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March-April 2000 - Articles

Delicious Math
A.J. Schmidt

"Finish eating your math and you can go out to play," I tell my kids. So they chew up the last of their manipulatives before racing outside to enjoy the rest of the sunny day.

Actually my children have been gobbling up their math lessons for years. Instead of spending money on Cuisenaire Rods, flexible blocks, or tangrams, we buy certain snack foods that can double as math manipulatives before they get eaten.

When the kids were young I browsed the cereal and cracker aisles at the market looking for interesting shapes. There are actually a lot of square, rectangular and circular crackers. But I also managed to find ovals, triangles, hexagons, stars, and even spheres, cubes and cones. The kids had fun learning to identify various shapes. And they realized that each shape can come in a wide variety of sizes, colors, textures - and tastes.

At the same time, my children learned to count. After all, those crackers need to be doled out equally and counting is the best way to do that. When they were young, it seems, I spent most of my time in the kitchen counting out loud. Before every meal we had to count how many people were home, then we had to count out the correct number of plates, cups and napkins that would be needed. When serving, we'd all count how many lima beans or spoonfuls of applesauce went on each plate.

Counting to four, or even twenty, a dozen times wasn't the highlight of my day, but the kids enjoyed both the counting and the eating. When they were a few years older, pretzel sticks helped them count by twos, fives, and tens. Pretzel sticks work well because they can be secured together in groups of five or ten or, later, even one hundred, to reinforce the idea of place value.

Pretzels, cereals, and other snack foods are great for introducing kids to addition. Before they're very old children KNOW that two apple slices are preferable to one. They just need an adult to point out the mathematical equation of 1+1=2. And once they know that, it's easy to figure out that 1+2=3 is even better.

When they want a new game, kids can take a pile of seven crackers, for example, and see how many combinations they can discover. At the age of five or six it fascinates some children to see that 1+6 and 2+5 and 3+4 all equal seven.

Addition may be interesting, but at our house subtraction is definitely the winner when food is involved. Once all those apple slices or pretzel sticks are counted out and added up, making them disappear, one by one, is the best part of the game. It's also a clear way to show the relationship between addition and subtraction. The children can easily see for themselves that 1+1=2 and, after an apple slice is eaten, that 2-1=1 again.

Older kids can use food to understand math, too. My third grader automatically got out a bowl of dry cereal when learning her multiplication tables. She could arrange small circles of cereal into three groups of four to find out how 3x4=12. Division, just like multiplication, becomes easier with food. If we have twelve crackers to distribute evenly to four people, it's soon apparent that each person will get three crackers.

Snack foods help with the early concepts of shapes and counting, adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Other foods can work better with other mathematical ideas. Large foods are good for fractions. Apples and oranges, pizza and apple pie, sandwiches and chocolate brownies, can all be cut into pieces of equal size. (Or nearly equal depending on your skill.) Kids discover that one pie can be divided into a variety of fractions, and then re-combined to still equal one pie.

Sandwiches also work well for helping kids understand equivalent fractions. If you cut one sandwich in halves, another in quarters and another in eighths, for instance, the kids can see the relationship between 1/2 and 2/4 and 4/8. If the sandwiches are for lunch, though, don't let the kids get too busy investigating equivalencies or the food will be too squishy to eat. (I learned this the hard way.)

Actually any time food is involved, the kitchen can get messy. When the kids learn math concepts by playing with their food we usually end up with bits of cereal and pretzels scattered all over the place. A layer of crumbs is minor, though, when compared to what my kids have dubbed Messy Math.

Messy Math is not an activity for the day after you clean house or the day before your in-laws visit. But it can be lots of fun when you're stuck inside because of winter storms or summer heat waves. Messy Math requires a variety of plastic measuring cups and spoons and a bowl of flour or of water. (Trying both at the same time results in more mess than most of us are ready for.) Using the different cups and spoons the kids can discover that four tablespoons fill a quarter cup or that four quarter cups measure one full cup.

Older kids can use glass measuring cups that have different scales written on the sides to find out how one cup compares to eight ounces or 235 milliliters.

Sometimes on a Messy Math afternoon we use all those measuring cups and spoons to actually create some cookies. After they've baked it's easy to divide and multiply, add and, especially, subtract them until they disappear.

Obviously I rarely tell my kids not to play with their food - it's The main features of our math curriculum!

2000, A. J. Schmidt

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