Number Sense

I have a terrible affliction!

I have a terrible affliction!

When my son started kindergarten last July, I put off telling his teachers my occupation. First, I didn’t want them thinking I was judging their every teaching decision, and second, I didn’t want them labeling M. You see, I have this thing. This terrible, terrible affliction and I didn’t want my child caught up in the vortex. In spite of my best efforts at hiding my occupation, though, word got around. M’s teachers found out, and my efforts to protect M were all for naught. The words I’d been dreading were uttered at his fall parent-teacher conference and again at the spring conference: “He’s above grade level in math. But, of course, you already knew that. You’re good at math!”


Yep. I’m good at math. It’s a terrible thing to be an American who is good at math. People assume so fuck this shitmuch about you, but the worst thing is that people assume you were born naturally good at math and that you didn’t have to work for your knowledge. That you didn’t spend hours and hours and hours trying to understand Calculus III or Abstract Algebra. That differentiation and integration came to you naturally. Geometry? No problem! I sprouted from the Geome-tree!  *sigh* And people also assume that because you’re good at math, your children will also be good at it.  *double sigh* I’m also good at reading and writing. Does that mean M doesn’t need to practice those skills? That he popped out of my womb reading War and Peace and soon after wrote a book report on the tome? *sigh and eye roll*


Georg Cantor 1845-1918

Georg Cantor

Certainly, just as some people have a natural inclination for drawing or for writing, there are those among us who DO trend more naturally toward mathematics. As far as math being passed down genetically, though, no known mathematical masterminds had children who also carried on their same love of mathematics (at least, none that I can find). For example, Carl Friedrich Gauss, sometimes considered the Prince of Mathematicians, had two sons and a daughter, none of whom ended up being mathematicians. Georg Cantor, who put forth the modern theory of infinite sets, had six children, but again, none of them took up the mathematical mantle. Other more famous mathematicians, such as Newton and Liebnitz, had no known children. Science has also shown that your genetic make-up has little to do with your mathematical abilities, and that any natural abilities you might possess must be enhanced by hard work, perseverance, and a positive attitude. That might why those elements were included in the standards for mathematical practice in the Common Core. But, I digress.


The real problem, though, with people generally assuming that math genius-ness is passed to you from your parents is that those same people assume that no amount of hard work will propel them to understanding mathematical concepts. They put off the hard work of learning true mathematics and blame failures on a lack of inherent ability. Which is a crock of bullshit. The truth is that we all have an inherent number sense, or an idea of the quantity of people, animals, and stuff around us. We’re born with it. Having good number sense was essential for our distant ancestors, early man, who needed to use that number sense to determine if s/he was outnumbered in a situation and to answer the question, “Do I fight or do I fly?” Those with better number sense chose wisely and lived to pass on their genes. Although most of the people I know don’t have to number sensebattle wildlife for their food on a daily basis, you use that same number sense that helped our antecedents every day. You use it when you estimate how many cars are ahead of you in the line for the traffic light or to choose which check-out lane is shortest at the grocery store. You use it to estimate how many kids are at the park, how many boxes of cereal are left on a shelf, and whether or not you need to buy more goldfish crackers or if what left at the bottom of the box will last the week. And it’s that same number sense that allows your kids to accurately protest when you accidentally pour out too many Cheetos for kid #1, but not the same number for kid #2. That number sense is what we math teachers try to mold into mathematical prowess later on in life. It’s that number sense that this math-lovin’ momma is trying to capitalize on every day with my own kids. Frankly, THAT is why M is good at math…it really has nothing to do with my own abilities.

There are many simple activities you can work into your everyday routine to help your kids build their number sense. Doing these activities not only helps your own and your child’s number sense, it also helps your children see mathematics in a more positive light and it inherently tells them that math is important to you. Both of which have been shown to help children do better with math in school. Here are some every day math activities for the preschool/early elementary set that any parent or caregiver can do:

  1. Estimate & then Count Stuff! Guess how many crackers on a plate and then count them to see how close you are. Do the same thing with the number of steps from one point to another. Count how many minutes it takes to do something. Count how many signs you see while driving to school. Count money and count change. For older kids, count by twos, by threes, by fives, by tens. Count, count, count!
  2. Sort Stuff! Sort by shape, by color, by size. Then count how many of each. One of my favorite things to do is to give my m and mkids a fun-size bag of Skittles or M&M’s and have them sort by color. Then, we stack the candies by color to make a bar graph on the table.
  3. Name Shapes: There are so many shapes in the world. Start by pointing out common shapes like circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles. Once your child has mastered those, move on to more complicated shapes like trapezoids, rhombuses, and other polygons. Then start asking them to tell you the name of the shape you point out. “What shape is that?” and “How do you know?”
  4. Compare Stuff!: Which item is bigger? Which item is smaller? Which item is the biggest? Which item is lightest/heaviest? Who took more steps—you or me? How many more/less? Which number is bigger – 4 or 9? How do you know?
  5. Ask Math Facts: For my kindergartner, I randomly ask questions like, “If I had 7 trains and then two more came into the yard, how many trains would there be?” Or, “If you had 6 angry birds and your brother stole two of them, how many would you have left?”
  6. Introduce Fractions: Cut a sandwich in half (or have your child split an item). Show them that two halves make a single whole by putting the halves together like a puzzle. Or split a small bag of pretzels three ways. State that adding together all the thirds make a whole bag. And so on.
  7. Measure Stuff!: You don’t need a ruler, but that can help. Use a crayon, a pencil, your foot, a hand, etc., and start measuring the world around you.
  8. Read Maps: The next time you’re at the mall, or an amusement park, or anyplace that offers a map of the grounds, homer simpsonread it with your child. Point out (on the map) where you are and where you need to be. Estimate how far away you are from your destination. Which path should you take? Point out the symbols and the legend. Help your child decipher the code.
  9. Do Puzzles: Puzzles promote logical thinking, extrapolation from the whole, are a form of map reading and color sorting, and are just plain fun!
  10. Read Books about Math: There are many kids’ storybooks about math. My personal favorite is relatively new: 1 + 1 = 5? But, I also like: G is for Google, How Much is a Million?, Whole-y Cow: Fractions are Fun!, Bedtime Math, Mice Mischief, and How Many? How Much?

Honestly, it really doesn’t matter if your child answers your questions correctly or if you don’t know how to respond to some of the unique answers your child will inevitably give you. What matters is that you are practicing math with your child and you are giving them a glimpse into the everyday mathematical world of an adult. Just as you read stories to your kids and that helps with their early literacy skills, these activities will help with your child’s mathematical literacy. Then you, too, can be told that your child’s mathematical prowess stems from your own abilities. 🙂

So, the next time you catch yourself blaming a lack of mathematical ability on your genes (or thinking that someone’s math abilities came to them naturally), stop right there. Not only are you wrong, but you’re also setting a bad example for your kids and others around you. I can’t tell you the number of times students have stated that their problems in math are okay because, “…my mom/dad isn’t good at math either.” As if genes had anything to do with it. You ARE good at math. You were born good at it. We all need to start acting like it.









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