Your Kids Don’t Have to Do Math Right Now, But If They Want to…..

 In Justice Blog, Members Blog, News, Virtual CWOW

Hello All! 

Before we start with the math, can we take a moment for those who are continuing to feed and protect us; those who have lost dear ones; and for the health care workers who are fighting tooth and nail to keep people alive and taking on a huge emotional burden when they lack the resources to do so. 

First, I am not worried about lost learning time, and you shouldn’t be either. I want you to know that I am praying for every single one of you to be able to draw deeper into your well of patience than you ever thought you’d have to go. I know you love your children dearly and I bet after a week of no school or no play-dates or no friends you are all probably driving each other crazy!  And that is why I am going to start off by saying something seemingly contradictory- don’t worry about learning right now. That’s right, I said it. If you need to let your children eat cookies all day  in front of the TV with Frozen II on a loop, please, by all means, do that!! (People who know me realize how shocking it is that I would say that- these are the times we’re in.) 

I love the hilarious homeschool memes and posts and videos I’m seeing on social media. But please know, nobody should be expected to reproduce the school experience at home at this moment. Right now, our job is to stay well and stay apart so other people can stay alive. That is it! The emotional burden we are bearing right now is too great. If your children don’t do math for a few weeks, I’m okay with that. Let them take a virtual tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium if that’s what they like. (Oh, I just distracted myself for 5 minutes watching the sea otters eat.)  Or learn how to draw with Mo Willems at lunchtime. Really, let your children guide you in how they want to spend their time because they are dealing with big emotions that they probably don’t know how to make sense of or express. The last thing anybody needs is struggles over homework or homeschooling. I loved what Sarah said at Godly Play about looking back and telling the story of this time. Our children will most remember how they felt during this emergency. Let’s help them feel safe and happy. Math facts can come later. 

That being said,  here are some math things to do. But promise me, you’ll only do them  if they seem fun and intriguing to your children. Do not do a single one of these activities if it is a chore or a fight. And, in fact, if your child’s teacher gave you workbooks or worksheets as a last minute attempt to give you something, use them as kindling. Trust me, teachers aren’t going to check if you got them done. And they probably don’t even think they’re the best thing for your child to do. We all just wanted to do something for our students in that last moment of seeing them and this was the best we could come up with on such short notice. 

In fact, give all of us educators a little time to figure this out. None of us thought we’d be saying goodbye to you as our students for the year and we are all heartbroken over that fact. But the good news is, we’ll see you on Zoom soon if we haven’t already. We’ll have had time to figure out how to get everybody back on the same page. 

In the meantime, here are some mathy things your children can do to keep busy in between showings of The Lego Movie. 

Counting Collections– Counting collections are so brilliant and elegant in their simplicity. I love how such a seemingly mundane activity brings forth so much math! 

Kids need to count things to deepen their number sense and they never get enough time to do just that. Go for a walk and take a bag with you to pick up interesting things. Don’t count them yet! When you get home, have your child count them. The only rule-and it’s a really, really, really, important one- is, DO NOT tell your child how to count them. You’re going to be tempted to say, let’s put them in groups of ……. Bite your tongue. Let your child do their thing. Go make a second cup of coffee or get some of your work done. Or just take a break yourself because I know you need it. 

Have your child draw how they grouped things. Have them count for you. You can ask interesting math questions about the counting. Here’s an example of a conversation that happened with me and my young friends B and Fern. Fern had made groups of 10 on the couch and had counted up to 190 when Bernard brought one last group of 10 to the couch: 

Fern: 10, 20, 30………….180, 190

B: Okay, here’s 10 more, that makes it 200.

Me: Whoa, 200!! And how did you know that without counting? 

B: Well, I know 190 and 10 more would make 200

Me: How did you know that? 

B: Well, I knew 9 plus one more is 10, so 190 plus 10 is 200

Me: Let’s go back to the table and write that down. I’m still not sure how it works, will you explain it to me? 

This then led to a conversation about how if 9 +1=10 then 9 tens plus 1 ten equals 10 tens which is really a hundred. (This is a very important understanding about the concept of place value.) 

This is just one example of how a math conversation could go. If you’re thinking, “Well, Tracey, how am I supposed to know what kind of  math conversation to have with my kid?” Here are some things you can do to extend the activity and here are some more ways you can tie it to specific grade level standards 1st-3rd grade. But please don’t feel like you have to. You’re golden if all you do is sit back and enjoy your child’s thinking while you watch them arrange their counting collection. 

You can count all of the loose change you can find. You can count all of the silverware or all of the socks in the house. Puzzle pieces make a great counting collection. 

If you want to bring fractions into it, grab a few handfuls of legos and tell your child, choose one of these that has a value of one. If this one has a value of one, what is the value of the others? What is the value of the whole collection? 

If you have a lot of buttons you can count the buttons, then count all of the holes in the buttons (this can bring in multiplication and how to write a math sentence using parentheses.) 

You could grab some favorite read alouds and count all of the pages in the books. 

You could count dominos but…count the dots on the dominos. Same with dice. 

Here’s a good rule of thumb for  the amounts in counting collections. No need to be precise. In fact, it’s better if it’s not a nice round number. 

