I told Meg, my older daughter, that I had a half-baked idea for a math project. “Cool!” she said, but the word “baked” reminded her of our not-very-successful and not-yet-baked-at-all cuneiform cylinder seals. They were lying on the stove all squashy and green. “It isn’t with salt dough, though, is it, Mommy?
“Nope, no salt dough. Go get your Octonauts”
Meg cheered and ran off, while I collected her workbook.
The next page up was all about adding various numbers to seven, so we counted out seven sea creatures in a row. For the plus one problem, we added Kwazii. Meg carefully wrote eight as the answer. For plus two, Kwazii radioed back to the Octopod and called in backup, which arrived in the form of Shellington. Meg counted everybody, seven plus two, and wrote the answer down while Shellington requested another Octonaut from base in the best accent I could manage. Tweak turned up to be the third. Tweak’s accent is easier, and I can kind of channel Kaylee from Firefly for her because Tweak is also the ship’s engineer. Tweak found a mechanical reason to call for another Octonaut. Eventually the whole group joined in, including Kwazii’s older brother and Peso’s brother Pinto (who does in fact show up in one episode). Only Dashi was missing, but I insisted we finish this mission before mounting a search party for her. Adding seven to seven was especially fun because we could pair them up two by two, an Octonaut and a sea creature together, to count them. We almost made it through the whole page before my younger daughter Kate woke up and swiped sea creature number two from the lineup and had to be placated with a spare Captain Barnacles.
My husband Jonathan tells me that as he was learning math, his dad always said that numbers tell a story. I like that idea. Meg is truly our daughter, and she is intensely story-centric. Like, really story-based. Her play and her conversation are all about telling tales. I think if we can teach her to read the story in numbers, math will never intimidate her. I don’t usually go so far as to act out her math problems with Octonauts living actual stories, but why not?
I came across a copy of Ruth Beechick’s book on teaching early childhood math and found it really encouraging. At this age, Beechick is all about real life, counting everything everywhere you go, having your kids help measure when you cook, and things like that. She also emphasized that the littlest students probably can’t think abstractly, so I feel freer to let Meg continue counting actual things. My temptation is to rush her ahead to solving elaborate equations on paper because it would be so impressive, but I don’t think either of us needs that. Instead, we play with numbers.
We play the Volkswagen bug game with an elaborate points system. (My parents have continued tweaking the rules after I left home, but I’m a purist. If you change it so every bug is worth more than one point, that’s just bug inflation. Who wants less valuable bug points? But I digress.) Meg helps keep track of everyone’s points as we go. We play Pass the Pigs, and she can add up scores. We play digital Candy Crush and a physical version of Jewels, which involve pattern recognition and creating groups of three or more. She got a set of magnetic tangrams from her Nana and likes to create pictures. The informal learning didn’t even require life changes for us.
On the more formal side, Meg likes workbooks and tracing exercises, so I picked up some inexpensive workbooks at the beginning of the school year and let her loose on them. She gets a sticker for a completed page. I’ll write numbers on the dry erase board and let her practice tracing them neatly and right ways round.
I also try to answer whenever she thinks of a mathy question. I have no idea why, but today she was asking about multiplying by zero and by one. So today, she learned how to multiply anything by zero or one. Works for me.
We’ll see, of course, how this goes when she gets older, but so far it seems to be a good fit. That’s encouraging to me.
 Octonauts is a children’s program that originally aired on BBC, and I will be using the names of the characters throughout this blog post.
Photo Credit: First photo takeb by Saumya Rastogi, graphic design by Charity Klicka; second photo taken by Carolyn Bales, CAP.: Octonauts , Assemble