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)