Family Matters

Bedtime Math: A Problem a Day Keeps Fear of Arithmetic Away

Reading a story before bed can help children to sleep, but what about working through a math problem?

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For many parents with young children, the bedtime routine is a firmly entrenched system involving a warm bath, a good book, a kiss and a hug. Toying with that equation borders on sacrilege, but Laura Overdeck thinks it’s time to make room for a math problem alongside the nightly story.

In February, the high-tech consultant-turned-stay-at-home mom launched Bedtime Math, a website devoted to creating the sort of cachet for arithmetic — before the final tuck-in — that reading has.  “You hear so many people say, I’m just not good at math,” she says. “But you never hear people say, I’m just not good at reading.”

Overdeck began by emailing about a dozen friends a word problem with varying levels of difficulty, ranging from calculations appropriate for their preschoolers to upper-elementary students. Within a week, her list of subscribers had tripled. Nine months later, 20,000 people have signed up to receive the free daily emails. “It’s just exploded,” says Overdeck.

That’s heartening news for educators who bemoan the state of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the U.S.  In 2009, American teens ranked 31st place in math and 23rd in science, behind Asian powerhouses Japan and China and European countries including Poland and Slovakia in a global skills survey.

Bedtime Math isn’t the only program trying to turn the tide. Let’s Play Math encourages mathematical game-playing. Living Math extolls the beauty of arithmetic to parents and teachers. Math for Love offers professional development for teachers on how to spice up their approach to numbers and introduces kids — including my own — to the joy of math. For a parent whose palms grew sweaty just walking into geometry class, realizing that math could be something other than anxiety-provoking was nothing short of groundbreaking. “Through games, math becomes something that kids do for fun and not some awful arduous task,” says Math for Love co-founder Dan Finkel. “Our goal is to change the culture around mathematics.”

(MORE: How Does a Child’s Weight Influence Her Math Abilities?)

Overdeck, who studied astrophysics at Princeton University, first recognized the need to incorporate math into kids’ lives once she realized that she and her husband, who majored in math at Stanford University, were doing something with their daughter that none of their upper-middle-class friends were: math, starting from her second birthday. “In our house, math is a fun thing that kids seek out,” says Overdeck. “Everyone knows they should read a book, but nobody knows they should be doing math with their kids. People don’t do math recreationally yet all the politicians are scratching their heads, wondering why we’re falling behind educationally.”

The challenge is even greater for girls; women make up 48% of the workforce, but represent just 24% of STEM workers. But those workers are faring well, pulling in enviable salaries: they earned 33% more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs, according to the chief economist for the U.S. Department of Commerce. “We need more young women and minorities to have access to these careers,” says Joan Ferrini-Mundy of the National Science Foundation. “We know a lot from research that the earlier we can get kids hooked on math, the better that is for their long-term careers.”

Overdeck, 42, can see for herself the point at which she says little girls start to believe they’re no good at calculations. “Every email I get about a child who has a math block comes from a parent with an 8-year-old girl,” she says. “A lot of studies show teachers are not comfortable with math, and teachers are mostly women.”

She’s trying to change the paradigm, promoting the math problems she writes to teachers and principals in addition to parents. She’ll often draw on the interests of her own three children — ages 4, 7 and 9 — so there are frequent calculations about stuffed animals or vehicles.

Making math engaging and applicable to daily life is important when it comes to connecting with children, says Overdeck. When kids go to school, they are often bored by dry worksheets when they should be exposed to fun, real-life examples of the way math works in everyday life. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, one day’s problem challenged preschoolers to identify which license plate numbers entitled New Jersey residents (Overdeck is one) to fill up on rationed gas on odd-numbered days. Older kids were asked: “If 1 pump can fuel a car in 6 minutes and the station has 4 pumps, how many cars can get filled in an hour?  Bonus: We saw another car line that had 100 cars in it.  How long will it take the last car in that line to get gas?”

(P.S. Mom and Dad, if you’re struggling to unravel that gas-station riddle, the answers are: 40 cars and 2 ½ hours.)

(MOREThe Math Gender Gap: Nurture Trumps Nature)

8 comments
cdeceschia
cdeceschia

I will be waiting for your daily email word problem.

lourdesdeaparicio
lourdesdeaparicio

I have already signed I will be waiting for your email word problem

KarenClancySexton
KarenClancySexton

This is a little startling to me; I was an eight year old girl when I began to have problems in math, and I never caught up.  I blamed it on trouble at home, (I still do), but I wonder why it hits at age eight?

To complicate things, when I got into Jr. High School, they switched to "The New Math", whatever the heck *that* was - (THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!!)  Even our teachers had trouble with it.  Do they still use that method or did they revert back??  This was in the baby-boomer years (around 1965).

 Anyway, I have to console myself by realizing that reading came easily to me, and so many graduate High School without being able to read.  Or handwrite:-(

eetom
eetom

Do not count on people who do not love to count.

sac12389
sac12389

My dad always gave me math problems before bed. Now i'm a physics major in college. 

colo44
colo44

My son has taken Pre-Calculus (Trig)  as a Freshman, AP calculus as a sophomore and is taking a AP statistics class just to make the 3 credit math requirement to graduate from HS. He extremely dislikes being taught a method to solve an equation and not seeing a practical application.  Math has become a chore;  grinding through rules to solve an equation in a book. I can't blame him, it a struggle watching him chicken scratch through a problem. I question our decision to have advanced him in math classes just because he was capable. His younger brother is just 1 level below him, he's taking algebra II as a freshman, and will take Pre-Calc as a sophomore... different child, different perspective...same complaints. Our 3rd son is on the "normal" path in math and he complains it is too easy. We are not sure whether to put him in algebra I in 8th grade. I believe that SAT/ACT questions only has concepts up to Algebra II; will the child remember those concepts and apply them after 2-3 years after learning them? 

helenolai
helenolai

I used to be a math teacher at a Catholic school.  One semester I refused to change a term grade.  The school asked me to leave.  The said, "this is what God wants."  True story.  I was 24 at the time.  I will never teach again; I now make more money elsewhere. 

ms
ms like.author.displayName 1 Like

The correct second answer is 6 minutes. But of course it has to wait its turn before it starts to get gas.