K-up to 30’ish. 

1st-up to 120’ish, 

2nd-3rd-up to and beyond 250’ish  (different for money) 

4th-5th-up to and beyond 350’ish. Value collections are better. For example, pages of several notebooks with at least one or two that have some missing.  Pages in a stack of books. If you have a lot of decks of cards for some reason. 


Card Games–  I hate the title of this post because I’m not about turning people into “math aces”, but these are great cards for building fluency. What do I mean by fluency? Many of us think fluency is about learning facts and being fast at recalling them. We probably learned them in memorization drills and flash cards. DO NOT DO THAT!  It sends the implicit message to your child that math is about fast right answer getting. Then, the kids who aren’t fast tell themselves that they aren’t mathematicians and the kids who are fast don’t learn that math is really about the thinking you do to get an answer (and the thinking you do after you get the answer.) 

Fluency is much more than memorizing facts and computing fast. In fact, when your children grow up and enter into a profession, the last thing they’ll need is to compute fast. We have computers in our pockets for that. Instead, they’ll need a deep understanding of how our number system works; how to approach and solve a problem, to know how to find and recognize patterns, to think flexibly, and to use a wide variety of strategies to solve a problem. (That’s why all of that Common Core Math homework boggles your mind, it’s teaching your kids lots of different strategies you never learned.) 

When you’re playing these games, ask your children “How’d you get that answer?” every once in a while. The best thing you can do is ask them to explain their thinking- but not to the point where it becomes tedious. New research in math learning is showing us that students gain deeper understanding when they’re given a chance to fully explain their thinking. Let your kids do that when you’re playing math games with them. (But not to the point where it seems like homework.)


Standards Aligned Math Games– I love these games and I use them all of the time. They are directly aligned to the Common Core Math Standards and they’re easy to learn and fun to play. 

Before you get into the games, a word about how we learn new math concepts. As humans learning math, we follow a certain progression that moves from direct modeling  to using facts and strategies we already know to find an answer to memorized rules, facts, and algorithms. 

What does that mean? Here’s an example using the problem, “Anne has to bike to the grocery story 4 times. In each trip, she bikes 6 blocks. How many blocks does she bike for all of her trips?” 

Direct modeling: You actually build it with objects (like the tiles below in an array) or you draw it.  Then you count the objects one by one, or with skip counting or repeated addition (see below.) 

Using facts and strategies you already know: Well, I know 5×4 is 20, so I’ll just add another 4 so 6 x 4=24 (sound Common Corey to you?) 

Using memorized facts, rules, algorithms: I just know 6 x 4 = 24. 

We usually move kids to the last step with not enough time for the first two. It’s really important to give them time in the first two and that’s what all of these activities are designed to do. 

If you want to learn more about the learning progressions of specific math concepts (for example, addition and subtraction or multiplication and division) these are great videos which are easy to watch. I recommend you watch them if you have time because it will help you know where your child is and that will help you help them. 

This is a great game for supporting the concrete direct modeling of multiplication. 

First you spin: 

Then you build it. 

Then you use repeated addition and skip counting (the beginning of multiplication):

Then you mark your answer on the board to try to get 4 in a row. You can use some type of game marker, but I slipped this in a page protector and used a dry erase marker. One of us was x’s, the other one’s. I lost.

Some of these games might take materials you don’t have, but you can get creative. You’ll need a printer to print them, mostly. 

Here’s one where we got by without printing it because we had some graph paper. And I forgot the dice, so we used the cards 1-6 from a deck of cards. 

This game is the next step in learning progression. The first one is more concrete and that’s where my friend Fern needed to be. B was bored because they didn’t need to build it, so we moved to the next step of  drawing to directly model. 

First, we each choose a different color pencil. Then, a player draws two cards (or rolls two dice)

Next, they make an array on the grid paper in your color, outline the grid and write a number sentence that could match it.

Then you each add up all of your products, which is another great math exercise. Whoever got  the most squares wins. 

A note about these games. They are by grade level, but don’t be afraid to move down a grade level. It’s not a negative assessment of your kid. Most of our students don’t get the time they really need to become deeply fluent. Now is an opportunity to give them that time. I’ve taken the above game (it’s called Raging Rectangles) and even though it first appears in the 3rd grade book, I play it with 4th and 5th graders all of the time. They love it and they still need the practice. 

Lastly, here is a compilation of resources  (also in Spanish)  we originally put together for summer learning. I want to make a special note that any kind of building will lay a foundation for understanding fractions in later years. But who ends up with all of the toys that involve building? Typically boys, right? Please, encourage your girls to build, too. 

I hope you all have fun with math. Remember, your child’s math understanding will be deepened if you give them lots of chances to explain their thinking. You can provide opportunities by asking, not telling. Ask them how they got an answer, don’t tell them how they should get it. But really, just relax and enjoy this precious time you get with your sparkly diamonds. I know there is a lot of stress associated with it, but it truly is a gift to just slow down and play with your kids. Don’t worry about the academics. Us educators have never been faced with anything like this, but we’ll figure it out for you. Your only job is to love, love, love your kids and yourselves right now. And stay away from other people in body only. 




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