The Washington Post

Laura Overdeck talks about getting your kids to love math

Mar 06, 2014

Laura Overdeck, the founder of Bedtime Math, a Web site that provides a daily math problem to solve with your child, took questions about how to get kids excited about math.

Hi, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. I'm so excited that Laura Overdeck is here to take questions about inspiring kids to love math. Here is a link to today's Local Living cover package on children and math. I can certainly use the help as well. Just last night my husband and I were baffled by our son's probability homework. We have lots of great questions waiting, so let's get started!

Greetings everyone.  At Bedtime Math our whole mission is to make math fun and in fact lovable for both kids and their parents- a relevant topic for the questions that have already arrived! I'll try my best to answer as many as possible during our gathering.

Can you suggest a fun way for kids to memorize the multiplication tables? My eight-year-old is not exactly inspired by flash cards. Thanks!

Totally agree that flash cards are not the way to go...they're fun for kids who already like racing the clock, but they don't win anyone else over. I've found with my kids that Math Dice by Thinkfun are a blast - kids have to concoct a "target" number by combining smaller numbers. It's addictive for the whole family.  Even printing out the times tables, putting a penny on each and letting kids win the pennies can get them engaged.

And here is a link to the Bedtime Math site.

Suppose you have an older child who already has a defeatist attitude about math? Is there any way to "undo" a negative perception of math for middle-school-aged kids -- or anything you can (not) do to avoid making it worse?

Absolutely.  In launching the Bedtime Math daily math problem, my original goal was to make it fun for kids, but we're hearing from their parents that this is the first time *they* are enjoying math.  If grown-ups can turn around, so can a teenager. Since math is cumulative, it's critical to figure out where in the sequence your child is stuck - it's often fractions and percentages, but it could be something earlier. Once your kid gets over that hurdle, you can start to rebuild. The other piece of this is making math feel recreational, not just a chore you do at school.  Sports, Legos, baking - whenever you do these activities with your kids, they're enjoying practicing their math without realizing it, and in a way that makes it relevant and meaningful.

My 10-year old daughter shuns anything related to math or science. For example, if I put any show involving math or science on television, she immediately leaves the room and will not return until it is over, as if any superficial exposure to those subjects would cause her irreparable harm. To be successful, any attempt to engage her in math would require the math to be veiled and more fun than merely adding up the grocery bill. Any suggestions?

This ties in with the previous question: how do you lure kids back into math without them noticing? :) Most apps, shows, etc. take math and try to make it fun.  At Bedtime Math, we find what kids think is fun - ninjas, flamingos, chocolate chips - and *then* find the math in it.  it's much more compelling.  That's how I write the daily math problem on our blog, and how we're creating our new math club.  It's a free kit schools can order to host a math club, precisely because kids need to experience math in a more fun way.

I met a young boy who was struggling with the concept of decimals and how it works. He was extremely frustrated and was waiting for his tutor to assist him. I drew a $ sign in front of the numbers he was working on. Wow!! Did the light bulb explode in his head!!! He pushed me back and said "I got this!!" Money this is about MONEY!!!

LOL - so fascinating.  This points to the fact that kids all learn differently, which is why our country keeps thrashing around with curricula with no magic bullet that works for all kids. Kids get their "a-ha's" in all different ways. I was tutoring a student on algebra and graphing, and as soon as I compared it to a soccerr field (he was a jock) - boom, he got it.  But that might not work for others. Thus, parents themselves can play a big role because they know what their kids live and breathe.

Why is it generally thought that girls don't like math, or aren't good at it? What can parents do to combat this stereotype and have girls who are confident in their math abilities?

There are lots of drivers, the biggest being that parents and teachers themselves hold subsconscious stereotypes that they don't even realize they radiate.  Studies show that when a boy does well in math, he's credited for being good at it, whereas when a girl does well at math, it's that she "worked hard." Also, adult women are most guilty of saying "I'm just not good at math." So many times I see women in restaurants fussing that they can't calculate the tip, and can someone else do it...what signal does that send to the girls in our lives? We are their role models.  For more, I did a whole TEDx talk on this, here on YouTube:

I'm 51 and recently decided to return to school to get my degree. I thought after all these years maybe math would be better. It's not. It's still horrible. Face it. I know some people like math, but some people like running ultra marathon's in Death Valley. Asking how to get kids interested in math is like asking how to get kids interested in having their teeth pulled. Maybe people who "get" math don't know how to teach it to the rest of us.

