“Worksheet problems make my daughter’s brain freeze. Even simple things such as “2 + ___ = 2″ confuse her. What can I do?”

Can your daughter do math if you put away the worksheet and ask her a real-life problem: “I have a lunch sack. I put two cookies into the sack, and then I give it to you. When you look into the sack, you see two cookies there. Can you tell me what was in the sack at the beginning, before I put my cookies in?”

Or can she solve problems when the answer isn’t zero? Could she figure out how many you started with if she saw four cookies when she looked in the sack?

The idea of having a number for “nothing” can seem strange to young children.

Worksheet Calculations Are Not Math

Can your daughter think mathematically, without calculations?

The symbols on the worksheet are not math. They are just one way of recording how we think about number relationships, and not a very natural way for children. Mathematics is a way of thinking — paying attention to the relationship between ideas and reasoning out connections between them. Encourage your daughter to notice these relationships and wonder about them.

Try watching Christopher Danielson’s video “One is one … or is it?” together, and then see how many different examples of “one” she can find around the house.

The Power of Story

Many kids at this age have a hard time with abstract number math — then their brains will grow up, and they’ll be able to do it. Development varies from one child to another.

When I do worksheets with young children, I turn each equation into a little story. Like the “cookies in a lunch sack” story above.

Sometimes we use blocks or other manipulatives to count on, but often the mental picture of a story is enough. Having something solid to imagine helps the child reason out the relationships between the numbers and symbols.

Quote photo: Carl Vilhelm Holsøe ‘Interior with a mother reading aloud to her daughter’ 19th Century. Image from Plum Leaves via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Have you made a New Year’s resolution to spend more time with your family this year, and to get more exercise? Problem-solvers of all ages can pump up their (mental) muscles with the Annual Mathematics Year Game Extravaganza. Please join us!

For many years mathematicians, scientists, engineers and others interested in math have played “year games” via e-mail. We don’t always know whether it’s possible to write all the numbers from 1 to 100 using only the digits in the current year, but it’s fun to see how many you can find.

Use the digits in the year 2016 to write mathematical expressions for the counting numbers 1 through 100. The goal is adjustable: Young children can start with looking for 1-10, middle grades with 1-25.

You must use all four digits. You may not use any other numbers.

Solutions that keep the year digits in 2-0-1-6 order are preferred, but not required.

You may use a decimal point to create numbers such as .2, .02, etc., but you cannot write 0.02 because we only have one zero in this year’s number.

You may create multi-digit numbers such as 10 or 201 or .01, but we prefer solutions that avoid them.

My Special Variations on the Rules

You MAY use the overhead-bar (vinculum), dots, or brackets to mark a repeating decimal. But students and teachers beware: you can’t submit answers with repeating decimals to Math Forum.

You MAY use a double factorial, n!! = the product of all integers from 1 to n that have the same parity (odd or even) as n. I’m including these because Math Forum allows them, but I personally try to avoid the beasts. I feel much more creative when I can wrangle a solution without invoking them.

You know you’re a math teacher when you see a penny in the parking lot, and your first thought is, “Cool! A free math manipulative.”

My homeschool co-op math students love doing math with pennies. They’re rather heavy to carry to class, but worth it for the student buy-in.

This month, I’m finishing up the nearly 150 new illustrations for the upcoming paperback edition of my Let’s Play Math book. I’m no artist, and it’s been a long slog. But a couple of the graphics involved pennies—so when I saw that penny on the ground, it made me think of my book.

And thinking of my book made me think it would be fun to share a sneak peek at coming attractions…

The Penny Square: An Example of Real Mathematics

Real mathematics is intriguing and full of wonder, an exploration of patterns and mysterious connections. It rewards us with the joy of the “Aha!” feeling. Workbook math, on the other hand, is several pages of long division by hand followed by a rousing chorus of the fraction song: “Ours is not to reason why, just invert and multiply.”

Real math is the surprising fact that the odd numbers add up to perfect squares (1, 1 + 3, 1 + 3 + 5, etc.) and the satisfaction of seeing why it must be so.

Did your algebra teacher ever explain to you that a square number is literally a number that can be arranged to make a square? Try it for yourself:

Gather a bunch of pennies—or any small items that will not roll away when you set them out in rows—and place one of them in front of you on the table. Imagine drawing a frame around it: one penny makes a (very small) square. One row, with one item in each row.

