Text: Yelena McManaman and Maria Droujkova
Illustrations and design: Ever Salazar
Copyedits: Carol Cross
This brilliant book is published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, and this allows me to reproduce the entire Introduction:
Why Play This Book
Children dream big. They crave exciting and beautiful adventures to pretend-play. Just ask them who they want to be when they grow up. The answers will run a gamut from astronauts to zoologists and from ballerinas to Jedi masters. So how come children don’t dream of becoming mathematicians?
Kids don’t dream of becoming mathematicians because they already are mathematicians. Children have more imagination than it takes to do differential calculus. They are frequently all too literate like logicians and precise like set theorists. They are persistent, fascinated with strange outcomes, and are out to explore the “what-if” scenarios. These are the qualities of good mathematicians!
As for mathematics itself, it’s one of the most adventurous endeavors a young child can experience. Mathematics is exotic, even bizarre. It is surprising and unpredictable. And it can be more exciting, scary, and dangerous than sailing on high seas!
But most of the time math is not presented this way. Instead, children are required to develop their mathematical skills rather than being encouraged to work on something more nebulous, like the mathematical state of mind. Along the way the struggle and danger are de-emphasized, not celebrated – with good intentions, such as safety and security. In order to achieve this, children are introduced to the tame, accessible scraps of math, starting with counting, shapes, and simple patterns. In the process, everything else mathematical gets left behind “for when the kids are ready.” For the vast majority of kids, that readiness never comes. Their math stays simplified, impoverished, and limited. That’s because you can’t get there from here. If you don’t start walking the path of those exotic and dangerous math adventures, you never arrive.
It is as tragic as if parents were to read nothing but the alphabet to children, until they are “ready” for something more complex. Or if kids had to learn “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” by heart before being allowed to listen to any more involved music. Or if they were not allowed on any slide until, well, learning to slide down in completely safe manner. This would be sad and frustrating, wouldn’t it? Yet that’s exactly what happens with early math. Instead of math adventures – observations, meaningful play, and discovery of complex systems – children get primitive, simplistic math. This is boring not only to children, but to adults as well. And boredom leads to frustration. The excitement of an adventure is replaced by the gnawing anxiety of busy work.
We want to create rich, multi-sensory, deeply mathematical experiences for young children. The activities in this book will help you see that with a bit of know-how every parent and teacher can stage exciting, meaningful and beautiful early math experiences. It takes no fancy equipment or software beyond everyday household or outdoor items, and a bit of imagination – which can be borrowed from other parents in our online community. You will learn how to make rich mathematical properties of everyday objects accessible to young children. Everything around you becomes a learning tool, a prompt full of possibilities for math improvisation, a conversation starter. The everyday world of children turns into a mathematical playground.
Children marvel as snowflakes magically become fractals, inviting explorations of infinity, symmetry, and recursion. Cookies offer gameplay in combinatorics and calculus. Paint chips come in beautiful gradients, and floor tiles form tessellations. Bedtime routines turn into children’s first algorithms. Cooking, then mashing potatoes (and not the other way around!) humorously introduces commutative property. Noticing and exploring math becomes a lot more interesting, even addictive. Unlike simplistic math that quickly becomes boring, these deep experiences remain fresh, because they grow together with children’s and parents’ understanding of mathematics.
Can math be interesting? A lot of it already is! Can your children be strong at advanced math? They are natural geniuses at some aspects of it! Your mission, should you accept it: to join thrilling young math adventures! Ready? Then let’s play!