Math in a Spider Web?

Math,” (Yikes!)… For some of us, this simple word sends a shiver up our spine as those long ago tormented years in math classes come back in a wave of consciousness so strong we can still smell the musty text books and #2 pencils. As parents we desire to help our children learn and understand how they will one day come to use math in their everyday lives. How, then, do we get past our nightmarish math memories to the point where, while educating our children, we too can overcome the hesitations and learn to enjoy math?

Have you ever thought of “math” as beautiful, imaginative or alive? Most only think of math as numbers to be added, subtracted, multiplied and divided. Wherein we may teach children how to manipulate numbers, like when balancing a checkbook, parents seldom show their children how mathematics occurs in nature or in architecture. Perhaps this is because they were never shown these simple, everyday connections.

Theoni Pappas, author of Fractals, Googols and Other Mathematical Tales, delivers a unique approach to math in that she emphasizes the beauty and hidden wonders of mathematics. Instead of focusing solely on numbers, she attempts to open eyes to the incredible mathematical patterns that appear naturally in the world. She probes deeply into observations of things like spider webs, sunflowers, leaf patterns and coastlines. Most importantly, Ms. Pappas takes readers into a world where math is not only beautiful but also awe-inspiring and fun. consulted with Theoni Pappas. We asked her for advice on how parents can overcome their own math phobias in order to help their children discover the joy of mathematics. Her suggestions were simple and constructive.

1. Don’’t let your fear of math come across to your kids.

Parents must be careful not to perpetuate the mathematical myth – that math is only for specially talented “math types.” Strive not to make comments like; “they don’t like math” or “I have never been good at math.” When children overhear comments like these from their primary role models they begin to dread math before even considering a chance of experiencing its wonders. It is important to encourage your children to read and explore the rich world of mathematics, and to practice mathematics without imparting negative biases.

2. Don’’t immediately associate math with computation (counting).

It is very important to realize that math is not just numbers and computations, but a realm of exciting ideas that touch every part of our lives—from making a telephone call to how the hair grows on someone’’s head. Take your children outside and point out real objects that display math concepts. For example, show them the symmetry of a leaf or angles on a building. Take a close look at the spirals in a spider web or intricate patterns of a snowflake.

3. Help your child understand why math is important.

Math improves problem solving, increases competency and should be applied in different ways. It’’s the same as reading. You can learn the basics of reading without ever enjoying a novel. But, where’’s the excitement in that? With math, you could stop with the basics. But why when there is so much more to be gained by a fuller understanding? Life is so much more enriching when we go beyond the basics. Stretch your children’’s minds to become involved in mathematics in ways that will not only be practical but also enhance their lives.

4. Make math as “hands on” as possible.

Mathematicians participate in mathematics. To really experience math encourage your child to dig in and tackle problems in creative ways. Help them learn how to manipulate numbers using concrete references they understand as well as things they can see or touch. Look for patterns everywhere, explore shapes and symmetries. How many octagons do you see each day on the way to the grocery store? Play math puzzles and games and then encourage your child to try to invent their own. And, whenever possible, help your child realize a mathematical conclusion with real and tangible results. For example, measure out a full glass of juice with a measuring cup and then ask your child to drink half. Measure what is left. Does it measure half of a cup?

5. Read books that make math exciting.

—Fractals, Googols and Other Mathematical Tales introduces an animated cat who explains fractals, tangrams and other mathematical concepts you’’ve probably never heard of, to children in terms they can understand. This book can double as a great text book by using one story per lesson.

—A Wrinkle in Time is a well-loved classic, combining fantasy and science.

—The Joy of Mathematics helps adults explore the beauty of mathematics that is all around.

—The Math Curse is an amusing book for 4-8 year olds.

—The Gnarly Gnews ( is a free, humorous bi-monthly newsletter on mathematics.

—The Phantom Tollbooth is an Alice-in-Wonderland-style adventure into the worlds of words and numbers.

6. Use the internet to help your child explore the fascinating world of mathematics.

—Web Math ( provides a powerful set of math-solvers that gives you instant answers to the stickiest problems.

—Math League ( has challenging math materials and contests for fourth grade and above.

—Math Prose ( introduces short, educational math stories.

—The Gallery of Interactive Geometry ( is full of fascinating, interactive geometry activities.

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Topics: Teaching Tips