Now, put out three more pennies. How will you add them to the first one in order to form a new, bigger square? Arrange them in a small L-shape around the original penny to make two rows with two pennies in each row.

Set out five additional pennies. Without moving the current four pennies, how can you place these five to form the next square? Three rows of three.

Then how many will you have to add to make four rows of four?

Each new set of pennies must add an extra row and column to the current square, plus a corner penny where the new row and column meet. The row and column match exactly, making an even number, and then the extra penny at the corner makes it odd.

Can you see that the “next odd number” pattern will continue as long as there are pennies to add, and that it could keep going forever in your imagination?

The point of the penny square is not to memorize the square numbers or to get any particular “right answer,” but to see numbers in a new way—to understand that numbers are related to each other and that we can show such relationships with diagrams or physical models. The more relationships like this our children explore, the more they see numbers as familiar friends.

The Penny Birthday Challenge: Exponential Growth

A large jar of assorted coins makes a wonderful math toy. Children love to play with, count, and sort coins.

Add a dollar bill to the jar, so you can play the Dollar Game: Take turns throwing a pair of dice, gathering that many pennies and trading up to bigger coins. Five pennies trade for a nickel, two nickels for a dime, etc. Whoever is the first to claim the dollar wins the game.

Or take the Penny Birthday Challenge to learn about exponential growth: Print out a calendar for your child’s birthday month. Put one penny on the first day of the month, two pennies on the second day, four pennies on the third day, etc. If you continued doubling the pennies each day until you reach your child’s birthday, how much money would you need?

Warning: Beware the Penny Birthday Challenge! Those pennies will add up to dollars much faster than most people expect. Do not promise to give the money to your child unless the birthday comes near the beginning of the month.

A Penny Holiday Challenge

The first time I did pennies on a calendar with my homeschool co-op class was during December, so we called it the Penny Christmas Challenge:

How many pennies would you need to cover all the days up to the 25th?

I told the kids that if their grandparents asked what gift they wanted for Christmas, they could say, “Not much. Just a few pennies…”

The Penny Square, Dollar Game, and Penny Birthday Challenge are just three of the myriad math tips and activity ideas in the paperback edition of Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together and Enjoy It. Coming in early 2016 to your favorite online bookstore…

Claim your two free learning guide booklets, and be one of the first to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Math Concepts: basic facts of addition, multiplication. Players: one. Equipment: one deck of math cards (poker- or bridge-style playing cards with the face cards and jokers removed).

The best way to practice the math facts is through the give-and-take of conversation, orally quizzing each other and talking about how you might figure the answers out. But occasionally your child may want a simple, solitaire method for review.

Students can explore prime and non-prime numbers with two free favorite classroom games: The Factor Game (pdf lesson download) or Tax Collector. For $15-20 you can buy a downloadable file of the beautiful, colorful, mathematical board game Prime Climb. Or try the following game by retired Canadian math professor Jerry Ameis:

Math Concepts: multiples, factors, composite numbers, and primes. Players: only two. Equipment: pair of 6-sided dice, 10 squares each of two different colors construction paper, and the game board (click the image to print it, or copy by hand).

On your turn, roll the dice and make a 2-digit number. Use one of your colored squares to mark a position on the game board. You can only mark one square per turn.

If your 2-digit number is prime, cover a PRIME square.

If any of the numbers showing are factors of your 2-digit number, cover one of them.

BUT if there’s no square available that matches your number, you lose your turn.

The first player to get three squares in a row (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) wins. Or for a harder challenge, try for four in a row.

Feature photo at top of post by Jimmie via flickr (CC BY 2.0). This game was featured in the Math Teachers At Play (MTaP) math education blog carnival: MTaP #79. Hat tip: Jimmie Lanley.

Claim your two free learning guide booklets, and be one of the first to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Math Concepts: addition to thirty-one, thinking ahead. Players: best for two. Equipment: one deck of math cards.

How to Play

Lay out the ace to six of each suit in a row, face up and not overlapping, one suit above another. You will have one column of four aces, a column of four twos, and so on—six columns in all.

The first player flips a card upside down and says its number value. Players alternate, each time turning down one card, mentally adding its value to the running total, and saying the new sum out loud. The player who exactly reaches thirty-one, or who forces the next player to go over that sum, wins the game.