# Learning Math Playfully

The dusty pages of history can take you on an exhilarating adventure, if you allow them. But, you might be surprised to find that one of the consistent threads throughout this narrative is the story of math. From peasants learning to count, to Renaissance scholars sitting in bubonic plague-infested cities and writing theorems with feather quills and blotched ink, math is full of drama and suspense, creativity, philosophy, and: a vivid and palpable connection to the real world.

How then, did we get here - where math has been ripped from the living world and has become about dead and meaningless numbers on a flat page? Instead of a wondrous way to view the world around us, it’s become a problem that trips people up. And instead of seeing how it brings us solutions untold, for most people, it brings about crippling fear.

We need to set things straight and give our kids the best chance at succeeding with math. Part of the answer lies in allowing children to playfully explore the rich heritage of math.

### The Ancient Story of Math

Over the course of centuries, math has carved a trail through human civilization. It’s been there to solve riddles and puzzles, to help develop logic and philosophy, and always, it’s been intensely practical and has provided real-world solutions to real problems.

But what does it take to discover and develop the most simple mathematical concepts? Let’s take the numbers we use every day as part of our counting system. We can use 10 symbols to refer to everything from the teeniest thing in the universe to the largest. Incredible. But it took us thousands of years’ worth of tinkering to get there.

We now present this abstract concept to our toddlers and preschoolers and expect them to come onto the scene and simply understand it. Why not give them time to travel along those dusty pages of history so they can come to the same conclusions—without forcing the end of a long story on them? In this way, they can playfully rediscover numbers, without this being shoved into their heads through rote learning.

And this doesn’t only go for the basic digits! From basic geometry, to calculus and higher levels of math, it’s possible to trace back the steps of mathematicians through time.

### Finding Math in History and the Real World

We’re all about playful exploration and learning things without making them abstract. One way is to simply explore. Some say that you should emphasize math just because it’s beautiful. And yes, it is. But beyond its beauty, it is intensely practical.

### Math Is a Language

Math is a language, a language of patterns. As it evolved and matured over millennia, mathematicians found ways to show what they were thinking with a series of symbols. These symbols were created to help them communicate clearly and simply.

The simplest of these symbols is the basic ten digits: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. We don’t think of them as symbols because we are so used to what they represent. But think, for example, what the number 4 looks like to a young preschooler! It’s a meaningless scribble that they need to learn to connect with the concept of four.

And that’s only the start. Math consists of a massive set of symbols and words that are completely unintelligible if you can’t speak and read the language. This isn’t something that’s unique to math. In military communication, a command like, “Echo bravo, move to delta two,” would be as meaningless to you as an air traffic controller’s statement that says: “Cleared ILS runway 27R approach.” The difference is that in some fields, people are more aware that their lingo is strange, and instructors are careful to train and explain.

With math, though, we fail to remember that there is a language component to it and to teach it as such. We skip entire steps, assuming children understand what the symbols and terminology mean. This happens at every level - whether that’s us forgetting to explain and explore what the word “plus” means and that it’s associated with the “+” symbol, or whether it’s high-school math and we’re forgetting to allow time for a teenager to grasp the extremely advanced concept that f(x) essentially describes the value of y in a function.

Mathematical jargon is too narrow, and in our textbooks, it is shorn of the rich context in which this language evolved. With any typical math lesson, we tend to arbitrarily drop kids somewhere that we consider as commonplace, and often they might have no idea what we’re saying or why this is even important to learn.

### Practice Translating Math

Things get abstracted (stripped of concrete meaning and context) in Math all the time… and kids get lost in the thorny brambles of alien-like symbols. Here are some examples.

Here’s some food for thought. It can be really hard to explain a concept without using more “mathematese.” We can *think* we’re explaining something, while we’re actually using more of the foreign language to explain. It’s like if you’re just learning to speak Spanish, and your Spanish teacher explains a word you’re stuck on to you… in Spanish. That’s decidedly unhelpful! The same often happens in math. If you tell your toddler that an area of 81 square feet is a square of 9 by 9 feet, that gets them nowhere!

### What Does Playful Math Look Like Practically?

You might have an app or two that gamifies math, but don’t lean too heavily on this. Many of these apps use shallow gimmicks to make rote learning fun, but that doesn’t address the fundamental language aspect of math. Your child may be playing a game to practice addition, or their times tables. But do they understand *plus*? Do they understand *times*? Do they understand the symbols?

The real fun lies in discovering what made meaning in the first place. This could be about the history of that math concept, but not always. Sometimes, you just need to bring context back by seeing where you can find that math in the real world and how it’s used.

For example:

Your lesson shouldn’t only be about the shape of a rectangular prism. It can be about boxes (rectangular prisms) which are used, practically, to package things. Go to your pantry and look at all the things that come in boxes. Or go on a treasure hunt in your house for rectangular prisms. Then discuss and explore at an age-appropriate level—you might talk about measurement and volume, about how the boxes are transported, and why the surface is flat and not round. Let the conversation and your child lead you and see how much math you can weave in.

What about addition and subtraction? Well, where can your child use this in their world? Can they count out items into the shopping cart when you’re getting groceries? Could you ask them to count how many clean pairs of socks they have and how many dirty pairs, and let them work out how many there are in total? While you’re at it, could you use those same socks to start teaching the two times table without them even realizing?

We’re not saying that games are wrong. They’re awesome! But keep exploring ways to find math in everyday life, instead of unnaturally keeping it separate from the real world. Your child will thank you later, as they can become fluent in this strange but wonderful language.

*PS: The answer is 11 and it involves ternary math. That’s what the hint says (in Thai numerals.)*