My memories of math being fun go way back to early childhood. I don’t recall the exact age at which I started begging my dad for math problems, but it was definitely years before I started school. Perhaps not surprisingly, the problems that he would give me (and my sister) were not like any that we would ever encounter in school. They were mostly little logic puzzles, often with fun stories attached to them. Tales of knights and knaves (aka truthtellers and liars), pirates weighing and dividing gold, friends wanting to fairly cut a cake, and the like. We also did quite a bit of mental math, which may not sound as exciting, but we really enjoyed the tricks my dad would show us and try to come up with ones of our own.

One thing, however, that I do not remember at all from my early years, is sitting down to specifically do math. All of these problems were always given to us as a matter of fact, on the go. And in fact, many of my memories from childhood are from being “on the go.” Whether on a train to a different city, on the bus to a friend’s house, or just taking a stroll through the park – these travels were never tedious because my dad had, what seemed like an endless collection of riddles and puzzles to entertain us with.

By contrast, I feel that a lot more of the math that I do with my kids (mainly Katie who is 6.5 years old) is of the sit-down type. It usually starts with “lets do a math activity” or “lets solve a math problem”, and is more often than not initiated by me. Oh, Katie almost always enjoys the activity, or even solving the word problems (as long as they’re not too difficult 🙂 ), but she is a little kid, so if left to her own devices, this is not how she chooses to spend her time.

As for when we’re on the go, Katie generally prefers to daydream or listen to music. Occasionally, she will start up a math conversation on her own, such as this or this, and those usually go way better than the ones that I initiate. So I’m definitely not complaining here – we do plenty of math with Katie and, for the most part, she thinks that math is fun. She even sometimes says that she wants to be a mathematician (along with ballerina, gymnast, and ice cream taster). But I think it is natural for us to want to mimic the things that we think our parents did really well.

Of course, Katie is still quite young and her attitude towards different ways of doing math can still change many times (although hopefully not towards math itself). Also, it is very possible that she will remember her childhood experiences with math quite differently from the way I’m seeing it now.

What types of activities do you do “on the go” with your kids?

Something that stands out is that when a fairly straight forward kind of calculation would come up we’d work out the answer separately, but then follow up with how did you get the answer? which sounds rather dry, but everyone seemed to have their own ways of rearranging the numbers to get their answer, and it would be fascinating to compare all the different ways we worked out the same problem.

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When I have enough energy to prepare, I make sure to have a couple of puzzles or challenges for the kids. I’m embarrassed to admit it doesn’t happen as often as it should. There are a bunch of paper+pencil games that are easy (nim variations, tic-tac-toe variations, dots+boxes, sprouts) and a couple of hand-games of strategy (chopsticks, mentioned recently on Let’s Play Math). Based on your book list, we just started playing with the riddles in Alice in Puzzle Land, so that has been great for truth-teller/liar riddles.

At other times, I just tell the kids about something mathematical or quantitative that I’m working on. They may not get interested in the “main problem” I want to solve, but almost always ask their own questions and find something worth exploring. At this age (8 and under) the threshold for something being an interesting question is actually pretty low.

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My grandmother used to talk about how when she and her grandfather drove me and my brother on a multi-day trip once (when I was a bit younger than Katie), I would insist on having her ask me lots of arithmetic problems to do in my head. I also remember, a few years later, working out (in my head) on a school trip to the beach that starting Tic Tac Toe in a corner beats every response except the middle. And my daddy and others would give me sequences and ask for the next number. So I was doing math on the go, too.

I think you can look for interesting things to come up. You’re driving somewhere? How far have you gone? How long has it taken? What has been your average speed so far? How far do you have to go? How long will it take?

Some day when you’re walking down the street and see a manhole cover, ask her why they’re round!

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What if you always say “Let’s play math”? Stand, sit, walk, drive but still play, not do math.

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