Well, we hear this a lot, and as I noted in an earlier response, this clearly can be turned around.  Math is beautiful, but if people don't get the proper foundation, it will be miserable going forward because no new topic will make sense. But we then hear from parents who hate math that in doing the fun daily Bedtime Math problem with their kids, they start enjoying math themselves, along with kids turning around. All this gets at the fixed mindset vs. growth mindset, stemming from Carol Dweck's work: research shows that those who believe they have limited intelligence will prove themselves right and will veer towards lesser challenge, whereas people with growth mindsets can rebound and in the end can learn more (as a rough summary). The brain has been shown to be pliable, and as Jo Boaler at Stanford shows in her How to Learn Math course, anyone can learn math: it's all about getting over the math anxiety and past experiences.

My son loves getting ahead of his class in math skills. In first grade, he would constantly ask me to make up math problems for him (e.g., adding 3 or 4 digit numbers). Are there any particular workbooks or applications that would further encourage his math enthusiasm.

In general, if your son is a math rock star, then the more challenge you can give him to eat up, the better! I recently unleashed my kids onto Khan Academy and they are loving it...far more dynamic and engaging than workbooks (at Bedtime Math we're pretty anti-workbook and anti-flash card).  Another more playful option is to find  the extra math in regular toys and games.  Spirograph is a great example: as the gears go around the ring, the ratios of the number of teeth determines how many petals your star design will have.  The math can get sophisticated. I mentioned Math Dice earlier too: that game can ramp up fast if you start using fractions, exponents, and anything else you want to roll in.

I have a nine year old son who's interested in math, seems quite good at it, but rarely wants to show his work which he says slows him down. I know it's important to have an understanding of how you arrived at your answer, but how do I help him understand this idea. (For reference his school uses "Everyday Mathematics" and he's in 3rd grade, but does 4th grade math with a different group.) Thanks for the help!

This is a common complaint, especially among kids who are succeeding  at math and get bored and impatient with the "rules." The key point is that it doesn't seem necessary on the really easy stuff, but as math gets more complex, instincts can carry you only so far. You can show him how math problems can be solved multiple ways (in fact, that's one of Everyday Math's goals) - for instance, adding multi-digit numbers by carrying the 1, vs. adding the hundreds first, then the tens, then the ones.  If he doesn't show how you did it, the teacher doesn't know whether he's truly mastered that method. And since math is cumulative, if he then stumbles during a tougher topic, it will be harder to tease out the issue. I agree this is really hard to convince kids of these "no really, you'll need this in the future and you'll thank me later" sorts of things, but it's absolutely worth trying!

I caved and allowed my child to take 7th grade algebra honors. It's harder than earlier math and the child is getting discouraged. I hear a lot of "when will I ever use this?" and "I hate math." Besides getting in a time machine and delaying algebra to 8th grade, do you have any advice? I point out during the day when algebra does come up... but how do parents handle that for geometry? Algebra 2? Truthfully, a lot of adults really don't use those math skills. Thanks.

This can be decoupled into two things: being able to handle the math, and seeing the point in doing it.  You might want to tackle the latter first, so there's motivation.  Algebra absolutely comes up every day in our lives - a recent study quizzed 200 people on math, then looked at their credit scores, and proved that the people with worse math skills in fact had worse financial situations. As for geometry, pro football coaches have taught their receivers how the Pythagorean Theorem (the length of the longest side of a triangle) drives how far the ball has to be passed. Just figuring out whether a warranty is a ripoff uses math.  The other question is whether to forge ahead with algebra right now; you or a tutor may want to sit with your child and tease out where the stumbling block is - it's often fractions, which are essential to algebra, but could be something else. it's all cumulative.

My child enjoys problem-solving puzzles, but has a verbal memory disability that makes it hard for him to code math facts. Are there ways to engage him with math that don't involve having facts memorized?

