Family-School Math Adventures

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questionsNo matter where you turn today, mathematics is a hot topic – in school, in media, in the world, and in the homes of families and children. Changes to the mathematics curriculum over the years from skill and drill-based activities to problem-solving and process work leave many families scratching their heads about the new math. What’s a family to do? What’s a school to do?

A Note to School

Math is not my strong point. In fact, I barely made it through the required course in high school. I want my child to not just be good at math but to understand how it works in the world and why she needs it. Help!

A mathematically-inquisitive parent


Whether asked to or not, guided or not, families are intensely involved in the mathematics lives of their children in a variety of ways. The range of family math activities include, but is certainly not limited to, comparing the size of trees, looking at patterns and shapes in the environment, playing board games, keeping a family schedule. Families, without even realizing it, do math everyday! Sometimes we just have to help families make these connections in order to raise the profile of mathematics in the home and build more positive mathitudes as Lynda Colgan, a researcher in mathematics, would say (See Making Math Children Will Love).

While the desire to be involved is often there, there are many families who are uncertain or hesitant to take the math leap on their own. Initiatives, such as math family nights or newsletter math corners, that respond to needs identified by families allow families and schools to explore some of the deeper questions about family-school math collaboration:

  • How do we support families in their acquisition of mathematical skills and mathitudes?
  • What types of mathematical materials and activities are entertaining, engaging, and relevant to both a child and family’s skill level? And perhaps more importantly than skill, What types of mathematical materials and activities are just plain entertaining, engaging, and relevant? How can, should, might these materials and activities be used in multiple ways for multiple purposes?
  • What type of family feedback supports mathematical development? When is enough skill or practice enough? How does a family know when to back off?
  • How do families and schools establish reciprocal communication about their children’s mathematical successes and struggles?

Regardless of how the family-school mathematics connection is made, schools should ensure that the targeted skills and strategies are practised in the home not learned or relearned. Family-school mathematical tasks should familiarize families with the mathematical concepts and ways to support in the home, allow children to demonstrate their understanding of mathematical concepts, and engage both parents and children in fun and engaging mathematical activities that they can easily replicate. This sets both students and family up for a successful math encounter, which in turn establishes stronger links to school and sets the student up for a lifetime of positive encounters with mathematics.

Increasingly, research is finding that at the core of mathematics success is a solid sense of math-persistence – “This looks tricky, but I’m willing to try. I didn’t get it wrong, I just found five ways that don’t work. I can do this if I break it into smaller steps.”

It follows naturally then, that families also need math-efficacy – the belief that they can, and already do, math everyday. We can build this early and often by helping families see the mathematics they do naturally and spontaneously with objects found in most homes. Tasks such as setting the table, judging the size of one hand against another, sorting the neverending pile of socks are great beginnings.

As the math gets more complex, we can support families in their exploration of mathematics from both a skill perspective and an attitudinal perspective, always with the goal of building a mindset for positive growth.

Try a family math night. Visit Math Maniac’s webpage on how to set up a family math night. It gives great suggestions of how to structure a math night. Open with simple but engaging activities for families to do as they arrive – can they post a note that identifies math in their home? Can they estimate the number of marbles in a jar? Bring everyone together for the targeted activities – introduce activities. Engage families in the completion of the activities (plan for interactive, engaging activities that allow families to fully participate). Discuss, debrief, comment. Provide materials for families to play the games or do the activities at home. Check in periodically with families; follow up with other math nights that add new elements or challenges.

Build a thematic backpack or two. Begin by showing the real life connection through a piece of literature, a media link, a website, etc. Make sure that children can demonstrate the activities to their family. Make the practice fun and interactive. This is where you can add in specialized manipulatives such as pattern blocks, place value mats, etc.

Connect through your school newsletter. Host a math corner in your newsletter. Post tips, tricks, puzzles to be solved, challenges to be fulfilled just for fun (e.g., How many squares do you see?). Pull from some of the other strategies listed below to support families as they make links and connections to everyday math.

Don’t forget those board games. Send home a short note explaining all the math in a game of Yahtzee, Yum, Snakes and Ladders, Trouble, Sorry, even Hungry Hippos. As they get holder, try Cribbage and Backgammon. Sometimes, we forget the simplicity of a good old-fahsioned board game.

A deck of cards goes a long way. Arrange them (by ones, tens, hundreds; sequence from Ace to King), add them, subtract them, multiple them, divide them in groups of two, three, four. Score a point for the one with the highest number. As they get older, try Rummy or games like 21.

Cookin’ up math in the kitchen. Math abounds in the kitchen in both the abstract and concrete. The recipes on the back of a cake box that visually show what is required is a great place to begin – children can read the ingredients – the quantities, the sequences. They can determine how many tablespoons in a cup. As they get holder, they can learn about exact measurements… how many millilitres in a tablespoon, a cup? Can they sort and resort the cutlery drawer? Can they find the missing element?

What’s in a shape? Encourage children to find 2-D and 2-D shapes in the environment. What shape is a bubble? What shapes do they see in their house? Can they build a replica out of blocks, paper, lego? Can they make a robot or a model out of three-dimensional shapes? How do shapes support us in visual arts, in the construction of a poster? What are the strongest shapes?

Math is everywhere! Even as children grow into youth, there are countless activities that build math knowledge in real life. Engage youth in budgeting and grocery shopping; have fun drafting fantasy sports teams using stats, or follow the stats of real sports teams; try some woodworking, construction, car mechanics… plan a menu/party/gathering, do the shopping, calculate the bill. Keep a family schedule, determine supplies needed for a house repair, a tree house, a garden. Keep a Sudoku book open – make it a family challenge.

Click for Family Math Adventures for K to 6 OR Family Math Resources for Grades 7 and 8. Thanks to Marianne Vander Dussen for her creative work on both of these!

What are your favourites? How do you make the family-school math connection?

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