Bedtime Math

I love games. I mean, I started a weekly newsletter just so I had a place where I could talk about games with someone other than my poor wife.

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But even I can't pull together the energy every day to get down a board game, dump out all the pieces, and play with my kids. Some days, I just don't have it in me.

I still want my kids to have some sort of mathematical experience each day, though. Usually, I find a way to ask a couple of math questions during dinner or bath time.

But what about parents who are a little math-phobic, or just unsure of what questions to ask? For those parents, I have a great recommendation: Bedtime Math.

Read a Story, Solve a Problem

Bedtime Math is a series of books written by Laura Overdeck, who wanted to find a way for her own kids to do a little math every day without pulling out flash cards and worksheets. Sound familiar?

Each page of Bedtime Math contains a quick story, a nice illustration, and a set of questions for kids of all ages. The Wee Ones questions help your youngest kids learn the basics of counting and comparison, while the Little Kids questions are perfect for a kindergartner or a 1st grader who is learning about addition and subtraction.

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Each page also has a Big Kids question, typically involving multiplication, division, and multi-step mental math problems. There is also a Bonus question that is usually a non-traditional math problem of some sort.

All you have to do is read the story, pick a question, and pose it to your kid. From there, just listen, encourage, and don't tell them if they're right until they've explained how they know.

By the way, this book really works! Over the course of a school year, kids who used Bedtime Math regularly gained the equivalent of a 3-month advantageover their peers who only read stories at night. Most encouragingly, kids with math-phobic parents were the most likely to benefit from the book.

Bedtime Math also has an app version you can use on your phone, as well as a pretty comprehensive website with lots of resources for parents. Check it out!

How to Use Bedtime Math

At first, this book seems like a bunch of word problems, which dredges up horrible memories in the minds of most parents. But don't worry: Your kid doesn't feel that way about word problems yet! There are no red pens, no timed tests, and no rude classmates in your kid's bedroom. It's just you and them. You can make these questions a fun, casual, welcoming experience.

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When I read one of these questions, I'm always thinking about what other, similar questions I could ask, based on the same prompt. In this example, I might ask my son J the Little Kids question, but that could lead in all sorts of directions. Here are some follow-up questions I might ask:

  • If I count those 40 marshmallows by 5s, what numbers do I say? What if I count by 2s? By 4s?
  • Let's say I count by 10s, but every time I say a number, I eat a marshmallow. How many marshmallows do I eat? How many are left in the bag?
  • How many big puff marshmallows do you think Dad could fit in his mouth at one time?

Each of these questions is inspired by the Bedtime Math prompt, but each one explores a different mathematical territory. Most importantly, I'd follow my kid's lead. If he wants to count by 3s instead of 4s, I'll let him do it! I wonder if he'll land on 40...

The last question, about fitting marshmallows in your mouth, is an estimation question, which is a wonderful area of early math that most kids don't spend enough time pondering. Kids need experience making educated guesses with numbers so that they can imagine what 100 of something actually looks like. If they can estimate, they can tell whether their answer to a math problem is reasonable or not. That skill, which is hard to teach directly, is just plain fun when you're estimating the marshmallows that can fit in Dad's mouth, especially if you test it the next day!

In general, I like to think of Bedtime Math as a crash course in asking math questions. Whether we are playing board games or reading books, our kids learn the most from the questions we ask and the conversations that follow. So if you are a parent who wants to have those conversations but doesn't know which questions to ask, pick up this book. You'll have dozens of great examples that you can use to brainstorm your own.

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Some of the questions might feel contrived, like those old word problems about the guy buying 47 watermelons. But they might give you a great idea for asking your child a question at breakfast about the number of blueberries in their blueberry muffin.

By the way, how many watermelons do you think are in that car, really? 10? 100? 1000? What would your child say?

Click here to buy Bedtime Math on Amazon