Learning Math Through Play In Your HomeschoolPin
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In this episode of “Ten Minutes to a Better Homeschool,” host Pam Barnhill and guest Denise Gaskins, veteran homeschool mom and author of a dozen playful math books like, Let’s Play Math, How Families Can Learn Together and Enjoy It, and Math You Can Play delve into the world of homeschool math education. Denise shares five essential tips to transform math lessons without the need for a complete overhaul of the curriculum. 

The episode covers the vital role of fostering mathematical thinking and reasoning in children, rather than solely focusing on right answers. Denise emphasizes the importance of shifting the goal of math education from achieving correct answers to encouraging children to think critically about math concepts.

If you’re seeking actionable advice to enhance your child’s math learning experience at home, then tune in for this informational and empowering episode. 

Listen to the Podcast

Pam Barnhill [00:00:02]:
Feeling overwhelmed with homeschooling? Wondering how you can streamline your day and boost your family’s success. Welcome to 10 minutes to a better homeschool. I’m Pam Barnhill, fellow homeschooler and your guide to quick, effective solutions. In each episode, we dive into practical, actionable tips that fit your busy life. Whether it’s curriculum choices, time management, or creative teaching methods, we’ve got you covered. And the best part? It’s all in bite sized 10 minute segments perfect for a busy parent schedule. So pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea and join me in transforming your homeschool experience one tip at a time. Let’s make every minute count.

Pam Barnhill [00:00:45]:
Denise Gaskins is a veteran homeschool mom of 5 who has a passion to help parents and children see the beauty and wonder of math. She is the author of a dozen playful math books like Let’s Play Math, How Families Can Learn Together and Enjoy It, and Math You Can Play. This series covers a variety of topics across the entire curriculum. Denise’s newest project, the tabletop math games collection, makes creative math easy with open and go math games for students from preschool to high school, and you can find her online at denisegaskins.com. Denise, welcome to the podcast.

Denise Gaskins [00:01:23]:
Hello, Pam. I’m glad to be here.

Pam Barnhill [00:01:25]:
It is always wonderful to have you on the podcast, and I am so excited because you wanted to come today and talk about something that I think is so important, and that is how can you help your kids with math? How can you transform your math lessons without having to do a complete overhaul of your math curriculum? Because when math is not working, I know the temptation for moms is to say, let’s just redo the whole thing. But you’re saying you don’t have to do that, and you have 5 different tips for us. So help us out.

Denise Gaskins [00:01:56]:
Okay. Yes. For too many families, math just brings tears and frustration, and I really wanna help ease that struggle. So like you said, I’ve got tips that can transform your math experience. You don’t have to change your curriculum. But before we get into the tips, we do need to talk about one thing. We need to talk about goals because many people most people, I think, believe the goal of math is for our children to get right answers. So we give our kids a page of math problems to work, and then we check their answers, and we tell them what they’ve got wrong.

Denise Gaskins [00:02:31]:
When we focus on right answers, we can make our child feel like a failure at math. So instead, we wanna change our focus. We need to focus our math lessons on thinking, on how our children are reasoning, how they’re figuring things out. The point of each of these tips is to help you get your kids thinking about math. When we make mathematical thinking our goal, those right answers will come along as a side effect. They’re a natural result when our children make sense of math.

Pam Barnhill [00:03:04]:
I love that so much because, you know, when I have my kids write a paper, I don’t immediately expect them to get it right the very first time. We go through the thinking process and work on writing that paper, and then we go through the thinking process again to revise that paper before we eventually come up with an answer. And so why should math be any different that we’re not going to start with the thinking process that that’s the actual lesson there, not so much the right answer.

Denise Gaskins [00:03:34]:
Yes. In fact, you can even say if the children aren’t thinking, they’re not doing math. If they’re just following steps, that’s not what math is all about. Our first tip is don’t teach your children. That is, don’t tell your children what to do. A human brain doesn’t work like a compute insert a program, and it will execute it perfectly. Human memory is leaky. Our brains only store the things we actually think about.

