# Playing with Math – Part II

Okay, so I’m almost done reading Math Recess by Sunil Singh and Dr. Christopher Brownell. Sunil is one of my recent friends on Twitter, and I’m intrigued by some of his posts. I also read this blog with a slightly different viewpoint about mathematics education. I see both viewpoints, and I remember sharing my doubts with Sunil about whether re-inventing math education was possible. After all, we as educators often teach the way we were taught.

Reading this book has been both eye-opening and a bit depressing because it clearly emphasized how much I don’t remember about the math I learned way back, over 50 years ago when I was in high school. I got up to Algebra 5/Trigonometry but decided not to take Pre-Calculus in my senior year. I figured I didn’t really need higher math when I got to college since I planned to major in early childhood education. As I grappled with the puzzles and the concepts in Math Recess, I realized that even if I received pretty good grades in my high school math classes, I certainly didn’t remember much. It was staircase math, and I was good at remembering and applying formulas to solve problems so I could move on to the next level of math. But once I didn’t use those skills, I forgot them. I believe that’s the problem with math education today. Someone (math experts?) decides what needs to be taught in what grade or what class, and students are then assessed to see if they mastered the concept or not. Then they move on to the next chapter in the curriculum.

As an early childhood teacher, however, I believe that ‘play’ is children’s work. Through hands-on exploration, play, and discussions with their peers, children discover much more than they would if we ‘taught’ it. When I taught first and second graders, I had already spent 15 years teaching preschoolers. Those early years were influential in how I viewed learning especially for math. I’d like to share some examples of how my students taught me about math exploration and discovery, about playing with math.

One of the greatest strategies I learned was from a kindergarten teacher called “Number of the Day.” If it was the 15th day of school, students came up with number sentences that equaled 15 such as 15+0=15 or 14+1=15 or 10+5. When someone suggested that 5+5+5=15, I wrote that number sentence on the board, drew a picture, and then introduced the students to multiplication: 3 groups of 5 or 3×5=15.  The students were so excited to realize that they could do multiplication, and from then on, they looked for opportunities to show the number of the day using multiplication: (3×5) +2 =17 or (5×4) -1 = 19, etc. On the 25th day, a student shared that 5×5=25, and that was an opportunity to show the class how to write that with an exponent – five squared = 25. And when students were playing with the magnetic tiles, they suddenly had an “aha” moment: “Mrs. Iwase, now I know why they call it a square number! Because it makes a square!” They then made more squares and wrote those equations in their math journals. It was exciting for these students to share with their classmates. Sometimes, I had kids do “Number of the Day” as an assessment task. They loved it, and I was proud of how much their math confidence and competence grew from this activity.