Problems in math? Solve them with play time

(ROCKWALL/HEATH – April 13, 2016) Once while working with a 2nd grader, I was reminded that just because a child knows a particular math skill, does not necessarily mean they will understand related or corollary facts.  This young man effortlessly counted by 2’s beginning at 2, however, when I asked him to then count by 2’s beginning at 3, he looked very puzzled, then said with a great deal of certainty and satisfaction, “You can’t do that.”

It is times like these that we need to go back to the basics.  Here are a few guidelines that can help a child’s thinking process.

  1. Start with a question – get the child’s thinking and imagination involved in the process of discovery so they can understand the problem.
  2. Remember, students need to struggle with a problem – grappling with a concept gets their whole brain involved in the learning process. It does not serve a child well to make every problem easy for them.
  3. Understand that you are not the answer key – we teach our instructors that we are in the question asking business, not the answer giving business. Every time a child turns to a tutor or a calculator for an answer, they have lost an opportunity to understand how to think critically or analyze a problem.
  4. Respond positively to their ideas – wrong answers are not an occasion to criticize and can be addressed without becoming negative by going back to number 1. Ask questions to help a young student understand how he arrived at the solution and how it can be approached differently. Thinking through their own work is a great way to help children develop analytical skills.
  5. Help the child to understand math isn’t just about following rules – it is about playing with numbers. Probably one of the best things we can do as a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle is to just spend time playing with children.

“What books are to reading, play is to mathematics.” *

Most things in life have these two properties in common: denomination (a name) and quantity (how many). These are the concrete things of life that mathematical abstractions are ultimately about, and how we approach teaching children this can determine whether math will ultimately serve them or control them. If we make math a system of rules, it will become drudgery for children. If we make math a part of their everyday life, it will become second nature to them.

*Dan Finkel, Founder and Director of Operations of Math for Love

By Blue Ribbon News guest columnists Bob and Becky Barnes with Mathnasium Learning Center in Rockwall. Contact them at

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