Mathematics at the Grocery Store — Activities

The grocery store is one of the best examples of a place where the ability to use mathematics is put to work in the "real world." It's a great place to practice measurement and estimation and to learn about volume and quantity and their relationships to the sizes and shapes of containers—geometry!

Preschool: One Potato, Two Potatoes

Use advertising flyers or newspaper advertisements to help your child identify, classify and count items. Ask, for example, "How many cans of soup are there?" "What vegetables do you see?" and so forth.

Making a grocery shopping list can be both enjoyable and an opportunity to reinforce young children's number sense.

What You Need

  • List of grocery items
  • Color pictures of grocery items cut from magazines, catalogs or advertising flyers (for example, choose pictures of different kinds of vegetables, fruit, containers of milk or juice, cans of soup, boxes of cereal and crackers, loaves of bread)
  • Index cards (or similar-sized cards cut from heavy paper)
  • Glue stick
  • Small box (large enough to hold the cards)

What to Do

  • Put together the set of food pictures and help your child paste each picture onto a card. Then have your child sit with you as you make up a grocery shopping list. Read the list aloud to her, item by item, saying, for example, "We need to buy milk. Find the picture of the milk." When the child finds the picture, have her put it in the box. Continue through the list, asking her to find pictures of such things as apples, potatoes, bread, soup and juice.
  • When you've finished, ask your child to tell you how many things you need to buy, then help her to count the pictures in the box.
  • Ask your child to put all the pictures of vegetables in one group, then all the pictures of fruit in another group. (You might continue with items that are in cans, items that are in boxes and so on.)
  • Point to one group of pictures, such as the fruit. Help her to count the number of pictures in that group. Have her do the same for other groups.

Kindergarten-Grade 1: Ready, Set, Shop!

Using the advertised prices in a newspaper or flyer to estimate the cost of items on a shopping list can help children sharpen their mental math and estimation abilities.

Grocery shopping offers opportunities to let children apply a range of mathematics skills, including data collection and estimation.

What You Need

  • Pencil and paper
  • Calculator

What to Do

  • To help your child learn about collecting data, involve him in making a shopping list for a special occasion, such as his birthday party. As you discuss what you need to buy, write out a list of grocery items. Then review the list with your child and tell him to make a check mark next to each item that you name. If you need more than one of an item, such as cartons of ice cream, tell him how many checks to make beside that item. Review the list with him and have him tell you what items-and how many of each—that you need to buy.
  • Ask your child to choose something that he wants for dinner—a cake, a salad, tacos. Have him check to see what ingredients you already have, then ask him to help you make a shopping list. At the grocery store, let him find each item on the list. Help him to compare prices for different brands of the same items (such as boxes of cake mix) to see which items are the best buys.
  • Ask your child questions such as, "Which is cheaper, this package of two tomatoes for $1.50 or three of these tomatoes at 60 cents each?" Have him estimate, then check his answer with a calculator.

Kindergarten-Grade 1: Get into Shapes

Before shopping trips, review different shapes with children by pointing them out in items around the house. Encourage them to use the correct name for each shape: square, rectangle, triangle, circle, cube, cylinder and so forth.

Being able to recognize how different shapes are used in common settings helps children to understand geometric principles-such as shape and quantity-and the relationships among them.

What to Do

  • At the store, ask your child questions to focus her attention on the shapes that you see. Ask her to find, for example, items that have circles or triangles on them or boxes that are in the form of a cube or a rectangular solid.
  • As you shop, point out shapes of products—rolls of paper towels, unusually shaped bottles, cookie boxes shaped like houses. Talk with your child about the shapes. Ask her why she thinks products, such as paper towels and packages of napkins, come in different shapes. Have her notice which shapes stack easily. Try to find a stack of products that looks like a pyramid.
  • Ask your child for reasons the shapes of products and packages are important to store owners. (Some shapes stack more easily than others and can save space.)

Grades 1-2: Clip and Save

Help children feel that they're a part of family budgeting by encouraging them to look in newspapers and flyers for coupons for items that the family uses. Have them look for coupons for items that they want to buy with allowance or birthday money.

Coupons can be used to help children learn the value of money as well as to let them show off their addition and subtraction skills.

What You Need

  • Pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters
  • Grocery store coupons
  • Pencil and paper

What to Do

  • Show your child a grocery store coupon for a product that he likes to eat and have him count out coins to show how much money the coupon saves on the product. For example, if the coupon is for 30 cents off a jar of peanut butter, give your child nickels and dimes and tell him to count out three dimes or six nickels. Give your child all the coins and challenge him to figure out how many different coin combinations he can make to total 30 cents.
  • Ask your child how much money you can save with two or three 20-cent coupons. Show him the other coupons and ask him how much money could be saved with each one. Have him write the amounts and then add them to show how much could be saved if all the coupons were used.

Grades 1-5: Put It Away

Children can often make up very creative rules for classifying things. Don't be surprised if you have trouble guessing your child's rule!

Putting away groceries helps children develop classifying and mathematical reasoning skills and the ability to analyze data.

What You Need

  • Groceries

What to Do

  • Make a game out of putting away groceries. As you empty the bags, group the items according to some common feature. You might, for example, put together all the items that go in the refrigerator or all the items in cans.
  • Tell your child that you're going to play "Guess My Rule." Explain that in this game, you sort the items and she has to guess what rule you used for grouping the items.
  • After your child catches on to the game, reverse roles and ask her to use another "rule" to group these same items. She might, for example, group the refrigerator items into those that are in glass bottles or jars and those in other kinds of packaging. She might group the cans into those with vegetables, those with fruit and those with soup. When she's regrouped the items, guess what rule she used.