Math is Like Swimming

We lucked out when the 6-year-old was in a swim lesson with only one other child. Semi-private lesson for the price of a group lesson! Nice. I sat on the pool deck to watch from afar…not so close that I was “present” at the lesson, but not so far that I couldn’t hear the instruction and know that I was getting my money’s worth. The parent of the second child was not doing the same.

The parent of the other child was standing close enough to the pool edge to continuously urge his child to listen well to the instructor, to breathe correctly, and to fully lift his arms out of the water.

Okay. That’s fine. I didn’t know the parent or the child. Maybe hovering at the edge of the lesson was effective for this kid (um…no…I don’t really believe that.)

After the lesson the kids continued to play in the water. The other boy was splashing happily at the steps and bobbing up and down in the pool. Fun kid stuff. Until his parent insisted that he quit playing around and practice his swimming.

Now, there is nothing wrong with insisting that your child practice swimming (or anything else for that matter). Practice is important to the development of any skill. What turned my attention was how the parent insisted. This child was admonished to stop playing and to focus instead on his swim stroke. When he didn’t get it right, he was told to try again. And again. And again. Yes, the child eventually met his parent’s expectation well enough, and he was praised for it. But here’s what bothered me…

That kid had been having fun playing in the water. And if something is fun, you want to do more of it. And fun is not the opposite of learning. Because as he bobs up and down,  that kid is feeling the water around him and his body is learning how water behaves. As he bounces around on the steps, his legs are getting strong and wanting to push his body off into deeper more interesting parts of the pool. While he plays, he meets other kids and they play together, challenging each other to glide farther and dive deeper. While he plays, he learns that he likes the water and wants to become a better swimmer.

The problem wasn’t that the parent had made the kid practice his swim strokes. The problem was that the parent had pulled the kid away from productive play.

So how does this relate to math? Play in math is important, too. If your child only understands math as a school subject that is common for people (especially people she is related to) to struggle with…well…she’s not too far from coming to the conclusion that math is NOT fun and will likely be something she struggles with, too. If all he hears about math from his parents is that he needs to get his math homework finished, or he needs to do better in math, or he needs to get extra-help in math…well…that kind of math wouldn’t interest me, either. On the other hand, if she has been taught by someone that puzzles and games and problems and play are math and that they are fun and interesting and challenging in a cool way…well…she’s more likely to have a healthy relationship with math. This does not negate the importance of math work at school, or the need to practice certain math skills (knowing your multiplication tables IS still very important), but it does create a more robust and accurate impression of what MATH is.

And like swimming, math is a very important life skill.

(Mathematically…so what should you DO? That’s what this blog is about. Grab a warm cup of coffee or tea and read a few other posts about games and activities you can do with your kids.)

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