While the memorization angle to math is much less fun, unfortanutely memorizing the facts does pave the way for math to be easier.  Every homework page, every quiz and test all take longer if you have to calculate everything from scratch. I agree with many other poepl ethat flash cards are not the way to go about it, though.  Games are best, either letting kids win pennies or M&Ms off a grid as they get answers right, or just playing Chutes and Ladders and making kids calcualte their next landing spot rather than counting the boxes.  Monopoly forces you to add and subtract on every turn - in fact any standard game involving dice gives you practice. Finding a few games your son likes and playing them a lot will help far more than you realize.

My son does math on a college level. He is 2 grades ahead in math (Alg II) and the teacher tells me he can't answer the questions my son asks. He had to take the SAT (already!) and got a 790 on the math. Yet my son HATES math. I have bribed him to do Math Counts, but I cannot make him do anything else. I feel sad at all his talent going to waste. We live in a small town and my son absolutely refuses to do anything online or be sent away for a week to camp. I keep thinking it's because he's bored, but is it too late to reach him? My older girls love math and are very good in it, but not close to his level. Am I doomed for the next 4.5 years? He loves Minecraft and Lego League, but is that enough?

This sounds like a lot of people I know - I'm the outgoing board chair of Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth, where they deal with kids with multi-grade advancement all the time.  Every kid is different, but the general consensus is that kids start to hate subjects simply because they're bored and frustrated, and becuse they have no soulmates among their peers.  An underqualified teacher can hurt the situation, too.  And while Math Counts is great, it's not for everyone.  I'd consider sending him to a CTY course, where they weave math into fascinating topics like cryptography, and your son will also be with peers who are fired up about the subject - that love of math is truly contagious. I'm happy to share more info if you want to contact me offline.

Do you have any favorite games or toys for getting kids to practice their math? Without them knowing they're doing math?

Absolutely - in the interest of time see my previous answers, as we've gotten to discuss a bunch of them already!

What is the best age to start doing math with your child? Should we focus on getting them to memorize their facts, or is it more about the process when they are younger?

Personally I think we don't give American kids enough credit for what they're able to do - kids can be exposed to numbres and counting far ealrier than kindergarten.  that said, it absoultely shouldn't be a drill-and-kill experience! The key is for kids to be introduced to math during playtime when they're little, not in kindergarten when it's suddenly about omework and quizzes.  What a sad way to meet a subject for the first time.  FWIW, I started counting with my kids when they were 2, counting the ears and noses on their stuffed animals.  Slowly, with no plan, no objectives, we just started tackling more topics - adding, subtracting - and no flash cards, no worksheets.  Just conversation about their favorite beloved items and activities. If parents (who in some cases hate math themselves) can make math playful for their kids, we can truly raise a next generation that loves math and will embrace it in school.

Like most parents, I have been most unhappy with the state of elementary math curriculum. My kids have had to draw too many pictures, which has frustrated both of them, and been marked down for not drawing the "correct" picture, even though she could solve it the old fashioned way (and did so). Said daughter hates math (I can see why), and I am just hoping we can get her into middle school where the math is more old fashioned and may resonate with her better. (It certainly worked for my son.) How the heck do we as parents combat the crap that is taught in schools?

In line with my previous response, yes - we don't give kids enough credit for what they can do, and many schools fail to teach math in any meaningful way.  And you've hit the nail on the head: you can't change your school, but parents can counter the effects of school in other ways. This is a big reason we at Bedtime Math are launching a nationwide after-school math club for elementary schools: it's a much more fun, livelier way for kids to enjoy math challenges, but it's outside school hours and therefore doesn't mess with the curriculum.  Thus schools are happy to order the free kit and set up a club.

With that, I think we are getting to the end of our time here.  Those with further questions are always welcome to track me down at Thank you!

In This Chat
Laura Bilodeau Overdeck
Laura Bilodeau Overdeck is the Founder and President of Bedtime Math, a nonprofit organization that aims to make nightly math as common and beloved as the bedtime story. She is the author of the book "Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse to Stay up Late," published in June 2013, and "Bedtime Math 2: This Time It's Personal," coming in March. Overdeck also writes and edits Bedtime Math's daily math challenges at She lives in Short Hills, New Jersey with her husband and their three increasingly math-savvy children.
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