Remember that scene in the movie Austin Powers where Dr. Evil plans to hold Earth ransom for “one million dollars!” The rest of the bad guys in the room are unimpressed. Isn’t one millions dollars a little low? So Dr. Evil ups it to one hundred billion dollars! You can tell, though, that he’s not so sure. Maybe that’s because many of us have a shaky concept of just how big BIG numbers really are, and we have an even worse understanding of how those big numbers compare to each other.

Ask any kid for the biggest number she can think of and you will get some entertaining answers.

twenty seven eighty!

5757!

one million trillion bazillion!

infinity!

In all honesty, I really only have an academic grasp of large numbers. I can look them up and do the math to tell you how much a million compares to a billion. When it comes to conceptualizing those numbers, though, I struggle. I still gloss over the millions and billions and trillions that I come across when reading about astronomical distances and national debts. I do, however, think that it is possible to teach children feel comfortable with these numbers. Here’s how:

1. Anchor large numbers to something concrete. There are about 1,000,000 granules of sugar in a 1/4 cup. Now look at the bag that the 1/4 cup of sugar came from…how many millions of granules do you think are in there? Or, if you live near the beach…how many grains of sand are on that beach? If there’s about 1,000,000 grains in a 1/4 cup…WOW! How many grains of sand are on all the beaches in the entire world? (And if your child’s eyes grow wide and seems hungry for more, this is a great way to begin talking about the difference between a really really big countable number and the uncountable concept of infinity. Wowza.)