Summer is a time for play and rest, family time and adventures. But there’s compelling research to show that kids forget a lot of what they learned during the school year if they don’t have opportunities to continue reading, using their mathematical thinking skills, and exploring the world around them. It’s also been well-documented that the gaps between kids from high and low socioeconomic statuses grow over the summer. There are plenty of low-cost ways to keep math learning going through the summer, however, without sitting them down to do worksheets or drilling them on a math app.
1. Engage intrinsic motivation. People are most often intrinsically motivated when they have control over what they’re learning and have a sense of competence while engaging in the learning. The activity isn’t too hard or too easy; it’s just the right amount of challenging to keep the mind engaged. Infuse math learning into activities children already love. For examples, if your child loves Legos, in addition to letting her build whatever she wants, encourage her to make blueprints sometimes of what she’s planning to build. Ask her to predict how many blocks she’ll need and to think about scale, perimeter, and area. This could also work for kids who are passionate about Minecraft. With just a few small tweaks like planning what to build ahead of time, playing Minecraft can be mathematical.
2. Engage the emotional side. A project like building a kite together involves some climactic moments of heightened suspense that will be memorable. Making a stellar kite will require research, planning, measuring, sketches, and probably some trial and error. The first time the child throws the kite in the air to see if it flies will be an emotional moment filled with suspense. And it’s more than likely the design will require more tinkering, and hence more math learning. It could take all summer to build the perfect kite, but along the way will be more learning, revising, and planning. The math is embedded in a fun activity that has an emotional payoff.
3. Use extrinsic rewards wisely. Using extrinsic rewards to get kids to do things is a controversial, though common, practice. Some research indicates that when kids are rewarded for doing things they already like, they lose interest in the activity. That’s one reason some experts don’t recommend rewards for reading — it implies that reading is work, not fun, and must be rewarded. However, there are some parts of math that just aren’t as fun as others. Practice is an important part of math, and is perhaps the best candidate for gamification and careful use of extrinsic rewards. The key is to vary when you give them out, and how many. It may seem counterintuitive, but this variability actually makes kids want to continue because they don’t know how much they’ll get.
4. Engage the brain’s predictive power. Part of being human is making predictions based on the schema we hold in our brains. When the prediction leads to an exciting result, the brain releases dopamine, which helps cement learning. Parents can harness this tendency by encouraging kids to predict things that have some significance to them. These strategies work well with things that regularly update and that a child can check daily. A parent might give the child a hundred imaginary dollars to buy stocks, for example. It takes some calculating and watching patterns to pick investments, and then together parent and child can check the stock prices every day. The idea is the child is getting excited to check this every day, calculating percentages and decimals to see how much you won or lost.
5. Provide a larger goal. Stories and books inherently come with the bigger picture of a narrative, making them attractive to many kinds of learners. Often math isn’t taught with that bigger goal is mind, but it could be. Plan projects that have a beginning, middle, and end. For example, you can do an experiment by leaving different kinds of fruit in the sun and weighing them each day to calculate the water loss. Then every day of the project, the child has to review the information learned and add more to it. Your child can even graph the fruit’s water loss as another way of adding math learning to this project.
6. Use math as a secondary element of a project. There are tons of ways to involve math in a project where the main purpose isn’t mathematical, like baking. The point is the cookies, but it doesn’t hurt to figure out the fractions and ratios together along the way. This method has the added advantage of taking math anxiety — a real phenomenon for many kids — out of the picture. Other ideas could include having kids calculate a summer budget for themselves, or when driving somewhere, asking kids to calculate the best route based on distance, time, and gas consumption.
It takes a little extra work to think about how math could fit into an activity a child is already excited about, but the more seamlessly it can be infused, the more kids will begin to see mathematical thinking as an integral part of life and play. Use to your advantage what you already know about how your children’s brains work, and also reap the benefit of spending fun quality time with them.
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