August 16, 1999

By taking a fresh look at traditional summer activities that kids like to do, parents and other adults can help kids get a good understanding of what math is all about, and that it can be really fun. It's all a matter of how you look at it.

If you talk with Bob McIntosh, mathmatics-education researcher and trainer at the Northwest Regional Laboratory's Mathematics & Science Education Center, he'll tell you emphatically: "We're all mathematicians--some of us just don't know it."

So even though some parents may think they're "not good" at math, if they take another glance, they might recognize just how many things they're doing well that depend on math. And they can help their kids to do the same.

Take the family camping trip, for example. First, says Bob, there's the packing. "You want to take everything you need, but you have to make some tradeoffs between what you want to take and the space you have. You have to prioritize and look for ways to be efficient. If something can have multiple uses, for instance, that becomes a valuable thing. People don't ordinarily think of these decisions as math, but those decisions are very mathematical."

Fitting things into a space, notes Bob, deals with spatial relationships, i.e., geometry. And making decisions, selecting among priorities--that's problem solving.

"Packing is also related to the concept of optimization," he says. He explains that while optimization is a complicated concept, "a lot of times, you're preparing kids for more advanced concepts. Math has a lot to do with efficiency, trying to find the most efficient way to do things. Optimization is related to finding the most efficient method of solving a problem." Like setting up the tent.

Setting up the tent involves both spatial relationships and problem solving. "We often don't think of spatial problem solving as math, but it is," says Bob. "Putting up a tent is like doing a puzzle. You've got these pieces, you've got the shape. It's a great problem solving activity."

But kids--like their parents--may not be successful the first time, cautions Bob, laying a life's lesson alongside the math lesson. This is a great opportunity to show kids how difficult problem solving is, and how you have to work through different approaches--sometimes many approaches--trying them out to see if they'll work. Patience and problem solving are partners that must never be separated, no matter how old you are.

And just about all ages can help put up the tent, even toddlers. "When you lay out the tent pieces, even a two-year-old gets the idea of how you approach a problem," Bob points out.

Together, parents and the kids might take a look around the campsite to see what other math lessons might be hiding unnoticed.

*This column is provided by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, a non-profit institution working with schools and communities in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.*