Mathy Bowling

Are you wondering what to do with the kids now that they are home for more than a week for the holidays? Yes, Christmas occupied you for a bit. And maybe you’ve got something fun going on for New Year’s Eve. But what are you going to do with them in between? Something fun…something educational…something like…


Yes, bowling.

Though you, like me, may recall bowling as the only social outlet in the little town you grew up in and therefore never planned to play it again, it is a terrific family AND mathy activity. Those 10 pins coupled with the process of scoring are another way for young kids to practice their number 10 fact family.

(What is a “fact family”, you ask? So glad you did! Learning fact families is an important step in developing numerical fluency. It is usually taught in first grade. One example of a fact family is 4, 6, and 10. Or 3, 7, and 10. Or 2, 8, and 10. Do you see how each group of numbers is related? In the EngageNY/Eureka math curriculum that is taught in our district schools, fact families are also known as “number bonds.” Being familiar and fluent in fact families is an important building block in early mathematics.)

Back to bowling. Here’s how you make it fun and allow it to be educational:

  1. Find a candlepin bowling venue near you. We’ve got Leo’s in Salisbury. If there is nothing nearby, you can make up your own bowling games…like the kids in Colonial days.
  2. Quick review. When you bowl, you get three opportunities to roll a ball down the alley to knock over as many pins as you can. At the end of your turn, you record how many pins you’ve toppled. Many bowling alleys also have bumpers that can be raised for kids so that their balls never fall into the gutter.
  3. How is this mathy? First, it can be a little bit of a challenge to see how many pins are still standing, so your child gets counting practice. Second, you need to record the number of pins you knocked over, so you must subtract the number of pins standing from the original 10. Now you and I no longer do that explicitly. We know our number 10 fact family so readily we don’t even realize it. If I see 4 pins still standing, the number 6 simply pops into my head. But that is NOT true for young children. My 6-year-year-old is adept at counting the pins still standing, but he takes several seconds (which seems excruciatingly long to the adult bystander) to do the figuring that tells him how many he knocked over. And that’s the mathy part.
  4. To allow this game to be mathy, you must sit back and let the kids do some of the work. You may have the urge, as the all-knowing parent, to be in charge of the scoreboard and to tell your child how many pins he has knocked down. Don’t do that. After the third ball is rolled, ask your child how many pins fell down, even though you know the answer. Have patience as she figures it out.
  5. If your child, like mine, consistently tells you how many pins are still standing rather than how many fell down, rejoice! This is an opportunity to support his math skills. Say, “Yes, there are 3 pins still standing, but your score is how many you knocked down. If you started with 10 standing and now there are only 3, how many fell over?”  Then, all-knowing parent, pause and be silent. Your kid’s mind needs some time to work this out. Let her have the 3 seconds or 10 seconds or more to consider. Then maybe let her press the button on the scoreboard because it’s fun.
  6. Bringing along one or some of your kid’s friends to play is a great idea. Not only might they end up discussing how many pins actually fell over, but they will have to manage a variety of social and mental issues together…taking turns, understanding rules, scoring, supporting and celebrating each other, and being good sports.
  7. If you have the option to play cosmic bowling (where the lanes are black-lit and the music is rocking), I recommend going for it. It doesn’t add anything mathy to the experience, but there’s nothing quite as entertaining as watching little kids rock their dance moves in bowling shoes.
  8. Finally, like all the other math activities and games in this blog, repetition is beneficial. Bowl more than once with your child. Make it one of your rainy day options. Don’t expect the first and only time you bowl with your child to be an amazing revelation of math (or athletic) brilliance. Nope. First and foremost, it’s the opportunity for quality time together. Then, over time, you will see the mathy moments develop and grow.

(Mathematically…there’s a lot more math going on in bowling than simply learning the number 10 fact family. Your kids will get exposure to other math and physics concepts, too, as they play. Force, mass, and spin are all a big part of the game. And using the bumpers is not cheating…it’s an opportunity to develop an understanding of angles of reflection. Play often enough, and your kids will make mathy connections without even realizing it.)

Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik on / CC BY-NC-SA


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