It’s good to have quick and easy mathy moments at your fingertips for young children. Especially the kind that look like fun games. Today the 5-year-old was being…well…a 5-year-old. He was just home from school and his 8-year-old brother didn’t want to play with him. So he lay on the floor and cried. I asked him if he wanted a snack. He cried in response.  I asked him if he want me to invite a friend over to play. He cried in response. He asked me if I would play Hot Wheels cars with him. I cried in response.

Instead, I put a bowl of snack and a cup of water in front of him and pulled out our Tiny Polka Dots card game.  I started to set it up without speaking, and the 5-year-old immediately showed interest. “Put out the blue cards, Mom!” And we were on our way.

Tiny Polka Dots cards are great because not only do the cards show a variety of numerical patterns, but they also have instructions for more than a dozen games to play with the cards. In all honesty, I have only read the instructions for two of those games. For the most part, the 5-year-old is fixated on playing Memory with these cards, and I oblige. But, I make a point of choosing which cards we will play with. Today it was the cards from two categories: the cards that represent amounts as numerals (5,6,7,etc.) and the cards the represent the same amounts as dots in a ten-frame.

I separated the blue and purple cards from the deck, taking only card values from 5 through 10. There was a method to my madness…I wanted to reinforce exposure to the ten-frame which is used in our district school’s math curriculum, and I wanted to check his recognition of numerals. I only chose values from 5 through 10 because I didn’t want to overwhelm my coffee table with cards.

We turned the cards face down and arranged them in a 3 x 4 grid (ooh, look, a mathy moment while setting up the game!). Then we played. Memory, if you recall, is simple. Flip two cards. If they match, remove them from the table. If they don’t, flip them back over. Take turns. We play as a team, putting the cards in a common pile as we match them. (I am not against competition, but that wasn’t the point of the game today. And I didn’t want to beat him have him cry in response!)

Importantly, while we played, I did not spend much time talking. When he flipped two cards, I let him figure out how many dots were displayed on his own. I didn’t ask him how he was doing it. I didn’t point out that 8 on the ten-frame has two empty spaces because 8 is 2 less than 10. I didn’t tell him that he didn’t need to count each dot one at a time. I don’t think he was counting one by one, but I also don’t know what method he was using to figure out the amounts. If he miscounted, I simply told him to double-check. If he miscounted again, I said nothing because his mistake was likely to self-correct later in the game.

We played two rounds, then he ran happily upstairs to race Hot Wheels with his brother, who was now willing to play. No more crying. Whew.

(Mathematically…the ability to look at a numerical representation and know how many there are without having to count is called subitization. Cool word. You are doing it all the time. Think of rolling a die and knowing that it came up 5 without having to count 1-2-3-4-5 dots. Because the Tiny Polka Dot cards represent amounts 0-10 in 6 different ways, your child learns to be mentally flexible while learning to subitize. Add to that the dozen or so different games you can play with these cards and you’ve got a fun colorful way to connect and get mathy with your kids.)