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Home Education Magazine

January-February 1998 - Articles

From Boring To Board Games: Math Really Can Be Fun!

Elise Griffith

Arithmetic, computation or mathematics ... no matter what it's called in school, the subject often adds up in a child's mind as plain old boring. Kindergarten worksheets display clusters of objects for children to color and count. By third or fourth grade word problems sneak into the curriculum. I don't know about you, but when I was a child, I remember reading the word problems and thinking, who cares? I also remember spending many happy hours playing board games-several of which teach math skills.

It's not that the subject of mathematics is boring in and of itself, it's that worksheets, word problems, multiplication tables and textbooks ignite little (if any) excitement. When your child whines, "This is too hard!", what he may really mean is, "This is no fun!" Math really can be fun... if you take a less conventional approach to it.

Resist the temptation to buy those supplemental workbooks. By definition, they're work. A better way to learn about math includes the rolling of dice! Why not pull out These games? Each of the following board games bolsters basic math skills: Boggle Jr. Numbers, Chutes & Ladders, Candyland, Dominos or Yahtzee. Children ages seven on up will enjoy Mastermind, Quarto (Rainbow Resources, 1 (888) 841-3456), 'Smath (Chinaberry 1 (800) 776-2242) or Hive Alive (Aristoplay, Ltd., P.O. Box 7645, Ann Arbor, MI, 48107).

Do you remember Monopoly? I still enjoy acting as banker because it's the only time I get to play with that amount of money! When I was a child, I never thought of Monopoly as "educational" ... did you? It was simply great fun. Yet games can teach your children valuable skills-Monopoly lays the foundation for budgeting prowess when your children are snapping up properties, accumulating rent for hotels, or just passing "Go" and collecting $200. They're also fine tuning intellectual abilities. Continue your board game fun with Monopoly, Monopoly Jr., or Monopoly's Star Wars version. Or, for more fun with money try Payday and The Game Of Life.

Pretending is a marvelous way for children to practice math skills, and even older children can have fun with these family activities:

Set up a grocery department in one corner of your home. Shelves can be simple and small. Arrange empty food boxes on the shelves, mark prices on them, and open the store for your toddler's enjoyment. You'll need an inexpensive package of play money, and a play purse or wallet. Take turns acting as store keeper and clerk. When your child hands you his selection and money, count out his change the way the cashier would do. Encourage him to do the same when you finish shopping (of course, he isn't going to be able to count change accurately, but pretending to helps him understand the concepts).

Start a family bank by purchasing one metal money box for each child; be sure the boxes lock, and that no one other than you has access to the keys. Using a small travel-type journal, establish a savings "passbook" for each child. When your daughter decides to deposit part (or all) of her allowance, she comes to you-the banker-and her deposit is noted in her passbook. Interest should be accrued monthly, at a rate that's simple to compute (5% or 10%, depending on your own budget). In order to make a withdrawal, she'll also have to come to the family banker, and the withdrawal is also noted in her passbook. For less than 15 minutes of time per month, you can teach any child the basics of saving and interest bearing accounts.

Help your child learn to budget his allowance by providing him with 3 small plastic storage boxes (such as pencil boxes or baby wipe boxes) in different colors: one for "bill money" (bus rides, club dues, repaying loans, etc.), a second box for "planned purchases" (that $90 pair of athletic shoes, video games, etc.), and the third for "disposable income". Purchase 3 small note pads that fit into the boxes-encourage your child to record deposits and withdrawals from each.

Try the Ebenezer Scrooge version of Coin Toss by taking a large, clean jar or tin can, and having each family member toss their excess coins into it regularly. Earmark all gathered funds for a specific purpose, such as a family vacation, a large purchase, or for a favorite charity. At the end of each day or week, coins are tossed into this makeshift bank and it slowly begins to fill. You canset a date to "harvest" or simply wait until the vessel is overflowing; either way gather everyone around the kitchen table to sort and roll coins. A family of four can easily collect $50-$100 in change over a six month period (even if they haven't been tossing coins in weekly.

Need a creative way to come up with allowance money when you find yourself running in the red? Use coupons at the grocery store. I know that sounds simplistic, but it isn't. Enlist the help of your children in gathering and clipping coupons for products you normally buy. Each child places his or her coupons in an envelope (have your children write their names on them). Inform your bargain hunters that you have $XX to spend for the week's groceries. Each child is responsible for locating the grocery items listed on their coupons-they'll also total up the shelf prices (before coupons). If the combined totals are more than the grocery budget, some items will have to go back on the shelves; keep it fair and have each child put an equal number of products back, if necessary. Once at the checkout, write a check for the total amount before the coupons are subtracted, and the change you receive is distributed to your children accordingly. For example, if your son has collected $5 worth of coupons, and they were doubled by the store, he'd receive $10 for his allowance. He also gains personal skills in money management and basic math strategy!

Chances are good your children never realized how much math learning they've been acquiring through fun activities and games. Even Wild West poker players were mathematicians of a sort. They didn't develop complex equations, but they knew the value of every card and could count poker chips and money faster than the bartender could fire his rifle.

