A Little Silliness can go a Long Way

Mike Askew and I have a new book out this month, calledclick on the link to see more). It’s for busy parents (i.e. most parents) who just don’t have time to sit down and do maths homework with their children, let alone learn all the new-fangled arithmetic methods taught in schools these days.

The most important word in the book is ‘Play’. Mike and I both believe that, as far as maths is concerned, the best thing that parents can do with children is not DO it but PLAY it.  So there are 101 ideas in the book, old and new, for how to play maths with your child, particularly when you are out and about doing other things.

The book is more personal than my others, because it’s really just a thinly veiled description of what goes on in the Eastaway family when we’re having a meal, sat on a bus, standing in a queue or driving up to Cheshire.

Here are a couple of examples that inspired activities in the book, just to give a flavour.

1)    It’s October half term.  We’re at Legoland.  Again.  The kids are desperate to go on the ‘Pirate Falls’ ride.  My heart sinks when I see the sign saying the wait is currently one hour.  That will be one hour shuffling slowly up and down the queue, with the prospect of a five minute boat ride and a soaking at the far end.  Luckily, the queue gives good views of people setting off on the ride, so this is a chance to check out if Legoland’s prediction of one hour is right – if it’s really going to be that long, we’ll go and find something else to do. We watch the boats setting off at the start of the ride, and over a period of five minutes we count how many people have gone past.  Some boats have four people in (Hooray, that will deplete the queue!), a couple have none (Boo!, what a waste of a good boat).  Over five minutes we count 36 people, so we work out together that the average throughput is about seven people per minute.  Then we estimate the length of the queue – about 150 people - and divide it by 7, which is slightly over 20.  Clearly Legoland’s prediction of one hour is massively wrong, it will be more like 20 minutes*.  This cheers me up no end.  Until we get to the end of the ride. And get very wet.

2)    It’s bed time, and the kids (aged 6 and 3 when this started) want me to do one of my two minute hand puppet shows, where my left and right hand appear above the stage (the bedroom door) playing different characters doing silly things.  There is Esmerelda who is always singing out of tune, Henry whose infant child is unable to say simple words like ‘cat’ or ‘dad’ but for some reason can say words like ‘potassium permanganate’…and so on.  This has been going on for weeks, and I’m struggling for new material. On the spur of the moment I introduce a new character.  “Hello, I’m Richard Smith, and I’m the only mathematician in the village”, says my right hand.  It turns out that Richard Smith (who sounds a bit Welsh) reckons he’s the only person who can do sums like four plus three, or work out five times five.  When he discovers that there are children who can do this as well he gets very annoyed, and the children of course are delighted.  (When it’s a harder question, like eight times four, or "is thirteen a prime number?", Richard often heads off stage right with a cackle, and child and dad whisperingly work out the answer together.)  Richard returns, and the children announce the answer.  Richard assumes the children must be using calculators.  And (in a later development of the plot) it turns out that it’s not the children but Richard himself who actually always cheats by using a calculator.  What a villain!

Well you get the idea.  Not every game works with every child.  But when it comes to maths with your children, a little silliness can go an awfully long way.