Bedtime Math

There is little dispute that reading to children at bedtime is a good idea. Not only does the established ritual help them get to sleep, it also improves vocabulary and literacy. Reading to your children at bedtime is a win-win proposition. In the Oct. 9 edition of Science, researchers Talia Berkowitz and Marjorie Schaeffer of the University of Chicago are the lead authors on a study about an app that provides bedtime math stories and problems for young children. Children that used the app got better at math in school and the effect was biggest when the parents had math anxiety. This is an original approach to the twin problems of math preparation and math anxiety, and Occupy Math is very happy that this is a part of a 5-year ongoing study.

Occupy Math has done earlier posts about math anxiety including Why You Should NEVER Say “I’m Not a Math Person”, and this idea of bedtime math seems like such a good notion for reducing this problem that it merits its own post. Having math as a part of the bedtime ritual would make it seem normal, part of the every-day world. The app from the University of Chicago is far from the only resource for bedtime math. Laura Overdeck’s book series, Bedtime Math, is entirely appropriate as a bedtime story and puts the math at the core of the entertainment. The cover of the most recent (third) book in the series gives you sense of the way this series hits the right level.

When our children were young, my wife and I used to run math night at Edwards Elementary School in Ames Iowa. Since then we’ve moved to Canada, our children have grown up, and so we don’t do that any more. One of the greatest challenges we faced was getting the parents involved. The single most popular activity we came up with for parents was the reading table. We scoured the school library, the public library, and our own stash of books for math-relevant children’s books. Having parents read math books aloud was a type of math-participation that many parents had no problem with. Here are a few books on counting, for very young children, to get you started. My personal favorite is the huge parade of hamsters in 10 Minutes til Bedtime.

The easiest thing about math night was finding prizes. We asked parent to donate happy meal toys they didn’t need any more. If you try this, clear space in your garage or spare room first.

Another thing that is good about a literary approach to math is that it gives children a chance to feel clever. Here is an math riddle from several centuries ago that is also a nursery rhyme:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

I won’t spoil the riddle by telling you the answer, but it is one that children are more likely to get than adults.

Another resource is the math stories page on the teaching your child web site. Something to keep in mind is that, even if you are not comfortable with math, you can still encourage your children when they are curious about math. Occupy Math spent a lot of downtime in primary school working out patterns of numbers. It didn’t hurt that my (rather math-phobic) parents encouraged me to keep doing this. If your children ask you math questions, pass them on to Occupy Math as comments or tweet them and we will do our best to help. I will try not to have flashbacks to the time a United States Border Guard had me help him with his kids fractions homework (I said “Math Professor” when he asked what I did for a living; it was a slow day at the border).

The idea that early childhood training is critical is not a new one. Proverbs 22:6, for example, says Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. If we want our children to be numerate and enjoy the benefits of being able to deal with the numbers the world throws at us, we need to start earlier than we do currently. Math stories at bedtime is an under-used and, if we can believe University of Chicago Researchers, effective method of helping kids with math.

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock
University of Guelph
Department of Mathematics and Statistics



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