While I can't say it's ever been proven, I think most people agree that students tend to excel in subjects that naturally interest them. We automatically expect, for example, that as a child John Grisham was an avid reader, and that a young Jacques Cousteau would have been mesmerized at the site of an aquarium. But when it comes to mathematics, too many students find numbers and problem-solving more intimidating than inspiring and fail to see any relationship between homework and classroom lessons and the great inventions that surround them every day.
Fortunately, helping your child make mathematical connections to "the real world" may be a lot easier than you realize. Don't think of it as teaching mathematics; think of it as teaching about day-to-day life and let the real world be your textbook. Try the following activities to help your children get involved in exploring, developing, testing, discussing and applying the interrelated mathematical ideas they will use throughout their lives.
Children learn to do arithmetic by first mastering different counting strategies, beginning with rote counting. Use building blocks with your child to test his or her counting skills: "How many blocks can you count?" Grouping objects helps children to learn the concepts of adding, subtracting and multiplying. Use visual examples to demonstrate: "If I have six blocks and pick up two more, how many blocks will I have? If I have six blocks and take away two of them, how many blocks will I have? If I make three piles of 10 blocks each, how many blocks will I have?"
Becoming familiar with shapes and patterns will prepare your child to understand the principles of geometry and the way mathematics is used in architecture, clothing design, science and recreation. Let your child fix a favorite sandwich. Explain that a square has four equal sides and trim the sandwich edges to make a square. Next, cut the sandwich across the diagonal to make two triangles, each representing one-half of the square. Put the two halves back together and make a square again. Discuss the changes as they take place. Have your child identify circles, squares, triangles, rectangles, cylinders and spheres in other everyday objects.
Introduce your children to length and weight measurements by letting them experiment with a ruler and scale. Show them the difference between English and metric systems by using inches and feet as well as centimeters and meters, and ounces and pounds as well as grams and kilograms. Your children will quickly learn to estimate longer or shorter, lighter or heavier, closer or farther.
When driving in a car, have your children guess how far they think you need to go to travel 1 mile. Check the odometer and tell them how far you have actually traveled when your children say, "One mile now." Try this activity with varying distances and test their judgment with kilometers as well.
Number activities are tools that help children apply their imagination and skills to problem-solving and introduce the concept of algebraic formulas. Assign a value to each letter in the alphabet (A=1, B=2 ... Z=26). Spell out the name of each family member and assign the corresponding number value. Then compare to see whose name has the highest word value. For example, Jack is 10+1+3+11=25.
Statistics and Probability
In school, students will often take on projects in which they collect, organize and record information in graphs or tables, activities that may very well be assigned in the context of a scientific experiment. Encourage your children to embark on their own "research projects" and experiments.
In a package of 20 cookies, how would you determine the average number of chocolate chips per cookie? If you toss a coin four times, what is the probability of getting heads twice?
In spite of – and often because of – its challenges, mathematics can be as enjoyable as assembling a puzzle or solving a mystery when approached with a spirit of exploration and discovery. Making mathematical connections from an early age is a great way to avoid learning and achievement gaps in the years to come.