Coffee Shop Math

Sometimes it’s nice to manipulate “quality time” with your kid to also be “happy time” for yourself. So I periodically suggest to the kids that we ride our bikes or walk or, yes, even ski to a local coffee shop (okay, the ski option does not present itself often, but it did happen once, so I can say it.) Especially if we’re going stir crazy inside the house. If there’s any hesitation on their parts, I say “cookie.” Then we’re on our way.

Once there and enjoying our particular treats, I pull something out of my bag for us to play with. This day it was dice, and I was with the 4-year-old. Dice are awesome. Like spoons and pots, they are relatively simple things that can bring great joy and hold a kid’s attention longer than expected. It’s good to have a variety of dice – different shapes and ways of representing numbers. My dice look like this:


You can get dice like this at your local toy store. You can also buy them online here. Some of the dice pictured above are Math Dice and Math Dice Jr. by Thinkfun. Bags of Math Dice come with instructions for games to play. We have rarely followed the instructions. The other dice I bought individually from bins at various toy shops. You could even raid your old game boxes…still have Yahtzee?? Math does not need to be expensive.

I don’t do much besides push them in the kid’s direction. I watch what he does first. Today he started stacking them. It was a challenge for him to balance 6 cube-shaped dice along with two polyhedral dice. I asked him what would happen if he changed the order of the stacking. I was wondering if it would be easier or harder to stack…but I never explicitly mentioned that to him. He did it and laughed when the dice eventually fell. Then I put three dice in front of him and asked which had the greatest value displayed. Some dice had dots, some had the numbers written as words, and some had the numerical symbols displayed. He chose correctly, and we continued this game until he tired of it and wanted to stack the dice again. While he was occupied with creating his own structures and making up his own games, I happily sipped my coffee and watched him as if he were an engaging TV show (which little kids essentially are.)

Now, on this particular day, my child did NOT choose to throw these dice (a.k.a. small hard pointy objects) around the public space that we were in. Whoo hoo! Of course, it’s possible that tomorrow he will. In which case, the dice go away immediately. Maybe we will go away immediately (gotta follow through on consequences after all.) Or maybe I will pull out a different game. A deck of cards. A pile of napkins. (Okay, I don’t really know what I’d do mathematically with a pile of napkins, but they are soft and don’t fly far when thrown.)

(Mathematically…this kind of activity is “low hanging fruit.” So easy to do and so much to be gained from it. First, go ahead and use words like “polyhedral” and “cube.” I had to look up “polyhedral” to be sure of it…no shame there. Why not expand both our vocabularies at the same time?  Pre-school kids will benefit from fine motor skill manipulation of the dice in this activity. They will benefit from seeing various representations of numbers. They may be ready to handle greater than/less than comparisons or basic addition with the dice. Treating the dice as toys and not as “math work” makes this activity accessible. Older kids may be interested in taking the activity further. Roll all the dice and put them in numerical order. Divide the dice between the two of you, roll, and see who gets the greater sum. Multiply them. Divide them. Most recently we’ve been weighing ours on a kitchen scale. Why not? So many possibilities! Just remember not to force your child to conform to your expectation of what this activity ought to look like. It’s okay if your kid wants to stack dice all day and ignores your questions about adding numbers together. It’s okay if your kid is not interested in the dice at all today. Try again another day.)

2 thoughts on “Coffee Shop Math

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  1. Dice! Portable, fun and so many possibilities! Even more versatile than Jenga blocks (that get used at our house for building rather than game playing). Thanks for all these wonderful suggestions. Makes me want to meet you for coffee more than ever.


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