The Right Place

Math isn’t really my thing. It’s a struggle, actually. My mother claims that I was good at it up through fourth grade, but everything from there is a haze of half-forgotten concepts. I passed the math section of the MTEL, but not by so wide a margin that I would entrust the math education of my own children solely to my abilities. Not wanting any of the kids in my program to suffer this fate, however, I try really, really hard to give them an abundance of activities that will make them interested in and curious about all things numerical.

Yesterday was a wonderful day for math. The sun was shining and the wind was holding back so nicely that we spent almost an hour outside. My kindergarteners wanted me to play a game with them. Not tag, not four-square, not jump-rope or kickball, but Pico, Fermi, Bagel. If you haven’t played the game before, it’s a logic game that requires a basic number sense that most kindergarteners don’t quite have. Rather than trying to explain the rules here, let me direct you to an online version briefly: PLAY HERE

My kids wanted to play because the game was one of the activities I had set up for the day. I meant it for the older kids, but when kids beg me to play a logic game with them, who am I to say no? We played with two digits, sidewalk chalk, and a lot of hilarity (on my part–I don’t think the kids quite understood why I was laughing). As long as I was the leader and handing out clues, I could coach them along and scaffold their guessing to help them get to the right answer in a non-frustrating amount of time. They, however, all insisted on taking turns choosing a number for me to guess. A typical transcript for those games went something like this:

Me: 12.

Kid: Bagel.

Me: Okay, so neither of those digits is right?

Kid: Hang on, let me check. (Runs to other side of blacktop where the chosen number is written then runs back.) They’re both wrong.

Me: 34.

Kid: Bagel.

Me: 56.

Kid: Bagel.

Me: 78.

Kid: Bagel.

Me: 90?

Kid: Bagel.

Me: But we used up all the numbers. Two of these guesses have to be at least a Pico, remember?

Kid: Oh, yeah. (Runs back to check number again). Actually, it was 12.

Me: (Laughing hysterically) That was my first guess!

We would wrangle back and forth about the rules, I would lead another game, and the kids would decide they had gotten the hang of it and someone would demand a turn choosing a number. They would run across the playground, write the secret number down, and run back to oversee my guessing. The game would either go pretty much as scripted above or follow a trajectory like this:

Me: 10.

Kid. Bagel.

Me: Are you really sure? The number doesn’t have either a 1 or a 0 in it at all, right?

Kid: (Pointing with toe) Actually, there is a 1, but not there.

Me: (After guessing 11-91 and being told “Fermi” each time) I don’t get it. I guessed all the two-digit numbers that have a one there.

Kid: It’s 13! (or 201, or 2001)

Me: Okay, that would have been a Pico, see… (ensue much use of chalk to explain around my half-contained giggles which were coming up not because they were getting things wrong, but because they were so darn cute about it)

By the time we went in, the kids still had no idea how to play the game. I’m not surprised by that–wielding place value and logic require a foundation of skills that these kids are still in the process of acquiring. I felt like we had accomplished a great deal all the same, having spent the better part of an hour in the sun working on the motor skills of drawing numbers and stretching the neural pathways that place value and logic will eventually need to occupy.

And if my kids learned nothing of math from our experience, maybe they learned a little of patience with others and a little of confidence in their ability to tackle tough challenges. Playing math games to keep their teacher company in itself demonstrates a quality of kindness they all have in spades–their logic skills may yet be a bit pico, but their hearts are all fermi.

2 thoughts on “The Right Place

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