May 14, 2008

Math Fun in the Sun

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When our daughter, Sabrina, was in elementary school, her teacher told us that she was struggling with basic math facts. I was surprised. After all, I monitored Sabrina's homework carefully, and I hadn't observed any difficulties.

"She can get the answers," her teacher said, "but I want to see her get them faster." Sabrina's teacher explained that fast recall of basic addition and subtraction problems would help Sabrina be more successful later, when math studies got more complicated.

Remembering that I only narrowly defeated trigonometry, and how pre-calculus got the best of me, I knew I wanted to help Sabrina as much as I could. Sabrina's teacher was giving timed math quizzes each day at school. But she recommended more practice at home, especially over summer vacation.

I dutifully bought a couple packs of flash cards, and Sabrina and I would practice each day. My husband and I also quizzed Sabrina whenever we were driving somewhere with her in the car. Soon, our attempts at math tutoring were met with groans from Sabrina. "Practice again?" she would say. "Do we have to?"

Then one day I was telling Sabrina the story of how she was born over a week late and how her dad and I passed the time waiting by playing our favorite card game, Crazy Eights. I realized that the game of Crazy Eights required a similar set of math skills as our flash cards, but was a lot more fun. We could even sit outside and enjoy summer weather while chipping away at math skills.

The object of the game is to have as few points as possible. Players are dealt five cards to start and then follow suit to try to discard their hands. The eights are called "crazy" because when you play one, you get to change the suit. The real fun, though, is with the ace of spades. When you play that card, you get to change the suit and make the next player draw five extra cards.

The winner is the person with the fewest points when the first player goes over 500. At the end of each round, players must add up the points they're holding and report their tallies. (For a full set of Crazy Eights directions and ideas for other games, check out one of Hoyle's books on card games, or the website

Keeping track of her points forced Sabrina to practice math in her head, while still having fun. She also served as scorekeeper, which meant even more practice. The fast pace of the game was a natural incentive to do the math quickly -- she couldn't wait to get to the next round to see if she would get to play that ace of spades.

Going beyond flash cards made studying those basic math facts more fun for our whole family, and it seems to have worked well for Sabrina, who is in middle school now, doing very well in her honors-level math class.

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Math Fun in the Sun

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