Posted on July 1, 2010 by Christine Crosby in 

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A Numbers Game


By: Dr. Ruth Nathan

There’s a wonderful song by Dan Zanes, “Jump Up.” In the lyrics, day is breaking and Dan urges the kids to jump up and dance around, to get “shaking.” My grandsons and I love the song – it’s so positive and a lot of fun to sing. That’s why when I saw Shape Up!, a book about triangles and other polygons by David Adler, I couldn’t resist. It had to be fun, didn’t it? But then I wondered, could math really be that much fun?

What is a polygon?

It’s a flat shape with all straight sides (Now that’s what I call a square meal!)

With two slices of American cheese, a toothpick, pretzel sticks, plain paper, graph paper, a pencil, a plastic knife and a slice of bread you can learn more about them. You can also eat it if you get hungry.

Sound fun? It is; my grandsons and I read sections of Shape Up! over and over again. I feel good because I know I’m providing them with some great beginnings for the mathematical challenges around the corner.

And, challenges there will be. The new math standards for pre-K through grade 12 from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics are rigorous. And, according to the NCTM, research shows that there are big differences between children who come to school with some math sense and those who don’t; we can assume that children who have had rich language experiences and who have been cared for by people who encourage thinking, appreciate uniqueness and support exploration are set up for more success in mathematics than those who don’t.

Let’s see why this might be so by looking at a Shape Up! encounter at my home.

My grandsons are given their “supplies.” Saul, the elder, looks at the cheese triangle on page three and then looks at his own – real – cheddar square on his table mat and immediately starts cutting away. WIth little explanation, he slices off two of the four corners which render him close. Then, with one final slice off the bottom, he has it: a triangle – a scalene triangle, says the boy in the book.

Soon, a wild rumpus starts. Saul and I sing and dance around a bit, and the little one, Theo, gets the mathematical idea that wholes can be cut into parts – and then eaten. Very fun. And Theo’s learned a new word, he thinks: “ti-angle,” which cracks his older brother up every time he says it.

The is quickly at work with the cheese as if it were clay, and Saul goes on to learn about scalene and equilateral trianges as he shapes them out of pretzels, with a clever nibble here and there to get the sides right. Before long, he’s into quadrilaterals, from trapezoids and parallelograms to that old, familiar rhombus. But watch out. Snip off just one corner and, yikes, pentagons will begin to take shape. (Reminds me of the Jon Scieszka book Math Curse.)

As mentioned, the math standards from the NCTM are rigorous, but they’re fully relizable. After all, just by encouraging your grandchildren to play with wet sand they tacitly pick up math and science concepts about shapes, mass, density and flow, all of which will support their castle-building ventures for a lifetime. Through simple play and, indeed, through reading children’s literature aloud, like Shape Up!, grandparents just might find that their grandkids “Jump Up” when anyone says, “It’s time for math!”

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