Making Math Memories

By Maryann Heim, Math & Technology Specialist

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to attend many professional development workshops, but one stands out in my memory as really impacting my philosophy of teaching math. The presenter began by asking all the participants to close their eyes and to think back to a warm and happy memory from childhood involving reading. We were then asked to share those memories. Hands shot up all around the room, and people cheerfully shared about reading with a parent at bedtime, snuggling on the couch with a grandparent, sitting by the fire reading to a younger sibling–the warm and fuzzy memories went on and on. We were then asked to close our eyes again. This time we were asked to think back to a warm and happy memory from our childhood involving math. This time only two or three hands slowly went up. The variation in the responses to these two questions was drastic. Unfortunately, for many, math stirs up feelings of frustration, stress, and anxiety, rather than joy and happiness. Needless to say, I left this workshop with a new determination to help create positive memories around math for our students (and my own daughter, too).

One of the easiest ways to help develop and reinforce skills–while also having fun–is to play games. Over the weekend, I stopped by my parents’ house and found my mom and dad teaching one of their grandchildren how to play checkers. This made me smile with the hope that maybe, if someone asked my nephew about a happy math memory, he would remember learning how to play checkers with his grandparents.

There are many wonderful games currently on the market, but some of the ones I grew up playing remain my favorites. Chutes and Ladders, Hi Ho! Cherry-O, Sorry, Trouble, and Candyland require counting, adding, and subtracting skills. Tangrams, jigsaw puzzles, and Guess Who? can be great for reinforcing concepts of attributes, patterns, and geometry. All favorites in our house, Battleship, Clue, Connect Four, Jenga, and Mancala are wonderful for strategy and spatial reasoning skills. In an effort to play more games as a family, we have designated Saturday nights as our game nights. We all unplug, enjoy each other’s company for an hour or two, and most importantly have fun while being engaged in math.

Teaching children that feeling a little frustrated is actually an important part of the learning process can at times be its own challenge. It does take time, but when presented in the right way, eventually our children can learn that challenges can in fact be fun and that the feeling of accomplishment at the end is rather remarkable. I was excited when I learned about KenKen number puzzles. They are a lot like Sudoku but have the added benefit of numeracy and come in varying degrees of difficulty. My daughter and I used to take KenKen puzzles to doctor’s appointments to complete together while we waited (which as we all know can be awhile). While sitting at the doctor’s office doing puzzles together might not stir up warm fuzzy feelings for my daughter, I certainly enjoyed working through a challenge with her and I hope it helped teach her to persevere and to not just give up when things get hard. We did end up spending almost 45 minutes on one puzzle but were so proud and thrilled with our accomplishment. If you do try KenKen puzzles, which really are fun, make sure you have a good eraser close by.

One final suggestion to create those warm and happy feelings around math is a wonderful resource called Bedtime Math. At you can sign up with your email address (or there is an app) and they will email you a little story with three math-based problems that you can solve together. The three problems vary in difficulty. With this resource, you and your child can snuggle in bed at bedtime and solve problems together, just as you might snuggle up to enjoy a good book.

As we work together, as teachers and parents, my hope would be that our Beauvoir students would enthusiastically raise their hands when asked if they have warm and happy memories involving math.


Photo caption: Maryann Heim and her daughter, Alison, playing Stratego.