… makes sense
… is more than just arithmetic
… is joyous
… makes them strong
… is meaningful
… is creative
… is full of fascinating questions
… opens up many paths to solutions
… is friendly
… solves big problems and makes the world better
… is a powerful tool they can master
… is beautiful
… lets them learn in their own ways
… is connected to their lives
… asks “why” and not just “how”
… opens the world

From the upcoming new book Avoid Hard Work by James Tanton and the Natural Math team.

I love it when a plan — or rather, a series of math thoughts — comes together.

On Monday, Emily Grosvenor (author of the Tessalation! picture book) asked me how parents who are insecure in math could help their children learn through play, and I responded with this quote from my Let’s Play Math book:

If you are intimidated by numbers, you can look for patterns of shape and color. Pay attention to how they grow. Talk about what your children notice.

But I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that answer. So many adults have come away from their own school experience thinking math is only numbers. Even with shapes, isn’t it the numbers about them — how many sides, what size of angles, calculate the the area or perimeter — that are important? That’s what school math tends to focus on.

Those of us who are comfortable with math know that there are many more things to notice and think about than just numbers. We know that it’s this noticing, thinking, and wondering that is at the heart of math. And that just playing with shapes can build a powerful foundation for future math learning.

The ability to create, and maintain, and manipulate shapes mentally — that’s the goal. Just like kids who can put numbers together in their heads, kids who can rotate, flip, and think of how shapes fit together in their heads have a powerful tool to analyze not only simple shape puzzles, but dividing up an area that’s a more complex room shape … to look at a piece of artwork … or look at a building … For these kids, all the world around becomes a playground to use mathematical ideas.

Of course, pattern blocks are good for much more than just filling in worksheet pictures. But I love this peek into how a child’s understanding grows, in bits and spurts — without any numbers at all — until the world itself becomes a playground for mathematical ideas.

Want more?

You know what? Children like mathematics. Children see the world mathematically … When we do a puzzle, when we count things, when we see who’s got more, or who’s taller … Play and mathematics are not on opposite sides of the stage.

The most effective and powerful way I’ve found to commit math facts to memory is to try to understand why they’re true in as many ways as possible. It’s a very slow process, but the fact becomes permanently lodged, and I usually learn a lot of surrounding information as well that helps me use it more effectively.
…
Actually, a close friend of mine describes this same experience: he couldn’t learn his times tables in elementary school and used to think he was dumb. Meanwhile, he was forced to rely on actually thinking about number relationships and properties of operations in order to do his schoolwork. (E.g. I can’t remember 9×5, but I know 8×5 is half of 8×10, which is 80, so 8×5 must be 40, and 9×5 is one more 5, so 45. This is how he got through school.) Later, he figured out that all this hard work had actually given him a leg up because he understood numbers better than other folks. He majored in math in college and is now a cancer researcher who deals with a lot of statistics.

I’ve started collecting quotes about teaching math for the chapter pages in my next Math You Can Play book. Here are a couple snippets that don’t fit the theme of “Multiplication & Fractions,” but they struck my fancy anyway:

If teachers would only encourage guessing. I remember so many of my math teachers telling me that if you guess, it shows that you don’t know. But in fact there is no way to really proceed in mathematics without guessing. You have to guess! You have to have intuitive judgment as to the way it might go. But then you must be willing to check your guess. You have to know that simply thinking it may be right doesn’t make it right.

One of the big misapprehensions about mathematics that we perpetrate in our classrooms is that the teacher always seems to know the answer to any problem that is discussed. This gives students the idea that there is a book somewhere with all the right answers to all of the interesting questions, and that teachers know those answers. And if one could get hold of the book, one would have everything settled. That’s so unlike the true nature of mathematics.

Teacher calls out numbers consecutively, starting at 0.

When a student hears their number being called they immediately raise a hand. When the teacher tags the hand, they stand up.

If more than one hand was raised, those students lose. They become your helpers, tagging raised hands.

If only one hand was raised, that child wins the round.

“Each game takes about 45 seconds,” Hamilton says. “This is part of the key to its success. Children who have not learned the art of losing are quickly thrown into another game before they have a chance to get sad.”

The experience of mathematics should be profound and beautiful. Too much of the regular K-12 mathematics experience is trite and true. Children deserve tough, beautiful puzzles.

What are the best numbers to pick? Patrick Vennebush hosted on online version of the game at his Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog a few years back, though we didn’t have to bend over into rocks—which is a good thing for some of us older folks.