First of many?

When I first told Katie (6 y/o) that I signed her up for the Math Kangaroo competition, she got very excited and immediately started bombarding me with questions.  Will I win?  What if I don’t win?  What if I can’t solve all the problems?  I had to explain to her that she would probably neither win nor solve all the problems, but that was OK.  All that I expected/hoped for was that she would try her best, not stress too much, and enjoy thinking about the interesting problems.  Easy enough, right?

The above discussion happened 6 months before the actual competition, so in the mean time I told Katie that we would prepare by solving practice problems each week.  Katie quickly realized that the problems could be quite tricky.  She was also not yet fully comfortable with reading complicated sentences, so for a large fraction of the problems she couldn’t understand what was being asked until I explained it to her.

For a few months, Katie was (mostly) reluctantly doing a couple problems per week.  A few times she got excited by a problem and asked for more of that type, but this was rare.  I started becoming afraid that her up until now very positive attitude towards math was turning a little sour.  This made me doubt whether this was all a good idea.

Two weeks before the competition we agreed that we would do two problems per day, rather than the usual two per week.  Suddenly, I saw a noticeable improvement in both her ability to solve the problems and her interest towards them.  There were still some she couldn’t understand and a number that she couldn’t solve, but I made every attempt at mixing them up well with ones she could do.

During this time period, I also made sure to talk to Katie a lot about having the right attitude towards the contest.  I kept stressing that the goal is to have fun and that I would be proud of her no matter how many problems she solved.  I also gave her some tips on how to decide whether the words she doesn’t understand are essential to solving the problem and also when to skip problems.

On the day of the competition, I made sure that Katie got plenty of rest.  When we got to the venue, we discovered that some of our family friends were taking the test at the same location.  This greatly cheered up Katie.  I was amazed that she sat through the whole 75 minutes of the test, working on the problems.

Katie did not get through all the problems.  When we checked her answers in the evening (something I was again surprised that she was up for), we discovered that about half of the ones she solved were correct.  I was very worried that she would be getting upset over each problem she got wrong, however, instead, she was getting excited about each one she got right!  I guess I succeeded at setting her expectations sufficiently low.

Conclusion?  It was overall a very good experience.  Katie learned a lot of math by working on the interesting problems.  She also learned it is okay to make mistakes and not get everything perfectly right (something she certainly expects from school).  And, to my great relief, she still thinks that math is fun and exciting (at least most of the time).  Could it have turned out differently?  Almost certainly.  Was I taking a big risk by signing her up for a difficult competition at such a young age?  What do you think?

About aofradkin

I enjoy thinking about presenting mathematical concepts to young children in exciting and engaging ways.
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8 Responses to First of many?

  1. Joshua says:

    We had a similar experience recently with our 7 yo. A national group runs a competition series for almost all primary and secondary grades, leading up to the selection of their IMO team. We asked whether our child wanted to take the test and got a recent one to sample. His interest was lukewarm and we didn’t push it.

    My primary reason for being ambivalent was that I didn’t think the questions were very good. For example, there was a heavy emphasis on sequence interpolation and extension (you know: 1, 2, 4, 8, what comes next?) There are already such a strong math myths of The One True Answer and Math Work is Silent, Timed, Independent that I hesitate to reinforce. Also, I knew that our choice was between contest prep and other mathematical exploration, so the opportunity cost was meaningful.

    On the other hand, I was a keen academic competitor as a kid and still credit that for having led to many great opportunities and relationships.

    I guess my only summary idea is based on one of the tags you gave your post: fun math. There are plenty of pros and cons, so if it is fun for the kids, that should be the deciding vote.


    • aofradkin says:

      Yes, it should definitely be fun. On the other hand, some things become fun only after you’ve put in some effort. I definitely told Katie that she did not have to do this, but I think that she sensed that I wanted her to. A little motivation can’t hurt too much…right?


  2. J says:

    Shouldn’t a 6 year old be writing for 45 minutes, and not 75?


    • aofradkin says:

      I totally agree with you, and if I was making up a contest for 1st graders I’d definitely have it be no longer than 45 mins. However, I’m happy that Katie was able to sit through it and it didn’t even seem all that painful. On the other hand, there are probably other kids her age for whom the length would be an issue.


  3. David says:

    I agree that a little nudging is okay, but it should but up to her, and she should actually want to do it or not bother. When I was her age and a few years older, I couldn’t get enough math, and I always enjoyed math contests (and chess tournaments), though I didn’t get an opportunity to do them until 7th grade. I have a similar attitude towards music and sports, by the way. It’s good to encourage children to do them, but they should only participate if they actually want to.


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