My favorite mathy moments are the ones I didn’t expect.
Several months ago, I decided to make a whiteboard mandala for my kids to color. They had fallen in love with an adhesive one that was stuck to a table at the children’s library in town, but I didn’t want to pay $100 to buy one of our own. I figured it couldn’t be that hard to make one myself.
I gathered my materials. I went to Home Depot and bought a 2′ x 4′ sheet of whiteboard for $10. At the store, they were able to cut the board into two 2′ x 2′ squares. I took my beautiful new fresh whiteboards home and was confronted with the issue of how and with what to paint a symmetrical and intricate mandala on each. My project came to a standstill.
In the meantime, the boys got busy. With the beautiful pack of new Expo markers I had bought, they began to draw and color and write and play on the blank whiteboards. Eventually I realized that it would be a waste of my time to paint the designs I had been hoping for on the boards. Not only were the kids happily occupied without the pre-painted lines to color within, but the whiteboards were infinitely more flexible now.
The 9-year-old used them to write messages to me. I used them to help the 9-year-old spell out challenging words and work out sentences. The 5-year-old asked me to draw pictures on them, then he colored them in. We pulled them out when we needed to keep score. Mostly we all just doodled on them.
And then one day I was tutoring an 8th grader, and she was not engaged. It was clear she was distracted and not particularly interested in the material we were working on. She was looking at the clock a lot. So I pulled out one of our big whiteboards and a bunch of colorful Expo markers. It’s amazing how something so simple can change everything. She chose her favorite color and got to work.
I started using the boards to get mathy with my kids. The same problem that was boring on a sheet of paper became instantly more interesting when worked through on a big smooth whiteboard with juicy bright markers. I began to leave math problems and patterns and ideas on the whiteboards for the kids to “discover.” Sometimes they would pause and consider what I’d written. Sometimes they would just erase the problem immediately to clear the board for their own creations. Sometimes I use them on the fly to explain something that comes up in our conversations. Sometimes I plan ahead. For example, I’m not sure right now how solid the 9-year-old is feeling with all his times tables. So, I’ll just throw some multiplication patterns onto those boards and see what he does with them. (FYI – he groaned at me. Whiteboards don’t solve every problem.)
If you decide to get a big whiteboard of your own…
- Go big. The handheld whiteboards that kids use in school are great for desk work, but a large sheet of whiteboard (mine are 2′ x 2′) is inviting. It begs to be written and drawn on.
- Make them fun. Don’t start with math problems. Start by sliding the board to your kid, handing her the markers, and watching with curiosity to see what she will create on her own.
- Incorporate them into how you communicate when you are trying to explain something to your kids, whether it be a math problem, a spelling word, or a diagram of how something works. Encourage your kids to do the same.
The best part about the boards? They store flat…under the couch, behind a chair, in a closet. Easy. Go get some for yourself and have fun.
(Mathematically…the boards are just a tool. They were an effective way to get my kid’s attention and keep it for a bit. Other tools work, too. I had a student once who was able to focus better on note-taking and studying when she wrote with colored gel pens on black paper. Of course, once you have the tool, the key is using it in an effective way to create, learn, and practice. )