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Math is All Around Us: Simple, Everyday Games to Practice Creating Sets and Sorting with Kids

Close up of a person's hands making snack boxes with fruit, nuts and sandwiches.
When preparing lunch, grown-ups can encourage kids to sort the ingredients and think about the similarities and differences among the ingredients.
Here are three simple ways to tap into your child’s curiosity, turn daily tasks into playful games and begin to show your child that math is everywhere and it helps us in so many ways throughout the day!
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When someone says the word math, what comes to your mind? Do you remember worksheet after worksheet of timed math drills in school? Or how you felt when you didn’t understand a concept and the only feedback you received was a big red X on your paper? That’s the way it was for me many years ago before I became a teacher and parent. It wasn’t until I began creating joyful learning experiences for my students that I realized math doesn’t have to be taught in such disconnected ways from our everyday lives.

Math is all around us. Math is cooking delicious meals with your family, figuring out your weekly budget and determining how many miles it takes to get to a family member’s house. It’s deciding that, if you’d like to make a birdhouse, you need to gather all the materials, measure and make it happen. Math is all about problem-solving, curiosity and taking risks. It’s about troubleshooting and recognizing that if something didn’t work right, we can just try again. When we approach math in a playful way, we help young children create positive connections to the very word that makes some folks cringe.

Here are three simple ways to tap into your child’s curiosity, turn daily tasks into playful games and begin to show your child that math is everywhere and it helps us in so many ways throughout the day!

Laundry

My four-year-old is obsessed with sorting laundry. When it’s time to put laundry away after it’s been washed and hung to dry, involve your child. Here are some simple games you can play to get creative with this routine task:

  • Whose sock? Ask your child to find all of the socks and place them together. Use math talk such as, “Can you find pairs of socks? Can you figure out which socks belong to you?” Invite your child to figure out which socks belong to older and younger siblings and parents. Encourage your child to think about the size of the socks, the colors, or the patterns, to determine who the sock belongs to. Not only will your child practice sorting, but they’ll also (fingers crossed) help solve the mystery of the missing sock!
  • My clothes. Invite your child to find all of their clothing and put it together in a pile. From there, your child can sort the clothing into piles of pants, shorts, t-shirts, long sleeve shirts, hoodies, dresses and more. Get creative and see if your child can sort clothing by color, favorite pieces of clothing, clothing for warm weather, clothing for cool weather and clothing for playing outside in the mud! Use math talk to encourage your child to verbalize similarities and differences between the piles. For example, “Which pile has the most? Which pile has the least? Which pile is the heaviest? The lightest? Why?”

Groceries

Children feel valuable and important when their caregivers involve them in daily tasks. Although we each have a certain flow to putting away groceries, involving your child in this task by turning it into a game can support them in understanding where things go and why.

  • Sort items. Invite your child to begin taking out groceries from the bag. Involve them in looking at the item and saying what they think it is. For example, “This is cheese.” Once your child looks at the item, ask them to think about where it would go. Incorporate math talk by asking questions such as, “Does the cheese need to stay cold? Where would we put the cheese so it stays cold?” Alternatively, invite your child to think about what would happen if you placed something like meat in a cupboard instead of the fridge or freezer where it is cold. Ask, “Would it stay yummy to eat? Or would it spoil?” This is the perfect way to incorporate new vocabulary words into your child’s repertoire as well (e.g. spoil). Support your child as needed and guide them to put the groceries away in the correct areas.
  • Veggie/fruit sort. Place all of the vegetables and fruits you bought at the grocery store on the table. However many you have is great! Invite children to think about the similarities and differences among the vegetables and fruits including: Color, size, shape, purpose, favorite things to eat, etc. Use math talk by using noticing what you see verbally. For example, “I notice that this carrot is long and thin. Another vegetable that is long and thin is celery. I’ll place them both over here. But this apple is fat and round. So is this orange. I’ll place them in this other pile over here.” Continue on as your child is engaged. You can also invite children to think about the similarities and differences among the vegetables and fruits when preparing lunch.

Cleaning Up

At our house, the end of the day means scattered shoes, empty bowls, cups, stuffies, coloring sheets and dog toys pretty much everywhere. Depending on the day, sometimes the tripping hazards stay. But other days, I have higher ambitions. Placing items in their homes is a natural way to support children in learning how to sort objects that are alike and different.

  • I spy toy hunt. Explain to your child that they are going on a toy scavenger hunt. The goal is to find all of their toys and put them away in their homes. Model playing a few rounds by saying, “I spy a brown bear. I’m going to put this brown bear to bed in his home, the basket right here.” or “I spy crayons. I’m going to put these crayons in their home, the drawer in the kitchen.” Invite children to explore the similarities between different items as they place them where they need to go. For example, all of the puzzles might go in a basket in the closet, whereas all of the coloring materials might go in a drawer in the kitchen. Support your child as necessary and use math talk to encourage them to think about the similarities and differences between toys, their uses, the way they look and where they “live.”
  • Where does it go? Get out a few different baskets or containers and explain to your child that you are going to walk around the house finding items that need to be put away. Place an item in each basket or container prior to getting started to provide a visual for young children. For example, place a block in one basket, a small person figurine in another and a stuffed animal in the third. Walk around the house and invite your child to find items that they can place in the basket. Ask prompting questions such as, “Where should I put this block? Which basket has a block?” or “This is a small Lego person. Which basket has something similar? The block basket, the small figurine basket, or the stuffed animal basket with this stuffed penguin?” Encourage your child to make a choice based on their understanding. Some items might not be a clear choice. In those instances, use math talk to support critical thinking and curiosity. Examples include:
    • “I notice that this is a Lego person and this is a plastic person. But they are both people. I’m going to place this lego person in the basket with the small plastic person.”
    • “I wonder where this stuffed animal dinosaur should go. It’s soft and light, but I don’t see a dinosaur. What do you think?”

These are just a few ways to get kids to associate positive things with math, but the possibilities are endless! It just takes a little thought and creativity. How will you bring more math into your child's daily life?

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