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Making Room for Math

Multiplication tables? Fibonacci sequence? First 23 numbers of Pi? Algebra problems? Solid shapes? Bucky balls? Zany stories about rabbits that multiply exponentially? School may be out for the summer, but studies suggest that sending math skills on vacation might be a bad idea!

When it comes to math, summer counts! Look for simple ways to increase number-based activities and discussions as part of your everyday summer plans.

Potato Chip Geometry

M&Ms and juice boxes both offer room for math investigations. So do potato chips! "Saddle up for maximum snack satisfaction (mathematically speaking)," by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, tells the story of one mathematician and the calculus principles you can see in some potato chips. Not all chips are the same!

When it comes to math, the adage, "you snooze you lose" may ring alarmingly true. Studies show that math is the academic subject most at risk during the summer months, with students losing, on average, two months of grade-level knowledge.* Reading is a great way to help keep brain cells fired up over the summer, and tackling high-interest summer science projects lets students exercise a range of skills and hands-on problem-solving strategies. But with the loss of math skills adding up to possible academic setback, boosting opportunities for summer math can be exponentially important for your students. While some parents may shy away from putting more math on the summer schedule, it can be easier than you think to infuse summer days with hands-on and real-world math. No abacus required!

Adding Up Opportunities for Math

So what can you do to get them talking about numbers, adding things up, keeping division skills oiled, and encouraging them to see the geometry that appears in the spaces and objects around them? The following list offers some suggestions to help you ease math into your days. Keep in mind that you may have the best success if you focus on fun math activities, and be sure to pick and choose approaches and titles that are appropriate for your student's age and comfort level with math.

Guided math explorations. Step-by-step hands-on math explorations can be fun as a family activity family—or good for older, independent student investigation. The following Science Buddies Project Ideas can be turned into engaging activities:

  • "Juice Box Geometry": Not all juice boxes look the same, and they don't all hold the same amount! By exploring the dimensions of various rectangular juice boxes, students can see the relationship between volume, the dimensions of a three-dimensional box, and the packaging required to cover the surface area of the container. If your student is drinking something from a "box," grab a ruler, and see what you can learn from a few simple measurements. Does the formula-based calculation match up to the amount the package says the container holds? Do your students prefer ice cream to juice? You can adapt this math-based exploration to compare ice cream containers, too!
  • "M&M Math": What's your favorite color of M&M? What are the odds that you'll pull that color from the bag when you reach in? This tasty activity introduces students to statistics and probability. (Another colored candy could be used instead of M&Ms. Or, if your student enjoys sorting the candies and tallying the totals of each color, encourage an informal comparison of two different kinds of candy. Do they have the same amounts of different colors? Do they seem to have similar amounts of each color? Is your chance of getting a red one the same for each candy?)
  • "Dice Probabilities": Some games value certain numbers (or dice totals) more than others. What are the chances that you'll roll the number you need? Is it just luck? Or are there mathematical rules that come into play and help explain why you roll certain numbers? Put it to the test! This project compares combined values rolled using two different kinds of dice. Increase the odds for fun by having another friend or family member do the same test and compare the results!

sir cumference cover
Prime books. There are many engaging math-themed books available for students, especially for the elementary school crowd. Younger readers may enjoy titles like Sir Cumference: And the First Round Table, Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi, Sir Cumference and the Great Knight of Angleland, , all part of a series of medieval math adventures. Other innovative math-themed storybooks for the elementary school crowd include Multiplying Menace: The Revenge Of Rumpelstiltskin and Pythagoras and the Ratios: A Math Adventure. For books with less story and more puzzle, consider titles like Math-terpieces: The Art of Problem-Solving, The Grapes Of Math, and others by Gregory Tang. Similarly, The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat and Further Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat may captivate young math students.

Math CurseEven younger readers may enjoy puzzling through fictitious problems that can be solved with math in titles like Spaghetti And Meatballs For All!, or learning about important mathematicians in titles like Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. And for those with an eye to shape and form, The Greedy Triangle is an engaging introduction to geometry, and Can You Count to a Googol? helps kids understand the vastness of numbers. Then there is Math Curse (and the sequel, Science Verse), a clever romp through the math that appears in everyday situations. The tone is playful, and the visual treatment is engaging and fits the fast pace and high energy of the story. This duo makes a fun read-aloud pair for all ages and brings up everyday math and science in a playful way.

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number devil cover
Titles factorial. For older elementary readers and math enthusiasts, titles like Math Trek and Math Trek 2: A Mathematical Space Odyssey encourage and continue math learning and problem solving at home. Math Trek 2 takes students on a fictitious space journey that begins with a launch pad countdown (using the Fibonacci series) before rocketing readers into a math-based journey that is both fun—and accessible. Activities are offered along the way for DIY exploration, but the story alone can be enjoyed as a family or for solo reading. Curious about the Golden Ratio or what a "golden rectangle" is and what that has to do with the spirals you see in nature? Math Trek 2 explains it all as part of the story. Another summer reading title that is more story and less workbook than some middle-school math books, The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure, tells the story of a boy who falls asleep and has a series of math-oriented dreams.

Play a game. Playing number-oriented games is a wonderful way to keep kids practicing their basic computation skills while having fun. If your family is already game-oriented, time spent playing tried-and-true favorites like Yahtzee and Farkle can help boost your family's summer math. There's something to be said for adding up the value of your dice each round! With a bit of research, you can find directions for many other DIY dice-oriented games for math fun, or, for off-the-shelf ease, there are "Math Dice" versions for both younger and older students. In recent years, Set has become a household favorite for many with its pattern-based game play and Sleeping Queens has an unexpected but delightful element of math built into its play strategy, perfect for younger students. (Keep in mind that you can often "level up" your favorite family games to make them more challenging for your family as your students grow and acquire more math skills. Many families make up their own household rules for added fun.)

Tracking money. Tracking allowance, spending, goals, and percentages of savings that are earmarked for special purchases or long-term savings encourages students to use math skills, without them thinking of the task as school-oriented. Based on your child's savings or earnings, ask questions that encourage them to divide, multiple, add, and subtract. Create fictitious story problems that let them think through how much they might have if they buy this or that. Or query how many nickels, for example, a week's allowance is worth.

Counting collections. Whether your student collects baseball cards, comic books, state quarters, or natural objects like leaves, rocks, sea glass, or shells, number opportunities abound. How many do you have? How many of each kind? What percentage of your collection falls into a certain category? Look for the ways in which numbers tie into what your students are already doing. They'll talk about the underlying math as part of their own assessment and tracking of their collection!

book coverMake it a puzzle. A book like Mathemagic!: Number Tricks can be a fun summer selection for students of all ages. The "magic" examples are fascinating and fun to memorize and use with friends and family. The "tricks" also require a good bit of computation to work through the samples and see how and if they work. Multiplication by nines by glancing at your fingers? Nifty!

Watch a video. Downtime screen time can do double duty with math-based videos like those created by Vi Hart. From hands-on exploration and analysis of fruit roll-ups to an analysis of the spirals in pineapples (and SpongeBob!), Hart's videos are eye-opening, mind-boggling, fast-paced, and thought-provoking.

Fun with Numbers
The above suggestions are just a few ways to integrate math-focused activities and number-based thinking into your summer. Keep in mind that your challenge isn't, necessarily, to teach your kids new curriculum. Instead, focus on keeping the wheels turning and keeping them engaged with the "fun" of numbers related to everyday activities and objects. You might just inspire new admiration for all things numeric!

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