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Don’t do math – just do life

By Mike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville


Math can be intimidating, but it won’t be, if we realize that it’s just a way of describing what we do in life.

The key to story-problems (some call them word problems) is to make it real to the child.  If he thinks it is a math problem, he’ll be stumped.  If he is simply figuring out what he needs in his own life, he can figure it out.  In other words, make the math about what he is interested in, and you’ll find that math just isn’t that tough!

You need not be intimidated!  Even if you think you’re “not good at math,” you’re probably better than you think.  Try some of these things, and see how you can help stave off a math phobia in your child.

Eat pizza.  Nothing better than pizza to start figuring out fractions.  How many pieces are in this pizza?  Eight!  So how many can we each have since there are four of us?  So if we each get two eighths, how many fourths is that?  For a younger child, we can start with the idea of “half.”  We got two pizzas – how much would you get if you got half of the it?  What if we had three pizzas?

Play store.  Do you lament how the clerk can’t make change without a register?  Get out some change, and let your child buy breakfast!  Today’s cereal costs 37 cents, and tomorrow’s yoghurt may be 78 cents.  Once she gets good at counting out the correct amount, you can start buying from her and getting change back from your dollar.

Spend time in the kitchen. Four tablespoons make a quarter cup, four quarter cups in a cup, two cups in a pint, two pints in a quart… you get the idea.  You might try your hand at baking a little – double the recipe, cut it in half, whatever.  Just exercise with those fractions, so they aren’t such a mystery when he sees them at school.

Have a party. Everybody loves a party, and your child is no exception.  Any time you’ll be having guests, have your child help you plan for them.  For our Christmas party we’ll have 10 guests.  We should plan on three cookies for each guest, so how many cookies will we need?  One recipe makes 12 cookies – how many recipes will we need to bake?  Each guest should have two 8-ounces glasses of juice, so how many glasses is that?  How many ounces?  Gallons?

Count ants.  You’ll need to kill them, of course, but before you get out the spray, why not make some predictions with your girl?  Count how many ants cross a crack in one minute.  So, now predict how many would cross in an hour.  Wow, is that a lot of ants!

Estimate.  That’s a nice jar.  I wonder how many m&m’s it would hold.  Estimate.  Now put in enough m&m’s to cover the bottom of the jar.  How many are there, and how many layers would it take to fill the jar?  Estimate again.

Measure.  How big is this room?  How many Jordans wide is it?  Have Jordan lay down with her feet against the wall.  Now, place a penny on the floor at the top of her head.  Have her lay down again, this time with the penny at the bottom of her feet, and repeat until you find out how many Jordans wide the room is.  For a young student, this is enough.  For an older student, how tall is Jordan, so how wide is the room – in feet?  For yet an older student, you can find out how many square feet the room is.

Bottom line:

Don’t do math – just do life.  Sneak math in every day – just don’t call it math!


Mike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville, earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1988. He pursued graduate studies in Materials Science & Engineering while on the Research Staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Mike has had a life-long love of mathematics and teaching, and feels that math is not about learning to be ready for the next math class – it’s about learning to think.

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