The next time your child complains that math is too hard, dress up Old West style, throw a green tablecloth or towel on your kitchen table, snap a garter on your arm and deal These card games: Go Fish, Old Maid, Rook, Uno, Skip Bo, Poker, Canasta, Blackjack or Gin Rummy.

Of course, card players aren't the only mathematicians of the Wild West; what about those resilient women? Have you ever looked closely at a patchwork quilt? A mathematician lovingly pieced and stitched that work of art! More than likely, she also designed the pattern, sewed most of the clothes for her family, and created homemade crafts for gift giving. With all of that in mind, here are a few more ideas for your reluctant math student:

Start your toddler off with an easy paint-by-number kit. When your child does a paint-by-number, she learns number recognition, spatial properties and color identification.

Look for a book about quilting (or quilt designs) in the adult nonfiction section of your public library. Have your child pick a favorite pattern and help him draw the "quilt block" on a square piece of poster board. Assign numbers to each color shown in the photograph of the quilt block, and have your child number his drawing. Give him watercolors, markers or acrylic craft paints, and let him paint his "block". When the painting is dry, cut out each "patchwork" piece for a personalized, homemade puzzle. See how many ways he can arrange the patchwork pieces to create different block designs.

Design a sampler quilt without ever sewing a stitch-you'll make it with craft felt. Calculate your foundation piece of fabric by multiplying the number of people in your family by 10 (or have your children make these calculations). Next, have each person pick a favorite patchwork pattern, draw it out on a 10 x 10 inch piece of paper, and cut it out. Using various pieces (or scraps) of craft felt, each family member uses the pattern pieces as templates and cuts pieces out of felt to match. The patchwork pieces are then reassembled and glued to the foundation fabric. When the glue has dried, a two inch strip of fabric or felt can be glued to a wooden dowel for hanging.

Make beaded jewelry by purchasing packages of inexpensive (but large) plastic or wooden beads. Have your child calculate how many beads will be required to make a necklace of about 20 inches and a bracelet of about 7 inches. Purchase vinyl string, cut it to size, and let the assembly begin. Have your child double-check her efforts by counting the beads as she strings them, making sure her necklace contains the pre-calculated number. Finally, tie the ends securely.

If you're feeling particularly adventurous and generous, have your children help you design and build a playhouse. Every home improvement store sells books on home projects, and you can draw ideas from one or more of them when designing your own.

Arts and crafts aren't the only creative activities that bolster math skills; music lessons teach young children sorting, categorizing, and memory skills. A love for music can ultimately lead to math success. Make simple percussion instruments with clean, empty cans, balloons (cut them off at the narrow end) and large rubber bands. Paper plates glued together with dry beans in the center make great "shaker" tambourines. Or, you can simply play instrumental music as you go about your evening routines.

Dinnertime can be difficult in a busy household. At the end of the day you're all tired, cranky and hungry, but there's still a meal to prepare. Here are a few quick ideas for mealtime math:

Line up plastic measuring cups and allow your children to experiment with dry ingredients (such as flour or bread crumbs). Ask them to fill the 1/4 cup measure, look at it carefully, then pour it into the 1/2 cup measure. Talk about what they noticed. Next, have them add more of the dry ingredients to the 1/2 cup measure (until it's full), and then pour it into the one cup measure. Again, have them tell you what they observed. Ask a few questions until they make the connection about the relationship between the 1/4 cup measure and the one cup measure.

Whip up a batch of biscuit dough, and have your children help you roll it out into a large circle. Cut it down the center lengthwise with a knife. Count the pieces with them, and ask what they've noticed (there are now two halves of a circle). Make another cut through the center horizontally. See if they understand that there are now four quarters. Continue cutting (making two or three more cuts diagonally), and show them eight eighths and ten tenths. Roll up the wedges crescent style, and bake them just as you would standard biscuits-but you can call these fraction rolls.

Try the same activity with an apple or orange, and the lesson becomes a yummy snack!

Maybe you're not an aspiring chef, and you'd rather not worry about fractions at dinnertime. What about fractions at play? Here are some other ideas to try that don't involve food or dish rags:

Duplo Legos provide an ideal way to explain fractions and ratios to your children. The same principles apply; compare the larger pieces with each of the smaller pieces. Attach smaller top pieces to larger bottom pieces and discuss size relationships in terms of fractions.

Cut up strips of felt or fabric so that each subsequent piece is one half the size of the initial piece, and use the pieces as examples of comparative size relationships.

Before the bedtime story, explain to your child that there are XX pages, and you'll read half one night, and half the next. Let her help you figure out how many total pages make up half the book. For larger books, you can divide reading sessions into smaller proportions (1/4, 1/6, 1/8, 1/10); have your child not only help you figure out how many pages to read in one session, but also how many days it will take you to finish the book.

Math really can be fun and exciting when it's applied to games, creative activities and everyday experiences.


Elise M. Griffith "lives learning" in central Ohio with her husband and two sons. This article has been condensed from a chapter in Elise's book, Every Child Is A Genius, Prima Publishing, 1998. ISBN: 0-7615-1277-2

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