Playful and Questioning: What Teachers Want You to Try

I recently asked teachers what parents do that undermines their efforts to teach children math. Two main themes emerged: The dangers of math shortcuts and the language of negative mindsets. This post proposes a different way of modeling mathematics with your children. Other posts address parents’ well-meaning shortcuts, tricks, and algorithms as well as negative talk and absolutism.

What should parents do?

Parents should approach the math playfully, asking students to show what they do understand, with an open mind and questioning nature, and with their own positive mindset.

Positive Math Mindset for Parents

We can create new, positive experiences and build new pathways in our brains.

Setting aside your own bad feelings and insecurities about math is possibly the most important thing you can do for your child’s future math success. Instead of dwelling on the past, look at this as a new opportunity to learn. Bonus: you get to learn alongside your child, grow your relationship, and set them up for lifelong learning!

So, take a deep breath, remind yourself that you are smart, that you have learned many things, that you can do this.

If negative thoughts do encroach, take another breath. This may be a trauma response from negative experiences in your own math classes. Negative thoughts do not define what you can and can’t do! We have all had legitimate negative experiences, and reliving those moments in our bodies is normal. However, they are also simply past experiences, and we, especially as adults, are free to create new, positive experiences and build new pathways in our brains.

Take a deep breath, remind yourself that you are smart, that you have learned many things, that you can do this.

Open Mind and Questioning Nature

Refocus on the task as an opportunity to learn or relearn the topic. This can help you keep an open mind, and may lead you to discover questions about what’s going on. If not, a quick web search on “how to have an open mind” gives many, many lists of ideas that can help in this arena. Some of my favorites are:

  • Curiosity: Bring a sense of investigation. What are some of the other problems and topics your child has been doing or studying around this problem? Ask “what would happen if ____” questions.
  • Be wrong and know that it’s okay: Instead of getting angry or frustrated when wrong answers happen, laugh them off. Wrong answers are sometimes the best teachers. How wrong is it? Is it a completely unreasonable answer? (And what would be a reasonable answer?) Is it wrong enough to be funny? (If so, can you and/or your child draw a funny picture of that answer? This has multiple benefits: 1) Increasing the “happy” chemicals in your brain, opening it up to greater learning, 2) building your relationship, and 3) often giving insights about how the correct answer can be modeled.) Can you tell where your work started turning toward that answer? Is that where things went wrong, or was it before that point?
  • Consider your child’s whole thought process: Don’t write off their process because it doesn’t seem right or because it doesn’t match how you’d start the problem. One thing teachers are seeing as education moves away from algorithms is that children have a huge variety of approaches to solving mathematical problems — many if not most of them correct and valuable insights into the child’s brain! Your child may already know how to work the problem, and their process may teach you something (about them if not about the math). Typically, they’ll have at least some idea of how to work some portion of the problem. Let them start with what they know.
  • Argue for the other side: Pick an answer you know is wrong. Can you defend it? Make something up. Laugh a little. See if it spurs your child to a different understanding of how to approach the problem.
  • Be aware of your biases: You may have been taught a specific way of doing the problem. You had your own set of experiences when learning this. So many of us were taught that math is “black-and-white” or “right-or-wrong.” But, turns out it’s not that way. There are so very many paths, and so very many experiences of math. Know that yours is yours alone, and someone else’s path is different. Yours is there to share with others but not to steamroll.
  • Ask questions: When in doubt, ask a question. An open-ended question is best. When in extreme doubt, ask “I don’t understand. What can you explain to help me understand?” This is a powerful move I’ve seen work repeatedly in both math class and in other areas of life.

Have the student demonstrate what they understand

Can they draw you a picture of the setup? Do they need any words defined? Can they write a sentence that would be a reasonable answer (and then be ready to change the number in that sentence once they’ve done the calculations)? Can they tell you whether it’s an addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division problem (or some combination)? Can they tell you what “groups” are represented? Can they change only the numbers in the problem to make a new problem that still makes sense? Can they change only the context of the problem (leaving the numbers the same) to make a new problem that still makes sense? There are a lot more ideas in my article Math Practice At Home: Sense Making and Perseverance.

Approach the Math Playfully

There are a lot of tips about this in the sections above. Most of all, have fun. Children naturally learn best through play. (Research increasingly indicates adults might too!) Play is also a powerful relationship and trust builder. Celebrate wrong answers by imagining the scenario and laughing about it together — possibly inventing a fanciful 3-sentence story using that wrong answer or drawing a picture. Build models using toothpicks, paper clips, drawings on paper, clay, blocks, etc. Change words to make it more fun to work out (instead of talking about red and blue socks, consider clean and stinky socks, for example). Just don’t forget to change the topic back before writing the final answer! (Note: this practice of changing the characteristics and keeping track of what the change was so you can change it back for the final answer is also a pre-algebra skill in disguise!)

Playfulness is a skill that will get easier with practice. Partly because you’ll know what works to bring that playfulness in. Partly because you will both start looking forward to math homework more and dreading it less, knowing that you can make it fun and relationship-building rather than simply tedious and traumatic.

And if building relationship and happy brain chemicals don’t convince you: play is, at its very essence, the practice of problem solving, trial-and-error, and modeling strategies. Incredibly important skills for all of us to develop!

You’ve Got This!


Barbie has taught math, supported students, and volunteered in classrooms for over 20 years. Her daughter is currently learning math in a Common Core state.

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