Not long ago, I was privileged to attend a class for six-year-olds where, during snack time, I witnessed an impromptu exercise of their blossoming math skills. The children each hoarded piles of heart-shaped candies and spontaneously began sorting them into piles of whites, blues, pinks, and yellows. The sweets had evolved into math tools.
"Who can find another way to sort the candies?" I asked, and the new readers began to cautiously categorize their hearts according to the messages imbedded in the sugar.
The math tools were steadily disappearing into six-year-old mouths, so I quickly set up a repeating pattern of blue-white-blue-white hearts and asked the children to make their own patterns. Most repeated my example, but one little girl pioneered her way with a yellow-pink-yellow-pink row.
"How many other patterns can we make with four colors?" The children worked steadily with their greatly diminished piles of hearts to come up with the answer.
The period ended before we had a chance to start on addition games -- taking seven hearts and seeing how many different ways we could group them, or seeing how many groups of two we could find in four hearts, six hearts, and eight hearts.
My own children learned to count with edible math tools and an old egg carton. I cut the carton in half, took off the top, and labeled each section with a number from 0 to 5. Then I gave the children exactly 15 candies and taught them to put the right number of candies below its number sign -- one candy in the 1 section, two candies in the 2 section, and so on. When the kids could do this exercise three times with no prompting, they got to eat the candy.
Math, to them, was a delicious game.
From edible tools we quickly moved to other "math objects" -- Legos building blocks, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, and construction sets. These building games help the children seen how the part fits into the whole -- an essential math concept.
Simple puzzles build the same skill, but our children's principal, Larry Grove, showed us how to expand puzzles into equation builders.Using the easiest, frame-type cardboard puzzles, he writes an addition or substraction equation on the back of each piece (5 plus 3, for example) and marks its answer within the space in the frame where the piece belongs. The puzzle becomes a kind of flash card, without the pressure.
Card games from Fish to Rummy are also great math teachers, reinforcing everything from set theory ("Please give me all your threes") through sequencing ("I have a run of 5 -- 2, 3, 4, 5, 6") and addition and subtraction ("You have a total of 55 points on the table but you still have 20 points in your hand, so you only got 35 points and I win"). Slip a pack of cards into the glove compartment, and your car becomes a math skills center.
Math sophisticates in the fifth grade can play a numerical version of "Twenty Questions" with four-digit numbers, asking yes-or-no queries like "Are you under 5,000? Are you an even number? Can you be divided by three?"
Verbal practice like this should include a few word problems, even from the earliest age. You can defuse the fear that sometimes attaches itself to these problems as your child becomes accustomed to hearing everyday word equations like, "Ricky and Allison called while you were out, dear. How many calls did you get?"
With math games like these slipping into everyday life, children learn to view it as fun and useful, instead of frightening and tricky. In fact, the only real trick to math we've found is learning to recognize a math tool before it gets eaten!