Read-together math books for kids

Young kids love books like Goodnight Moon and parents love to read it to them.   Does it matter whether the toddler thinks of the moon, the rhythms of the day, the rhythm of the words, the magic of transitions and change, and so many other beautifully embedded ideas in the same way adults expect them to?  It may be interesting to study what and how a child absorbs through the pictures, the words, the voice, and the reader’s presence during read-along (in fact many people have, including this interesting piece by Anne E. Fernald.), but it is also likely that there are mysteries to a child’s mental process that are far from our understanding.  Whatever the case may be, Goodnight Moon is extremely popular, and one reason could be just the way it helps a child and parent to bond around a single moment of shared experience, both ordinary and familiar yet magical and sublime.

Inexplicable gems like Goodnight Moon are rare but what can publishers learn from them?  Could there be such a thing as read-along math books for kids?  Mathematicians know that appreciating and doing mathematics requires flexibility as well as a structure, imagination as well as logic, but that view of math often does not reach youngsters (or even many adults).  As Paul Lockhart asks in his Lament, would children be inspired by music, if they were forced to first learn musical notation and theory?  Similarly would we require a child to master spelling and grammar before reading them a story?   Aspiring engineers and scientists have examples of useful discoveries and powerful tools to entice them.  How can we present mathematics to kids when math’s highest level practitioners work within a language and form that most people don’t have the tools to perceive?

The contents of math books for children has often been governed by what schools decide is appropriate mathematics for each age group to grasp.   Being good at math is equated with being faster at learning this material, but there is a benefit to exposing all children to mathematics.  For one thing, mathematical talent is not always easy to recognize. There are mathematical leaders whose vast imagination and deep intuition were not  recognized at an early age.  Who knows which child could, after a glimpse of the possibilities, be catapulted onward to the unlimited reaches of mathematical endeavor.  And if people benefit from a broad knowledge of other subjects, and from the arts, they can also be enriched by an exposure to mathematics as a creative and exploratory subject.  Even for the average student, such a view of math could give them something more in this world to contemplate and enjoy.

Mathematical ideas are universal, and there is much for a child of any age to respond to: intriguing patterns, surprising structures that appear as if by magic out of seemingly random chaos, puzzles that sound hard but have simple solutions, and puzzles that sound easy but are very very hard.  Closely identifying mathematics books for children with a an educational agenda (unlike story books, music and art) can severely limit their range.  Mathematically intriguing pictures and ideas, and reading together with an adult or older sibling can lead to pleasant discussions of “why” and “what if”?   Some children may still groan or feel blase about the need to learn multiplication tables, rules of algebra, and geometry proofs, but in the back of their minds they may also recognize that mathematics can be kind of cool, sometimes a bit wacky and unexpected, and sometimes rather entertaining and memorable.

Featured Book of the Day

The Infinite Farm by Richard Evan Schwartz

This is Schwartz’s fourth children’s book published with the AMS, and is written in his recognizable and unique style.    But while there was a significant instructional component of the first three books, this latest is more suggestive and open-ended.  We find ourselves in a world with an unfamiliar geometry that allows infinite objects to live in a bounded space.   Whether you know the rigorous mathematical underpinnings of this world, or just want to explore in it, this book is a fun read.

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One Response to Read-together math books for kids

  1. Jennifer Murawski says:

    The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute organized the Mathical Book Prize (www.mathicalbooks.org) for this purpose – please feel free to suggest additional titles for consideration at the website! (Dr. Schwartz’s book “Really Big Numbers” is a past winner, and he will be a featured guest at the National Math Festival in Washington, DC next May!)

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