I love lazy math. Not the kind of lazy math that students do when they don’t show their work or document their reasoning, but the kind of lazy math parents do when we inspire our children’s curiosity without having to do a lot of planning or instruction.

It is one of those unwritten rules of childhood that if your parents suggest you do something…or worse yet, require it…you will NOT do it. Remarkably, this even applies to things kids might actually like doing. For instance…

“You should go outside and play in this beautiful weather, Darling Son!”

“NO!”

Then you enter in a discussion/debate/diatribe on the subject. Go outside. No. You must. No, I mustn’t. Yes. No. No TV if you don’t go. No. No computer if you don’t go. No.

Sidestep the whole weary process. Here’s how it can happen…

When I pick up the 9-year-old from school, he gets a whopping 15 minutes alone at home after I drop him off and head in the other direction to pick up the 5-year-old. As he steps out of the car, he often asks, “Can play a computer game?” My answer tends to be, “Not today.” Then he asks, “Can I watch TV?” My answer is usually, “Eh. I’d rather you not.” Sometimes I suggest something else, sometimes I let him deal with figuring it out on his own. Sometimes I set him up. Like today.

On this particular day, I had picked up a new activity at the library (check this post for how that works.) It’s called Trucky 3. It is described as a “multi-level logic game”, and it looks like a toy that a 9-year-old is too old for. But don’t let that fool you. It is an engaging puzzle activity that will work spatial reasoning and visualization skills. It builds in complexity as each challenge is completed. It is one of those brilliant toy/games that sneaks in math while your child thinks she is simply playing.

I had left the pieces of Trucky 3 out on the living room coffee table along with some water and a snack. When I returned home with the 5-year-old, the 9-year-old was completely absorbed in solving the puzzles. His younger brother wanted to join in, so the older brother pushed over a few puzzle pieces for him. It was clear that the 5-year-old wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, so the 9-year-old gave him a quick tutorial, and they were on their way.

Now, some further explanation. Because if you all you read were the last two paragraphs, you would leave with the impression that my kids always listen to what I say and do what I want them to do. You might also think that the these two brothers are always kind and supportive of each other. Ha! What I wrote above really did happen, but it doesn’t always happen. Here are some things that helped make it happen today:

1. We’ve already established expectations around TV and computer use, so when I told my son that neither was an option after school, my answers were not surprising. He also knew from experience that the conversation was over. He was still a little bit disappointed, of course. A kid’s gotta try, right?
2. I know my son is hungry and tired after school. The first thing he does is head for food.  I pre-empted the cabinet raid by putting out something to eat ahead of time.
3. The placement of the food next to the game was no mistake. How could he miss the game lying right next to his trail mix? Knowing that he is a curious kid, I was pretty sure he’d investigate the game while he munched.

This strategy sometimes works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And that is fine. I would not have been upset if I had come home to find the 9-year-old upstairs playing with LEGO instead of interacting with the activity I had arranged for him. So, while I have titled this post “Lazy Math”, it’s not lazy at all. Really it’s about thoughtfully arranging possible moments. You can do this with anything you want your child to “discover.”

(Mathematically…the game Trucky 3 is like a pattern block puzzle, but it’s particularly engaging for young children because there are actual toy trucks to roll around. So, you can buy it for your toddler and treat it like a toy, then, as your child develops, the toy becomes a challenging game. Letting my son interact with the game without my guidance or instruction gave him the opportunity to figure out the “goal” on his own and to try to explain it to his brother. These are important skills in math. Ultimately, it really is NOT just about getting the answers. It is very important to be able to explain the work to others. And, finally, by “seeding” our home with these opportunities that I don’t direct, I am very purposefully trying to encourage curiosity, independence,  and self-confidence.)