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Numbers Games: Making Math Fun

Can your first-grader convert fractions to equivalent terms? Calculate percentages? Divide? If your child says, "No way," she's not alone. Studies show that children believe they don't use math outside of school and homework.

But in fact, your kids already have those skills. They use them every day when they share a snack, play jacks, or deal a round of Go Fish. You use math, too, when you double a recipe, figure out how much paint you'll need to redo the living room, or juggle your car-pool schedule against a ticking clock. Math is part of everyday life, like language and locomotion, but building math awareness is a challenge for parents and educators alike.

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"Math is not about writing a problem down on a piece of paper," explains Bob Drake, Ph.D., associate professor of education at the University of Cincinnati College of Education. Drake advises parents to "forget how you learned math." Too often, he says, we don't teach kids to think about math.

"Doing math experientially is much more satisfying to a 5-year-old," agrees Gavrielle Levine, Ph.D., associate professor of education at Long Island University.

The most important rule in teaching your kids math? "Relax!" says Levine. "The last thing you want to do is communicate your own math anxiety to your child. Second, trust that math is embedded in life." Making and observing patterns are good everyday basics, as are counting on fingers and toes or tallying up buttons on a sweater, squares on a chocolate bar, or peas in a pod. Don't forget arts-and-crafts projects like collages with geometric shapes or building with craft sticks, blocks, or Lego.

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Money games. Count pennies into towers of ten to learn base-10 math (the basis for the decimal and metric systems). Explore set theory with a nickel standing in for five pennies, and ask your child how many ways she can think of to make a dollar. Play with probability by flipping coins and charting how often they come up heads or tails. For real-life lessons in subtraction, let your child spend some of her coins at the store.

Kitchen math. Next time you make soup, hold back a dozen dried lima beans. Paint one side of the beans with red nail polish or glitter glue, then put five in a cup and dump them out: How many turn up red, how many white? According to Drake, this game teaches kids their "fives" facts  -- the things that add up to five. "They'll see lots of combinations of twos and threes and fewer fours and ones, but all fives, almost never." Play the same game with up to 12 beans to teach your kids addition basics  -- and they'll just think they're playing with their food.

Shopping lessons. Once your kids can read prices and specials, go bargain hunting and have them add up the savings. Consider a matching-funds program as an incentive: For every dime they save, offer another to bank at home. Feeling less flush? Half-match their savings. You'll discover that your 7-year-old is a whiz at multiplication, as long as it means extra funds for Pokemon cards.

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