Denise Gaskins [00:04:04]:
So you want to begin your math lesson by posing a problem and asking your children what they think. Just go straight to the homework part, skip the lesson, and say, how will you use the things you already know to figure this out? If they don’t know what to try, ask what they notice about the problem. What looks familiar? What looks unfamiliar? How is it like what they’ve done before? How is it different? And, you know, kids are resourceful. We want to encourage them to bring their resourcefulness, their natural creative thinking to bear on math. And, also, you wanna remember your child does not have to solve the problem the same way you would or the way the textbook would teach it because one of the joys of homeschooling is when we get to discover how our child’s mind works differently from ours.

Pam Barnhill [00:04:54]:
I love that so much. And, yeah, just that reminder because there were often so many times that my kids came up with a different way to solve the problem because I’m gonna be honest, I learned basically one way, the standard way to solve problems and didn’t realize that there were a variety of different ways to get to different answers, and so they were constantly surprising me. So, yes, that is a fabulous reminder for parents. Alright. Tip number two.

Denise Gaskins [00:05:18]:
Tip number two is to use stories to build understanding. Our human mind is designed for stories. It’s our natural way of thinking and our natural way of learning. In math, stories help to put flesh on the bare bones of an abstract number calculation. Stories help us to visualize what’s happening and to understand what the numbers and symbols are trying to say. So for young children, early learners don’t really understand the math symbols. They don’t always make sense of a calculation. They can’t remember what the plus sign or the minus sign means.

Denise Gaskins [00:05:55]:
So you make up a story. You turn the calculation into an an experience with their pet or their favorite toy or cookies. You help the child recognize what the numbers are doing. And older children have a different problem. With older kids, they get into the habit of doing calculations by rote without really thinking, just following steps. So you challenge them to make a story. The child makes up a story to represent what the numbers are doing, and this forces them to think more deeply about what the times or the division symbol actually means or what a fraction is and how it acts.

Pam Barnhill [00:06:36]:
Would you say that using a story with a young child is kind of a good bridge between a manipulative style of math where they’re hands on and then that more abstract where they’re simply looking at the calculation on the page?

Denise Gaskins [00:06:48]:
Oh, definitely. A story is is like a mental manipulative. They can imagine and make a picture in their mind and sort of walk through the process of what’s happening in their mind. Yes. It’s great.

Pam Barnhill [00:07:01]:
I love it so much. And then I also love the idea that, you know, the kids are telling you the story. They’re making up the story. And so they’re just it’s almost like a trick, but you’re getting them to do just a little bit more work. So I love it so much.

Denise Gaskins [00:07:16]:
You do need to remember, it is a little bit more work, so you probably want to do fewer problems on the days when you’re doing that. So instead of you if you have 10 problems of the same type, say, okay. Pick 2 of them and tell me a story to go with them. Love it. Alright. Tip number 3. Tip number 3 is don’t try to do everything. This is just a general homeschooling tip, but it works in math too.

Denise Gaskins [00:07:40]:
You don’t have to finish every problem in your math lesson. You don’t have to finish every lesson in your math book. The textbook is not a task master. The textbook is a tool, and it’s your choice how to use that tool. You can think of your textbook like a road map. It shows you some of the places that you might go on your learning journey, but it doesn’t cover the whole world of mathematics. It’s a pretty limited map, and you are in charge of the adventure. So you decide where to visit, how long to stay, when you wanna branch off on an unexpected side trip.

Denise Gaskins [00:08:18]:
You want your children thinking, so do fewer problems in more depth. As I said, instead of doing the whole page, pick a few problems to focus on. Your children will learn better from working just a handful of math problems out loud, explaining how they reason it through, telling you what they think, than from sitting silently at a table filling out a whole page. Whatever they spend time thinking about, that’s what they’ll remember. So always in math, our goal is to get our children thinking.

