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Mighty Math for Pennies

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #58, 2004.

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Melissa Morgan


How much do you have to spend to teach math in the early grades? With a little ingenuity, you can literally teach math for pennies.

For little ones, math means learning about money, food, and time. Kids can learn math from items that your family probably already owns. Begin in preschool, with a soup can or piggy bank and a stack of pennies. Teach your preschooler to count ten pennies for a dime. Save up another ten for another dime. Count them out, one at a time. Five more pennies; then trade them in for a nickel. Finally, show your child that two dimes and a nickel makes a quarter. Make combinations of pennies, dimes and quarters, and demonstrate addition and subtraction.

If your children (like mine) love those little toy machines at the supermarket, let them spend their quarters. Introduce skip counting (counting by fives, tens, fifties, hundreds, etc.) Skip count nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars. Then multiply your money.

Introduce fractions - tenths of a dime, quarter dollars, half dollars. As children save more money and understand numbers, they can visit the dollar store to spend their money. Help them learn charity by saving for the poor and tithing. Also, show the concepts of division and percents this way. Money jingling in a wallet or purse gives a thrill - but the glow of generosity lasts longer still.

Offer children small jobs, so that they can earn their own money to spend. Given the opportunity and real money, children learn elementary math easily. Shopping for bargains exposes kids to the advantages and methods of percents. For example, children easily understand that "Fifty percent off" means they pay five dollars instead of ten.

Fractions can prove painfully hard to learn in a classroom. However, kids easily understand fractions when you measure ingredients for baking a cake. Your children might enjoy owning their own measuring cups and spoons. After baking, you can practice dividing up for company.

Before you bake, make sure you have all the ingredients, in the proper amounts, on hand. Even very young children can apply math concepts to home economics. For instance, you can help them learn to compare the cost of home baking versus bakery items. If you use one-quarter of a container of flour to bake a loaf of bread, divide the cost of the flour by four. Do this with the other ingredients, and add them up to find the cost. In most cases, home baking costs much less.

Help children learn to compare prices for food, clothing, toys, and other items, to find the best deal. Clip coupons with your elementary-age children. Then figure out on paper how much money you save. Show kids how to use math and money to buy Christmas and birthday gifts for siblings and relatives.

We use real-world math, but we also practice writing down math in number sentences. Even little kids can begin learning accounting. Keep a written log of earnings, spending, and savings together.

Do you need pricey math textbooks and workbooks from educational supply outlets? They are seldom worth the money. In the early grades, we use inexpensive department store, thrift shop, and yard sale math workbooks with covers that interest each individual child. Often yard sales in posh neighborhoods yield high-quality educational materials. I also look for workbooks with color pictures, wipe-off books, and sticker books for younger children. We reuse the wipe-off books, and they last indefinitely. For children that can read on their own, I look for clear, understandable instructions. The price is low, so I am able to buy several for each grade level. If the concept does not make sense in one book, we can afford to try something different!

Many kids find it hard to learn about time from textbooks. However, if given an incentive to learn, most kids can understand how to tell time if they know numbers up to twelve. Explain about the passage of time using clocks and calendars. Give each child his or her own clock and calendar to keep. You can pick clocks up for a dollar or two at thrift shops. Let them do something special with Mom or Dad at a certain time. Show them the time on the clock. Let them tell you the time. They will figure it out if they really want to do something.

Use a variety of different clocks and timers, and time different household chores. How long until the cake is finished? How long is your nap? What time do you get up, eat lunch, go to the park, visit the dentist or go to bed? Write down these times on a log and a calendar. Draw pictures on a large calendar to remember activities.

Learn math from everyday objects. Practice making sets of tens and hundreds with straws, cheerios, building bricks, or Popsicle sticks. Measure objects with tape measures and yardsticks. An egg carton, carefully washed, can teach the concept of a dozen. Save those plastic Easter eggs, and use them for math!

With a little creativity, you can make your own abacus by stringing large beads or buttons onto pipe cleaners or wire. Turn your youngster into a bean counter; use real beans for simple math practice. Of course, be careful if you children still put objects in their mouths - no matter what their ages!

Illustrate math concepts with inexpensive resources, such as dominos, Mr. Wiggles counters, Funtastic Frogs books, teddy bear counters, and Cuisenaire Rods. Educators call math objects "manipulatives" because kids can manipulate them to learn. Window shop at educator's supply stores and catalogs, and you will see that buying manipulatives at retail costs a lot! However, you can find used sets. We scooped up our counting rod set for forty-nine cents at a garage sale in an upscale neighborhood. We purchased other math objects from fellow homeschoolers who had outgrown them. Expect to pay between ten and fifty percent for used manipulatives.

Borrow books from the library such as Family Math, Mr. Wiggles, Critical Thinking Puzzles with Cuisenaire Rods and Great Book of Domino Games, to see how you can use manipulatives. Ask your librarian to help you find fun math books.

If you live near a teacher's college, check to see if they offer an educational supply library. Policies vary. In our area, the college accepted that homeschoolers are educators, and we were able to borrow expensive educational materials such as math books, manipulatives and games. It does not hurt to call your local college and ask.

Play with math at a "math party." Invite friends and relatives. Count the cookies, and divide them up. Consider using inexpensive math place mats and flash cards, or make your own. Write math facts on colored paper and cover with clear plastic. Draw pictures of objects to match the numbers, or cut objects out of old magazines. Match number cards with object cards.

If you already own a play cash register, you can play store. Use play food or real cans and boxes. Use masking tape to "Price" items for sale.

Play board games, such as Payday, Monopoly, and Tiddly Winks, that use money or math skills to add up points. Borrow math videos. Try Mega Math with Scott Flansburg "The Human Calculator," Basic Math (from Standard Deviants), or Skip Counting Exercise Video.

Older elementary students may enjoy playing computer games, such as Operation Neptune or Reader Rabbit's Math. Younger children may find sharing the computer too painful.

Many card games also build math skills and encourage logical thinking. Find card games rules in books such as Hoyle's Rules of Games or The Klutz Book of Card Games. Give magnetic number sets or card decks as prizes. If your schedule allows, count it as "school time."

Share musical math together. Playing music can help your child think logically and mathematically. Learn to count with the rhythm, and think about fractions of a note. Check your local library for math music such as One Hundred Sheep: Skip Counting Songs from the Gospels, Musical Math Facts (Sing, Spell, Read & Write), Multiplication Songs (Audio Memory), and Division (Twin Sisters).

Get a free MusicGoals demo at Eye & Ear, www.musicgoals.com/download_demo.htm and Music Ace software demo at www.harmonicvision.com. You can also try NoteCard, a free music education demo from www.familygames.com/freelane.html. NoteCard helps students learn to recognize musical notes quickly and easily. Learn how to use software to teach music on a shoestring at Sweetwater Music, www.sweetwateredu.com.


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