With a little help from grownups, almost anything can equal math discovery for kids. Take ordinary drinking straws, for example: fun for drinking juice and even for spitballs when you're not looking, but also fabulous for learning math. Here's a hands-on activity to help teach your child the classic first grade topic of “place value”—what you probably remember as telling the difference between the “ones, tens, and hundreds” columns in a number.
What You Do:
- Set the Stage. Explain that your child will be making a place mat and using plastic straws to show the “place value” for some three digit numbers. Have your child use a pencil and lined paper to create a list of ten different 3 digit numbers (ex. 145, 250, 781, etc.)
- Make a “placemat.” Give your child a piece of construction paper and have her fold it into thirds. Using the ruler and a marker or crayon, she should then label the top of each column with these words from left to right: “Hundreds,” “Tens,” and “Ones.”
- Build real numbers. Now have your child represent each number on the placemat using the plastic straws. For example, if the number is 258, they would place 2 straws in the "hundreds" column, 5 straws in the "tens" column, and 8 straws in the "ones" column. Have them count aloud as they lay down the straws in each column. For example, count by hundreds saying "One hundred, two hundred," Then by tens saying " 10, 20, 30, 40, 50." They can then count by ones saying "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8." They can end by saying the whole number out loud, with pride and satisfaction. Repeat this process for each number on the list!
“Place Value” is a concept that underlies every major mathematical skill to come, whether it's addition and subtraction or more advanced concepts like decimals. By arranging digits this way, you're helping this knowledge become automatic, and you're providing an organizing framework for how our number system works. Oh, and while you're at it, you're also modeling a sense of discovery and a love of learning that can last for decades to come. Not bad for a short afternoon activity!