It's Pi Day! Let's talk about how awesome math is for your kids

Updated Oct 12 2015
Math Dances! Photo by Dylan231, used under Creative Commons license.

Growing up I was totally one of those kids that read early, talked early, all that jazz — but hated math. I can't even pretend that I just strongly disliked it, as my feelings were those of straight-up loathing. If I have to place the beginning of this hate-hate relationship, I can safely say it started when I got my first B in sixth grade in algebra.

In retrospect, I wish I hadn't seen the B as a sign of failure, because as an adult I now get that math is AWESOME. I've gone from repeating "you never use math in your real life" as my personal mantra to realizing I use basic math every single day. Maybe algebra and calculus and everything and that comes after are all a little over my head, but the core stuff? It rocks.

As my son gets older (he's about to turn three, so we have time), I know that both myself and my husband Sean will be concerned about teaching him math regardless of the type of education he'll have. It's important to us that we're able to help with him schoolwork, even if it means brushing up on skills we would otherwise love to bury forever (I'm looking at you, geometry). We've been amassing resources pertaining to the topic of helping your kids understand why math is so important… and I figured that today, being Pi Day and all, was as good of a day as any to share one of them.

Why math matters to our kids

When I was in middle school and high school I used to talk about how math doesn't matter because you never really use it so much I'm surprised my mouth didn't fall off my face. It was basically a defensive mechanism: if I said it often enough, it made it ok if I didn't try harder in math. It's not that I couldn't do it, but it's that I didn't want to — and those are hugely different things. Neither of my parents were mathematically inclined, and since I wasn't really struggling (a B isn't that bad, y'all), I didn't reach out to my teachers with my problems and they didn't reach out to me. I feel like this article does an awesome job of summing up why math actually is important in a way that kids can get:

A person's success in life depends on how well she can solve problems. No matter what her career or life situation, she'll find satisfaction and reward by knowing how to tackle challenges head on. And while kids can't possibly practice every problem they'll ever have in life, there is a class in school that can help them learn how to think logically: math.

Doing a math problem helps practice the problem-solving steps that apply to everyday situations: define the problem, think of ways to solve it, implement a solution, and evaluate the results.

Why do people go to the gym to ride the stationary bike? It's not so that they can compete in the stationary bike Olympics, it's to build up their endurance and strength to make the rest of their lives easier and more enjoyable.

Math is like a gym for your brain. You may never need to use the quadratic equation in your adult life, but the process of learning it boosts your brainpower. By practicing how to solve mathematical problems, you optimize your ability to make complex decisions down the road.

Let's get nerdy with it! How are you guys talking about math with your kids? In the US especially low scores in math and reading are already problematic — what are you doing to encourage your kids to dig math?

  1. I always get really, really sad when people say that they hate math. The main thing is that math is a tad more difficult because of the linear progression through the years of school (you have to learn to add before multiplying, before dividing, before algebra, before trig, before calc, etc.) So if you didn't happen to learn one thing well, all of the sudden you hate math because it's really hard!

    Also, geometry is pretty much the most used math (outside of arithmetic) in daily life (think carpentry, figuring out how much paint you need, whether a couch will be able to be hoisted through your second story window, how much food will fit into that tupperware container) so that's another thing I'm always sad about because people don't realize they're doing geometry and have just labeled it as difficult.

    (And yes, I'm totally biased – I'm currently a mechanical engineering student)

    • I just want to say, I love math! It's like a game. When you come up with a solution to an equation you win! Yay!

  2. I HATED math up until college, and in fact, I chose to take Logic for my gen. ed. requirement instead of actual math. The first semester of logic I was still pretty ambivalent, but second semester, oh man. I loved that stuff. I found myself running proofs for fun, and got the highest grade in the class. I'm not saying this to toot my own horn (although that's an added bonus), but to suggest looking into logic as a way to introduce your math-resistant child to those structures of thought. I think it would have helped me out a lot as a kid, back when I had complete meltdowns over long-division and algebra, to take a step back from the scary numbers and really focus on the thought process behind the math.

    Also, I've also always had more success with math that was directly applicable to my life. In science classes, I had no problem running massive equations that would have reduced me to tears in a math class. Helping my dad to calculations for a new fence or the area of a room we were going to paint was no problem. I learned percentages because my parents would have me calculate tips at restaurants. I don't have kids myself, but I think this is the best way to introduce math skills, even if your child struggles with academic math.

  3. What a wonderful post!

    Admittedly, I was terrible at math in school, and it took me a really long time to appreciate the lessons taught to me, even those ever so realistic word problems. I never could help poor Bill and his square footage problem while he was building his house.

    That being said, it was the teacher I had to focused on the problem solving aspects of math that made it more accessible to me. It helped me become a more attentive learner and more rational problem solver. It took a long time, but I finally got to the point where I "got" it. And I never forgot that teacher.

    The kids in your class are lucky to have you 🙂

  4. When I was little, they told me I just "wasn't a math person", that's why it was hard, also I could draw pretty well, so that "made sense".

    That doesn't make sense! Those things aren't opposed!

    I do struggle with arithmetic, I do, but it turns out, math is actually pretty awesome. I didn't realize this until I was an adult, but when I did, I was scandalized.

  5. I did maths up to 18, and then went on to a languages-based degree – it's frightening how much I've forgotten.

    Recently, I've revived a bit of interest (if not actual skills…) by reading a few pop-science maths books, which I've enjoyed SO MUCH.

    Check out "The Music of the Primes" by Marcus de Sautoy (a maths professor at the University of Oxford). A lot of it's basically about how the arithmetic etc that is taught in schools is not maths – it's like comparing learning scales and arpeggios with playing a symphony.

    For slightly older kids (maybe early teens plus), I think reading a little bit about the "symphony" part rather than the "scales" part would be a huge motivator.

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