Pam Barnhill [00:08:51]:
Yeah. I love that. And I’m so glad you’re saying that because I do think that homeschool moms need to have permission to not finish every single problem in the book. It’s like, well, they’re all here, so they must have meant for us to do all of them. And, really, they’re there to provide that support and extra practice for the people who need the extra practice, but it doesn’t mean that we have to do all of them, and it doesn’t mean that the best way to learn is to do all of them. So thank you so much for reiterating that for homeschool families out there that it is just a tool, and we are the ones who are making the decisions about how to use it. Alright? So let’s move on to the 4th tip.

Denise Gaskins [00:09:32]:
Okay. Tip number 4. It kinda goes with that you being in charge of the the learning adventure. The textbook kind of makes math feel like a ladder to climb. You have to go rung by rung systematically from one topic to the next, but that’s just an illusion. It appears that way because the book is there page by page, chapter by chapter. There’s no other way to put a book together, but you don’t have to read a book that way. You can look ahead and find a topic that you think your child will enjoy or will find relatively easy.

Denise Gaskins [00:10:05]:
For my kids, it was things like graphs or geometry shapes. Bookmark that section. And then when you get frustrated in a tough topic like subtraction or long division, you break up the lighter work. You do a few problems here, and then you skip ahead and do a few problems from there. You do a page here, and then you do a page there. You don’t have to spend the whole lesson on a single topic, and you don’t have to do the topics in order. As long as your children are thinking and making sense of the math, they’ll learn. This is especially useful in upper elementary and middle school math because calculations can get really tedious.

Denise Gaskins [00:10:45]:
Metal work is hard work. You need to break it up and give your children a bit of relief, a bit of rest. So you don’t wanna get bogged down in the boring parts of math. You wanna balance them. It’s also fine to skip around from one book to another. If you’re in a hard topic with your math book and it’s just got your child stumped and you feel like you’re hitting your head against the wall, just put that book aside for a week or two, switch to something completely different, pick up an Ed Sicaro book like Becoming a Problem Solving Genius and just play with the problems.

Pam Barnhill [00:11:17]:
Yeah. Or pick up a Denise Gaskins book and play some of those math games for a while. Even if you’re working in long division, go back and work on some of those multiplication games and just have fun with all of that. And I love that idea so much. And sometimes, developmentally, our kids just hit a spot where if we back off for just a little bit and do something else, you know, telling time or those geometry shapes or something like that, and then a little bit later, we come back to the topic that was giving them a hard time. They’re ready to push through, and they’ve kind of made the the leaps that they need to make. Because our brain works on stuff even when we’re at rest. Right?

Denise Gaskins [00:11:54]:
It does. It definitely does. I I found that even more with my boys than with my girls. I don’t know if that’s just my family or if that’s true in general, but taking that break really makes a difference.

Pam Barnhill [00:12:05]:
I love it. Okay. So what is our 5th tip?

Denise Gaskins [00:12:08]:
Our final tip is, like you said, to play games, not drill the math facts. Don’t worry on drill because it leads to rote thinking. Play games, math games, make children think about what they’re doing and how they can use the things they know to beat their opponent. It lets them enjoy practicing. And it’s not just about number facts. There’s some great games for older kids in algebra and geometry. But even with the games, remember our goal is to emphasize thinking. So you wanna look for games that use strategy, not speed.

Denise Gaskins [00:12:43]:
Games that focus on speed tend to discourage the children who need the practice the most. So for example, probably most of your listeners have heard of the game of war, and a lot of teachers take that game and turn it into a math game. The children each student has a deck of cards. They turn up the numbers, and they do calculations with it. There’s a bad way to play math war, and that is each child turns up one card and then they race to say the sum or the product. We want to avoid games that depend on speed. So there’s a better way to play math war is to have each player turn up 2 cards, do their own calculation. Then not only are they thinking about their calculation, they also hear the other players’ thoughts.

Denise Gaskins [00:13:29]:
And so each turn, they’re getting exposed to two different practice calculations, and the weaker players have an equal chance to win. But the best way to play math war would be for each of the players to draw 3 or 4 cards at a time, and then the player whose turn it is calls trump, whether they want the high sum or the low sum, the high product or the low product to win. Then they each turn down 2 cards from their hand and then draw to replenish their hand before the next turn. And can you see how that transforms a game that was pure chance into a truly educational game. It forces the players to think about the math, and it’s a lot more fun to play when you have choices.

