4 tips to make learning math fun this summer

By Ann Dolin, M.Ed.

WASHINGTON — Finding that elusive balance between summer learning and summer fun can be tough.  Why?  We’re all aware of the research: two and a half months of learning loss makes parents worried their child won’t succeed the following school year.

On the other hand, we’re fully aware that kids need a break. How can you find that happy medium?

Although the answer lies in filling in academic gaps and getting ahead, it also has a lot to do with teaching life skills that transcend the classroom. Here are some practical ways to incorporate math skills into the dog days of summer without making it a chore for everyone involved.

Managing money: I’ve often thought of writing a short book containing interviews with parents about raising kids.  It would just have two chapters: “What I’m glad I did” and “What I wish I did.”

Now that my oldest son is off to college next year, I most definitely look back and think, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently.”  Although we would all love to turn back time, we can certainly reflect on the things we’re glad we did.

About three years ago, I signed my 17-year-old up for a Pay Pal debit card.  I knew I had to take action because I was doling out cash at every turn. Five bucks for a Frappuccino, $30 for a video game, $25 for lacrosse balls (even though he had 15 of them in the garage already) and $40 for a Vineyard Vines T-shirt.

I became my son’s ATM machine.  I didn’t like the feeling and I knew this doling out of cash would not teach him any fiscal responsibility.  My son mentioned in passing to me that one of his friend’s parents had given him a set amount on a Pay Pal card each month, so I thought that might work for us too.

A set amount was deposited into his account every two weeks.  It was extremely hard for him at first.  After all, this money had to cover his frequent trips to Chipotle, clothing (except for back-to-school wear), movies, etc.  It was probably the hardest for me when he had no money the last few days of the pay period, BUT we kept to the plan.  Now, three years later, I am a few bucks richer (in the end, I spent less money on incidentals or him) and he’s a whole lot wiser when it comes to understanding the value of a dollar.

This summer, my rising eighth grader will also receive a debit card.  I can’t think of a better life lesson in math than budgeting money.

Tipping:  Understanding the relationship between fractions, decimals and percents is essential to math success.  A real life way to do this is to have your child figure out the tip every single time you go to a restaurant. This summer, teach your child to use mental math to estimate the tip, and then figure it out exactly by using pencil and paper (no calculator).  Do the same for taxis, pizza deliveries and even the tip jar at the local frozen yogurt shop.

Fractions and long-term math mastery: During my days as a classroom teacher, I noticed that my students who didn’t fully grasp fractions, decimals and percents almost always had trouble with every other math topic.

It was almost as if fractions were a litmus test for math mastery.  The research shows that my observations weren’t confined to my group of students.  Numerous studies have revealed that having a solid understanding of fractions is crucial for later math learning, such as algebra.

When students cannot perform mental math calculations using fractions, they can’t estimate answers to algebraic equations.  Think of this problem: 1/4x=3.  Can you solve it using mental math (without a calculator)?  The answer is 12.  Students who are able to manipulate fractions in their head have a leg up in middle and high school math.

So, how can you help your child become more adept with fractions?  One way I helped students understand this concept was through money.  As a tutor, I set up a store with my students.  The store usually had 10 items we found around the house.  Each was labeled with a price we made up ($5, $2.50, $9.00, etc.).  Then, I’d announce the sale for the day, such as ¼ off or a deep discount of 70% off.

The student would have to estimate what the new price would be and then figure it out with pencil and paper.  We’d also work with adding on sales tax to get a final check out amount.  The kids I tutored loved playing “store,” and you can do the same thing with your child.  Any time fractions, decimals and percents are related to money or sports (think batting average in baseball or free throw percentage in basketball) the concept makes sense a whole lot faster.

Preview, don’t just review: The bottom line is that cumulative subjects, such as math and foreign languages, are tough to catch up on when students fall behind or are just on the bubble of understanding. Summer review shouldn’t just be remedial.

Good instruction toward the end of the summer includes a preview of information that students will see in September and October.  In fact, research shows that remedial instruction, alone, does not have the positive impact that remedial plus previewing has.

If you want to help your child over the summer, don’t just focus on reviewing the basics.  Spend time accelerating as well.  Your child will feel far more confident in the fall. A math tutor can help to design a program that touches on both review and preview, and quite frankly, having an expert come weekly takes the emotion out of you trying to teach your child.  For those that want to set up their own program, I like Math IXL, an online math software.  This site is helpful for a general review of grade-level concepts.

In the end, math can be meaningful and engaging over the summer, especially when it’s related to real-life uses (think money).  There are also a number of great apps that aim to shore up skills in different areas.  Check out some of my recommendations here.

Have a question for Ann? Contact her via her website.

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