf, the blocks go in their basket), and counting (I have 1, 2, 3 cookies on my plate). As they explore the world around them, they use and develop these important skills, which, by the way, they will use later in both math and science arenas.

Toddlers are also discovering ideas about measurement (as when a child fills a bucket of sand to the top and then empties it into a smaller or larger container), algebraic thinking (by recognizing patterns in a rug, for example), and geometry (as they learn to recognize simple shapes).

How can you engage toddlers in age-appropriate math and science as they explore? You can play games (without interrupting their own play) during your regular daily activities, such as filling and emptying different-size containers during bath time, or inviting toddlers to help sort toys back into their boxes or on the shelf. (Visit The PBS Parents Guide to Early Math for more activity ideas that lay basic groundwork for math and science.)

Counting and comparing tokens is a wonderful kid-friendly opportunity for observation and thought. Take two piles of blocks, buttons, or other similar tokens. Do they contain the same number of objects or a different number? Guess, and then try to tell. A toddler without counting skills can still see that the two sets match in number by lining them up and comparing them two by two. Can they trick you by hiding a token from one or the other pile and asking you to tell if they are the same? You can progress by counting each one -- "one ... two ... three ..." -- extending the number as they become more comfortable with larger quantities and more counting words. Then take turns adding or subtracting one or two tokens and asking "How many?" again. Arithmetic becomes an answer to a game -- predicting the result of a concrete experiment -- rather than an exercise in memorization.

Blocks and snap-together construction sets provide rich math and science experiences. Build a tower of blocks. How high can you build before they fall? What can you make out of the parts? A dog? A car? A skyscraper? Assembling simple parts into larger three dimensional shapes trains hand, eye, and brain, and develops an important facility with visualizing the world in three dimensions.

Sean from Klamath Falls, OR, writes:

How can parents and teachers help English-as-a-second-language students grasp the sometimes abstract and difficult language of science and mathematics?

Dear Sean,

The experiences of math and science don't depend much on language -- they are universal. The problem comes with the words mathematics and science use to describe these experiences precisely. Unfamiliar words and ordinary words used in an unusual way are a problem for many students. Start by describing familiar science or math experiences in ordinary, child-friendly language. Introduce the unique language of math and science only when it is necessary, and always connect it with concrete examples. In learning fractions, the words "numerator" and "denominator" are no easier to understand than "stalactite" and "stalagmite" would be. Instead, start by referring to the "top number" and the "bottom number" while you help your child build an understanding of what these terms mean.

For ESL children, parallel these descriptions in their first language wherever possible, asking them to share their informal names for science and math terms. Once they have their own labels for the experiences, they can refine their vocabulary with the more technical and precise terms used in school. If they remain uncomfortable with terminology in English, ask them to come up with or invent good words in their own language!

Mark from Santa Monica, CA, writes:

I'm starting an internship at a Botanical Garden where I will be working with children in an interactive educational environment. I was wondering if you had any advice as to how to work with children and families to get them interested in science and nature.

Dear Mark,

A garden of any kind is an excellent place to motivate learning about math, science, and nature! Patterns are a good place to begin. Seeking and finding a pattern is a challenge almost everyone responds to, and every garden is filled with simple and surprising patterns. Which plants have leaves with two-fold or four-fold symmetry about their stems? Can you think of a reason why? Are there other patterns in how plants deploy their leaves? What about the petals of their flowers? How many petals on a single flower? Are the petals always arranged in the same way, or do different plants have different petal patterns as well?

Plants as varied as firs, pines, and sunflowers produce spirals and other surprising visual patterns in their seeds and cones. These patterns can be generated by mathematical rules like the famous Fibonacci series, (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 ...) that can be discovered or verified by careful observation.

The Cyberchase show "A Tikiville Turkey Day" involves recognizing and using simple patterns found in nature. Also consider checking out the companion activity, "Make a Tikiville Teepee," which gives kids a chance to use what they've learned from nature's patterns to design and build a rain-proof structure.

Meredith from Norton, VA, writes:

I would like to help my eight-year-old daughter develop her problem-solving skills. She loves to cook, so I wondered if there are ways I can help her nurture these skills while we are cooking together. Do you have any suggestions?

Dear Meredith,

Cooking is a wonderful way to explore science while developing math and problem-solving skills - especially when you can eat the results! Very often when young children cook, they are afraid to break away from the recipe: They want quick results! Yet, if they could take some time to investigate the process, they could try out some of their best creative ideas.

You say your daughter loves to cook. Invite her to share with you why she enjoys it so much. Perhaps she likes to measure the ingredients. (She is using math here.) And maybe she finds it satisfying to follow a tried-and-true step-by-step plan. (She is using someone else's problem solving here.) Or perhaps she enjoys seeing how different ingredients change when you combine them or add heat. (She is exploring chemistry here.) After listening to what she tells you - and sharing your own thoughts as well - suggest that you try a different approach where you and she will tackle a fun cooking problem to solve.

To start, think of a recipe that you've tried together and weren't too happy with. Perhaps it was a cookie recipe where the cookies were too sweet, or too soft, or a quick bread recipe that was too dry. After choosing the recipe and deciding what you didn't like about it, ask, "What could we change in this recipe that would fix our problem?"

