Don’t just read to your kids at night, do math with them, too. They’ll thank you later

When’s the last time you did some math, just for fun?
When’s the last time you did some math, just for fun?
Image: AP Photo/Brian Branch-Price
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

College-educated people aren’t afraid to read. When they open a newspaper article or blog post, they assume they’ll be able to read it. That’s because the content is written at roughly the ninth grade reading level. But do we all feel just as solid on ninth grade math?  Clearly not, as restaurants now calculate the tip for customers—a task that requires only fifth grade math skills. Americans are afraid to divide by five.

Our country bemoans its weakness in math on two levels. On the macro level, our students are regularly trounced by other countries on international tests. On the individual level, kids and adults alike get nervous about math and even despise it, making these test outcomes not all that surprising. As we collectively fret over curricula and lurch from one solution to another, we ignore a much larger piece of the puzzle: our sharp double standard in how we present reading vs. math to our kids. In launching the nonprofit Bedtime Math and navigating the world of early math, I’ve been stunned to discover how our society relentlessly stokes math anxiety—and often from birth.

Let’s quickly run some numbers. Kids live about 8,800 hours a year. Of that, they spend 1,200 hours in school, or fewer if it’s a typical 180-day year. Even if you chop out 3,000 hours or so for sleep, that still leaves far more waking hours spent outside school than in it. As we pound on our schools to perform better, what matters just as much is kids’ exposure to learning outside school. That includes playtime, mealtime, and regular family routines. And the fact is, math is not a big part of that equation.

It begins with our radically different approaches to numeracy and literacy. As Miles Kimball noted in his column “How to turn every child into a “math person,” if a child is struggling with reading, we don’t give up on him or her. Parents and kids do give up on math, however, eventually decaying to “I’m just not a math person.”  In fact, the more positive thinking about reading takes hold even before a child tries to read himself: most parents know to read bedtime stories at night, creating cozy rituals that lead kids to associate books with loving parental attention. Hence many of us read for pleasure as adults. Sadly, “math for pleasure” just isn’t a phrase we throw around.

That’s because most parents don’t do math for fun with their kids. My husband and I did do this, and frankly on a whim: when our first child turned two, we started giving her a little “bedtime math problem” alongside her bedtime story, simply because we both enjoy math. Together we’d count the ears and noses on her stuffed animals; as she grew, we advanced to a wild range of topics, from flamingos to ninja stunts to the chips in chocolate chip cookies. We rolled in addition, then subtraction, then a second child. Years later when our third child turned two, he ran in one night yelling that he wanted a math problem, alerting us that we’d unwittingly created a very unusual household. Math for pleasure is possible.

Friends urged me to share these enticing math problems, and so I launched Bedtime Math, plying porcupines and pillow fights as vehicles for numbers. The wake-up call came when I told people about the blog and get the reaction, “Ewww…math for little kids? How could you do that?” Would we ever say ewww about reading a book to a six-month old? Is counting so different from learning the alphabet? And yet the time-honored way to fall asleep is to count sheep! But somehow, some parents had come to view counting as a borderline dangerous endeavor for kids.

Even when ambitious parents introduce math through books, they tack hard towards the serious. Among Amazon’s 100 top-selling educational books for children, not only are there three times as many reading/writing books as math books, but their difference in tone is night and day. The ABC books sport Bob, Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry characters, and Mad Libs. By contrast, the math books are almost entirely workbooks, and “work” sure doesn’t sound like play. Note that parents see the list of top sellers before anything else, so they’re more likely to click on these workbooks and buy them, thus perpetuating the imbalance. What message does this send to kids about math? I’m proud to say that Bedtime Math has lived among Amazon’s top 20 kids’ math books since it was published, perhaps because it’s often the only playful option on the list.

On the toy front, we again miss an opportunity to spark a love of math early in life. In Amazon’s current 100 bestsellers for babies and toddlers, which were admittedly wholesome, I counted exactly four even vaguely math-related toys: two shape sorters, a cash register, and the eternally fabulous Spirograph. Everything else was oriented towards music, arts and crafts, and bath splash. Again, we signal that math isn’t part of the fun.

Thus, a lot of kids meet math for the first time in kindergarten, as they enter the world of homework, quizzes and tests. That’s probably not the most fun way to meet a subject for the first time. Not coincidentally, studies have shown that math anxiety can surface as early as age five, right when kids start school. What’s worse is that this fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: MRIs of people tackling math problems reveal that anxiety causes blockages that slow one’s working memory, making it harder to perform well. The resulting struggles propagate more math anxiety, and the cycle reinforces itself.

The final nail in the coffin is our after-school infrastructure. Again, let’s run the numbers: Tens of millions of kids—about 60% of them—play organized sports. Nearly as many embark on music or art activities. I haven’t found hard data on book clubs, but such clubs are plentiful, with offerings from Scholastic, Disney and other nationwide players. There are a couple million Boy Scouts and nearly as many Girl Scouts. By contrast, each year only about 180,000 kids participate in arguably the top organized STEM recreational activity, FIRST Robotics. When you slice down to math itself, the fractions ratchet down even faster: only about 70,000 high schoolers compete in theAmerican Mathematics Competitions (AMC), and about 40,000 in MATHCOUNTS. For elementary school kids, there’s no truly widespread or culturally popular offering, as confirmed by a search on Change the Equation’s database; only engineering initiatives pop up for nationwide K-5 activities. By offering only hardcore competitive options in the pure math space, we again signal that math is work intended only for hard-driving achievers, not a fun subject for everyone to enjoy.

In the face of this, we decided that Bedtime Math should create a truly “recreational” after-school club. Less than a year ago we launched our experimental Crazy 8s Club—deliberately without “math club” in the name, lest we send people screaming for cover. Unlike the competitive-worksheet, Olympiad-style clubs, kids in Crazy 8s explore math by building with glow sticks, competing in “Toilet Paper Olympics,” and playing bingo on a life-size board across the floor, all while engaging in fairly real math. The lively (and sneaky) branding seems to have worked: within just a few months we’ve received orders for over 2,000 kits, serving over 30,000 kids in grades K-5. No matter how hostile our culture around the subject, kids are clearly still hungry for fun math, and open to giving it a chance.

This gives me hope that broader change is possible. True, the challenge is enormous: more than one-third of Americans report that they’d rather clean the bathroom than answer a math question. Parents who didn’t like math during their childhood will be hard to convince to buy math toys for their own kids. They’re the same grown-ups sliding the check towards someone else, pleading, “Could you calculate the tip?”—and in front of their ever-observant children. But at Bedtime Math I’ve received some encouraging emails from such parents. They unload about how they hated math as kids, how they grew up to hate it as adults… but how in doing Bedtime Math with their own kids, they’re starting to enjoy math themselves for the first time ever. By returning adults to simple counting and single-digit addition, we can remind them that they are able to do math and should give it another try—not as work, but as play.

This post originally appeared at Confessions of a supply side liberal.