Updated: Jun 29, 2022
Where we live, there is a Dunkin’ Donuts within a few miles of us at all times. My children are always begging for me to stop for donuts (always one strawberry frosted with sprinkles, and a plain chocolate). When my son turned five I decided to give him an allowance. Now, when he is begging to stop for a donut I say, “Would you like to use your own money?” It has not only reduced the begging and given him a sense of accomplishment while saving for a big item, but it has also given him a chance to acquire some real-world math skills using his allowance!
As adults we can often lose sight of how much academic skill is required to complete simple, everyday tasks, like buying a donut. You have to understand how much the donut is, compare that to how much you have, present a reasonable amount of money, and make sure you get the right change. This becomes even more complex with a task like shopping for groceries. You have to evaluate what you need, write a list so you don’t forget, stay within budget, keep tabs on the cost as you shop, compare price per unit to determine the best bargain; and so much more.
One advantage we parents have over teachers in schools is that we have these countless learning opportunities, perfect for practicing important skills, as recurring parts of our daily lives. And children are eager and capable learners who will learn a lot from mathematical tasks we see as mundane. Sharing the math of real life, in quick and easy exchanges, can yield loads of learning.
Children are eager and capable learners who will learn a lot from mathematical tasks we see as mundane.
In 30 seconds or less, you can practice, estimating, and adding and subtracting money, with this riff on Supermarket Sweep. As a meal is being prepared or let’s just say you're in the kitchen, you can ask your child, “How much do you think this carton of milk costs?” In my area it’s about $3.80-$4.00. Then you could ask them, what if you wanted to buy two gallons of milk? Or for a younger learner, what if another store was selling it for ten cents less or more, what would that cost be?
If you’ve got a little more time, start with some dollar store pretend money or pour out the piggy bank and set up a store with favorite treats right in your house. Take turns being the shopper and the store clerk. Give your child the opportunity to add up how much their desired items cost (an apple could be 50 cents and a cookie could be $2!) and have them pay you. If your child needs more buy-in be sure to have high interest items that they actually want. If food doesn’t do the trick, find something that does: stickers, art supplies, or buying more screen time. This can be done for an afternoon every once in a while, or can be a weekly occurrence with a set budget of real or fake money.
After you feel confident they have enough skills to try it out in the real world, give your children the chance! Perhaps you will give a standard amount of real money each week or month, or at random and give them the chance to decide how they will spend it. Before Covid if my son asked for a treat from a gas station while I bought gas, I would let him go in, help him understand the value of various desired items, and stand far back while he completed the entire transaction. At six years old, he’s able to put abstract ideas into a real life scenario, and that makes the skill more accessible to him if he ever does need to do the work on paper (like on a worksheet or test!)
If your children are older or are ready for more advanced tasks, they can do something like be in charge of an entire meal to plan and prepare for the family. Give your child a budget for the meal, and let them decide how to use it and what to make. Take them to the store and allow them to choose the needed items (or do the shopping online!), work to stay in budget and complete the monetary transaction, if possible. If this isn’t appealing to them they can be given a budget for their next birthday party or plan out starting a business to determine how much money would be needed.
The beauty of this approach to learning addition and subtraction while using money is that it has intrinsic buy in (pun intended). Your children won’t need to ask “Why do I have to learn this?” and you won’t need to repeat your high school math teacher and say, “Because you might need this one day.” Your child will be putting the academic skill to work in a way that feels authentic and necessary, and you will build excitement and connection along the way!
If you’d like help and guidance in enhancing learning at-home