Your daughter will probably have several ideas she wants to try. (Add less sugar! Bake the cookies at a higher temperature! Add more liquid to the batter!) But what problem-solving strategies should you use to try them? Here are some tips:

  • Set a game plan. Before you start, decide how to go about trying your ideas. Ask, "What do we have to do to solve this problem? What do we need in order to solve it? What do we already know that might help? What are the best two or three approaches we should start with?"
  • Practice in small batches. Try out your best ideas in small batches and keep track of what happens, whether your ideas seem to be working or not. You can often find useful clues in mistakes and in what doesn't work.
  • Call a time out to review, reflect and revise. In problem solving, it often helps to take a break and talk about what you have learned from your efforts so far. (Also, sometimes you have to take a break before frustration sets in. You can always use what you've learned when you are ready to start up again.)
  • Apply what you've learned each time you try a new solution to the problem. Sometimes you can solve the problem on a first try, but many times this doesn't happen. Keeping track of what works and what doesn't helps make the road to success a lot less bumpy - and even fun!

Here's another approach to linking problem solving with cooking: Suppose your daughter wants to make a batch of cookies for her class at school (24 kids), but the recipe she wants to use only makes enough for half that many people. How can she make twice as many cookies? There are several ways to solve this problem (make two batches, for example, or double the ingredients in one batch, or even make each cookie half as big!), and you can use the strategy outlined above to help your daughter decide how she wants to go about it.

Practicing these problem-solving tips in fun cooking activities like these should give your daughter experience she can draw on when she is faced with other problems - even problems which, at first glance, seem unsolvable. You had a terrific idea, Meredith. We hope this helps!

Deborah from Tempe, AZ, asks:

My son is in third grade and really hates doing his homework, especially when it's math! I keep hearing how math and science are important subjects for kids to learn. He likes science. What can I do to help him get interested in math?

Dear Deborah,

Your son is not alone! Many children are easily frustrated by the math problems they find in their school homework. For these kids, it helps to show them that math is a tool they can use to make sense of the world around them--that we use math for a purpose that is tied to a real need--and then help kids find their own ways to use it.

You might take advantage of the fact that your son is interested in science and help him see how math and science go hand-in-hand. For example, in the following he can use measurement to figure out if a person's height affects how far they can jump.

Question to explore: How do your friends' different heights affect how high or how far they can jump?

Questions to ask as he thinks about a way to find out: What's your prediction? What would you need to do to test your ideas? What research could you do that would help you understand this subject better?

As with any tools, the more we use math in situations that matter to us, the more we improve our skills. For more fun math-based science activities, go online to

One more thought for you: It is not unusual for a child to have difficulty concentrating on homework 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 son work on his homework for a specified short period of time that you know he can handle. Then stop him, and set a time for him to start again later, when he may be able to finish up.

Alex from New York, NY, asks:

My 9-year-old daughter is getting really frustrated trying to find a fun project for a science fair. She is a good reader and very interested in both math and science, but choosing a topic for a science project seems to be really hard. I want to help, but she gets mad every time I bring it up. Any suggestions?

Dear Alex,

Kids often get frustrated with parental help, especially if it is not asked for. One way to handle this is to tell your daughter that you will offer to help only if she asks you to. Then stick to that promise! The child then has the option to approach her problem in her own way, and feel secure in the knowledge that she can ask for help when she needs it.

But there is a way you can help indirectly. The next time your daughter notices something and says, "How cool is that?" or "I wonder how that works," take a moment to capture the idea. You may have found a great idea for a fun science project. Keep a list of these ideas as they come up so you can share them with her when it's time to do a science project for school--or even just for fun.

You can also help your daughter find a topic for a science project by talking about what's in the news or what you see in TV commercials. (Think about animal behavior during a natural disaster, for example, or testing an advertiser's claim for product performance.) Exploring online or in the encyclopedias, magazines, books from the science section of your local library may give her ideas as well.

For more ideas, check out the Tips for Parents section of the Super Cyberchase Science feature.

David from Charlottesville, VA, writes:

I have two children (7 and 11) who like anything about nature, so I give them nature books to get them to read more. How can I use this interest to get them to do more math?

Dear David,

At Cyberchase, we say, "Math is the tool we use to unlock the mysteries of science." What we really mean by that is that math helps us quantify--count and measure--what we see in the world around us so that we can solve problems we come across.

Young children readily embrace this idea when they are given simple problems to solve, particularly when they are problems they care about. Here's one example: Try playing a game in which you and your children ask a question about nature that starts with, "I wonder how many ...?" or "I wonder how tall ...?" or "I wonder how far ...?" Do this when reading together, or traveling, or even around the dinner table. The questions should be about things your children are doing and seeing.

For example, "I wonder: Can a jackrabbit jump farther than I can?" Or, "I wonder how many eggs a dragonfly lays?" Then you can follow up with a new question: "I wonder how we could find out?" This will lead to a sharing experience where your kids will have ideas about measuring or counting, and your job is to help them try out whatever it is they want to do.

Over time, as your children become more adept with asking these types of questions, they are able to apply what they have learned to better understand new situations. In this way they gain experience seeing ways that math is a helpful tool when they want to dig deeper into their understanding of nature, as well as other areas of science.

If you'd like suggestions for more fun math-based science activities, go online to And check out our Tips for Parents section of the Super Cyberchase Science feature.


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