Pam Barnhill [00:14:15]:
Oh, I love that so much because you’re gonna look at those cards in your hand and have to figure out, do you want it to be the high number? Do you want it to be the low number? You don’t know what the person across from you has, and how are you gonna use the math to get to that number? So so much more. I think, even more interesting for the kids themselves. Our kids love playing games where there’s something more involved than just chance, where they get to use their brain. And so they’re really going to appreciate that. And I’m assuming that you have lots more games like that one in your game series of books. Right?

Denise Gaskins [00:14:48]:
Oh, I do. And, like I said, I focus on games that require thinking, that require strategy, partly because I don’t like to be bored. And if I’m playing the game with my child, I want a game that I can enjoy too. And too many of the educational games, they’re just they’re they’re like a worksheet in disguise. And Math War is one of the most worksheety in disguise games that I have, and yet there is a way to change it to a thinking game. And there’s just so many different ways to play with math that get children thinking strategically and reasoning about how the numbers work.

Pam Barnhill [00:15:25]:
I love it. I love it so much. And I love that you’ve given us 5 very helpful tips today that could be used. We don’t have to change our math curriculum at all. All we have to do is flip forward a few pages, look and see what else is available to us in that book, and do fewer problems and talk about them more with our kids, tell a few stories. The main thing we need to change is our own attitude. I love it. I love it.

Pam Barnhill [00:15:49]:
I did pug math in my house for years years. At the end of the math book, there were word problems, but he didn’t like those word problems. We had to make all the word problems about pugs. And it’s a fond memory of ours now that we no longer do pug math in my house, so I’m a fan. Well, Denise, tell everybody where they can find you online.

Denise Gaskins [00:16:09]:
Well, the easiest place to find me is at denisegaskins.com. That’s my blog. It’s got links to everything else. It’s got information how you can download a free book with samples of my games. Pretty soon, it’s gonna start having information about my next Kickstarter because I always launch my books on Kickstarter first. The tabletop math games collection is coming soon, and it’s it takes the books, the games that I put in my earlier books and makes them more user friendly because it’s it’s so many people have good intentions to do creative homeschooling, creative math, but then they get stressed out. They get busy. So these ones are made printable.

Denise Gaskins [00:16:49]:
You can just print it. You stick it in your notebook. It’s ready to go. The kids can just open it up to any page and play. It’s a great way to actually make it practical to play with math.

Pam Barnhill [00:17:01]:
I love it. I love it. Anything we can do to make things easy on busy moms to do this kind of stuff is absolutely perfect. So thank you for blessing families that way. Well, Denise, thanks for coming on today. I appreciate it.

Denise Gaskins [00:17:13]:
Thank you for having me, Pam. I really enjoy talking to you.

Pam Barnhill [00:17:19]:
Thank you for tuning in to Ten Minutes to a Better Homeschool. Remember, small changes can make a big impact in your homeschooling journey. If you want more tips and resources to enhance your experience, check out our free Homeschool Better Together Community. You’ll find additional tools, guides, and a community of supportive homeschoolers just like you. Visit community.pambarnhill.com to learn more and join us. Until next time, keep on homeschooling.

Links and Resources From Today’s Show

Key Takeaways About Math Lessons

  • Focus on the thinking process in math rather than just getting the right answers, to help children make sense of math and reduce frustration.
  • Encourage children to think creatively and resourcefully about math problems, rather than telling them what to do, to engage their problem-solving skills and natural creativity.
  • Utilize stories to build understanding in math, as they help children visualize and comprehend abstract number calculations, making math concepts more relatable and understandable.
  • Empower parents to make decisions about math curriculum and resources, and emphasize the importance of exploring different areas of math based on children’s interests and readiness, rather than feeling constrained by a linear progression.
  • Emphasize the use of math games to engage children in practicing and applying math skills, promoting strategic thinking rather than just rote memorization, to make math enjoyable and enhance learning.

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