5 Tips to Cultivate Math Curiosity - Play Discover Learn 24/7

5 Tips to Cultivate Math Curiosity

Cultivating math curiosity is the greatest hurdle for children who are used to traditional schooling.  

“My kid doesn’t notice or wonder about anything.  He just wants the answers, the rules.”

In our Facebook group, I hear this all the time.  In fact, I struggled with this in the beginning when I transitioned from traditional to discovery based math.

We started our math journey with Mammoth Math and Saxon.  If mastery is your only reason for doing math, those are winning programs.

Other reasons for Teaching Math

But I’ve talked about other reasons for teaching math and cultivating thinking skills is the main reason for teaching math.  It is the mind’s perfect playground for shaping up.

To begin developing thinking, you must first have a child who is curious.  For without curiosity, there is only forced thinking.  That kind of thinking requires too much energy where as curiosity provides a lever for easy thinking.

The problem with traditional math is it jumps to the punchline. 

Absolutely no mystery or suspense is developed in traditional math books. Why?  Apparently, someone thought math was without mystery.  That math is a definitive subject of rules and algorithms that all have been discovered.  

Every seen that crazy on the corner shouting the ten commandments and to get saved to day?  A bit offensive much like these math teachers with all their rules to be memorized. 

Ever told a kid "lying is wrong" and got results?  Yeah, no, that doesn’t work. Jumping to the punchline is dull, offensive and boring.  It is why we prefer reading fairy tales, fables and adventure stories to find our moral path.

A kid can’t wait for you to turn the next page while cheering on for high morals. In the same sense, we must persuade children that math is a worthy pursuit through interesting stories, examining quirky math properties, and asking good questions.

Read a Picture Math Book

Yes, this is too obvious, but we don’t do it.   Mostly, because we don’t know why we should. 

We like to read stories because we are constantly narrating our own stories in our mind.  It is natural and helps us to connect to something bigger than ourselves. 

It makes us feel less lonely in our journey and helps lift us up from what appears to often be a mundane day. 

In the same sense, math story books help children to see math is not an isolated disconnected topic.  Through math stories, children see math as a worthy, interesting pursuit that makes the mundane life more interesting.

Read math books about mathematicians, math mysteries and every day math problems. There are so many children’s books on infinite numbers, Fibonacci sequence, the curiosities of geometry and more.  

Check out this Pinterest Board for more resources on all things math and picture books.  I'd reinvent the wheel with my own affiliate links but I am too lazy so just go check out Pinterest. 

You can also check out my free course where I use picture books and Cuisenaire rods to introduce math concepts and exploration. 

Stir Your Own Curiosity

The reason why my kids struggled to be curious is that I struggled.  Years of teachers skipping to the punchline and I didn’t even know there was reason to be curious about math.

We never want to learn anything unless it is a peculiar mystery to us.  Let’s be real.  The reason people don’t read their Bible is the same reason people don’t read a math textbook.  Everyone skipped the weird, obscure and uncomfortable mysteries and went to the do’s and don’ts, the tried and true formulas. 

What a snore!  And it is incredibly unnatural.   We crave mysteries. 

Then, there is no provision for making mistakes and getting messy.   We think messy is a problem. When in it, lies the solution for better thinking. 

It is that necessary bridge between divergent and convergent thinking.  It is that quick ability that clever problem solvers derive from years of getting messy and failing a hundred times.  

So, to be curious about math, you need to get acquainted with the peculiar mysteries of math and give yourself permission to have bad ideas worth testing out.  

I suggest checking out some math Great Courses lectures, particularly the ones by James Tanton.  He is funny, entertaining and makes math interesting by sharing the weird and fascinating parts of math.

My secret tip: I suggest to my library to order Great courses lectures I am interested in watching.  They haven't failed me yet.  It's like shopping on Amazon for free, so don't be afraid of making library requests. 

Create Math Art

Personally, I love making art with Cuisenaire rods. Their innate mathematical nature makes it easy to transition from art to talking math.   We often transition from Free play with the rods into math.    Sometimes, my children make some interesting math art that turns into endless conquest of patterns.  Here is a great example

The key to keeping the math and art going in free play is fun constraints.  Examples of constraints:

  • Hundred Face Challenge-make faces that equal 100
  • Create a picture story that contains at least 4 staircases.
  • Create a square snowman.
  • Create rainbow with a pot of gold at the end.
  • Create a Valentine equal to your favorite 3-digit number
  • Create a Thanksgiving meal.

Take advantage of holidays, personal passions and fun memories.   Tapping into a child’s personal narrative (interests, likes, dislikes, adventures, etc) is a wonderful way to help a child build a strong connection to math.

Wordless Math Problems

Wordless math problems are a new fad in the math teaching world but there is nothing new under the sun.  Life is one giant wordless math problem.   Put up a picture that has no words and just ask your child what do they notice?  

The key is to remove expectation that there is something specific the student should see or do.  Don’t ask leading questions.  Don’t seek for an answer.  Acknowledge all comments as valid and worthy of consideration. 

Offer an observation here or there to demonstrate there is not a right or wrong or bad observation. Notice the mundane.  Notice the random.  Notice something interesting.

The problem with traditional textbooks is that it trains a child to think there is only one right answer to everything.  People-pleasing kiddos will sit there mostly thinking and wondering about what you want them to notice and wonder.

Others are just not interested in the picture, so picking a picture that is relevant, interesting and bold is important. Just go on twitter and search #wsdmath for endless examples. 

Asking Good Questions

Asking a kid what they notice is a loaded question from a traditional standpoint.  Textbook questions are always searching for a specific answer and a child cultivated on this frame work is worried about noticing the wrong thing.  

Now, you know, and I know that there isn’t a wrong answer, but to them, they want to know what it is exactly you want to hear from them. 

So in the beginning, don’t strictly ask what they notice.  Instead, here are some great starter questions for stimulating noticing and wondering:

  • What is happening in the picture?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • Do you see a story in this picture? What's happening?
  • What do you think will happen next in the story?
  • What colors do you notice?
  • What shapes do you see?
  • What do you think is most important?
  • What do you find interesting?
  • What is least interesting to you?
  • What is similar?
  • What is different?
  • Do you see a pattern?
  • What do you think will happen next?
  • Which part makes up most of the picture?
  • Which part makes the least?

Combine a combination of all five tips and be patient.  Cultivating curiosity for math takes time, especially if you and/or your child had it squashed out of you by textbooks and worksheets. 

I hope these tips will help you. Once you get the habit built for noticing and wondering, it becomes second nature both to you and your kids,

Lacy | Play Discover Learn 24/7

Knowing the best kind of learning comes from a highly motivated internal drive, Lacy Coker cultivates tools and resources that help to make learning for young children playful and self-directed.

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