What’s the point of learning math? Why is it so important that kids are exposed to mathematical thinking? And what do parents and teachers need to know about learning real math? Keep on reading to find out.
Today is a very special episode of the Math Dude. To begin with, it’s episode 300. And because we humans have 10 fingers, we love to give special meaning to multiples of 10. But while that’s fun, it’s not the big news of the day or what makes this episode special to me. The big news is that this 300th episode is my last. Between my day job as a physics and astronomy professor and my day-and-night job of being “Dad” to an awesome and bustling 3-year-old, my free time for Math Dude duties has dwindled. And although I will surely miss all of you math fans, after seven years on the job, it's time to say goodbye.
But before I go, I have one more thing to say—and I think it’s the most important thing I’ve ever said on the show. It’s not something that I would (or even could) have said when I wrote the first episode seven years ago, because I wasn’t yet a father and so I wasn’t yet watching somebody discover the world for the first time. So please take a few minutes and listen, because I think this is something that everybody who has kids or might have kids or works with kids or might work with kids should know.
Here it is: Math is a playground … so play! Allow me to explain.
Math Is a Playground
A few days ago, I was at the park with my daughter watching her play. She’s at a very adventurous age and is constantly testing out every possible pathway to the top of what she has dubbed the “mermaid castle.” As she stretched her relatively tiny legs from rung-to-rung over what comparatively looked like a gaping chasm, I squiggled and squirmed as I struggled to keep myself from jumping up and lifting her over what I perceived to be a great danger. But she was careful, she didn’t fall, and she learned a bit about the world.
To be sure, playgrounds can be dangerous. So why do we let our kids play on them? Because playgrounds exercise their bodies. And not just in the sense of improving cardiovascular health or building strong bones and muscles. Those are all lovely side-effects, but what playgrounds do is provide kids with a relatively safe way to learn about using their bodies to navigate the world—how to balance, how to get from here-to-there, what to do when you get stuck. In other words, how to solve problems in the physical world.
As I was watching my daughter, I realized that math too is a playground. But it’s not a playground for our bodies, it’s a playground for our minds. In a way I’ve always known this to be true, but I’d never thought about it quite like this. And the thing is that this is pretty much the opposite of the way kids are commonly talked to and taught about math (and many of the sciences, too). All too often we’re taught that math is a tool—and only a tool—that we need to master in order to complete some boring but purportedly important task. We drill and drill our kids with arithmetic or factoring problems, but we never allow them to explore. And we never really allow them to play.