Never underestimate the lure of “play money,” or kids’ affinity for activities you might not expect them to embrace — such as studying math. This year’s after-school math program created by a Norman Rockwell Elementary parent recently ended with an ice cream party. Rather than exclaiming, “Hooray, it’s over!,” kids told organizer Elly Sarwano how much they’d miss it.
Sarwano’s daughter Nicole, who is now a fifth grader, had always liked math but wasn’t keen on playing math games with her mom. Parent-child reading activities are widely available, but Sarwano wasn’t sure how to reinforce math literacy. She decided that a relaxed social atmosphere might help.
Last year, she talked to Rockwell principal Tina Livingston and the PTA and said, “Let’s pilot this for the fourth grade and see what happens.” She found free activities online, at sites such as MathPlaygound.com and offered fall and spring meetings of the after-school math group, once a week, for 10 weeks per session.
This year, when Nicole moved up to fifth grade and Sarwano’s younger daughter Caitlin started second grade, there were two separate sessions for the different age groups. The older kids have been playing games like Math Jeopardy and Mental Math, while the younger ones did math-related Bingo, card games and “fun ways to count money without even realizing it.”
Another parent who jumped in to help, Kathy Kahn noted, “She even used tricks to make them do their homework — she’d call it ‘fun work’ and give them fake money called ‘Math In Action Play Money’ to spend on little toys like a yo-yo.”
The word spread and other grade levels wanted to get in on the action. As a way to include more students, “We also have Math Challenges that we publish in (the school newsletter) the Beagle Bugle,” said Sarwano. “There are different problems for different grade levels. Correct answers get put into a hat and Tina pulls one for a popcorn treat.”
Some weeks, about 30 children participated in the Math Challenge, other weeks, there were 50-60 entries. Next year, the PTA will provide some money to buy rewards for kids who turn in 10 Math Challenges. And Kara Summers, general manager of Redmond’s Coho Cafe, donated 60 coupons for free kids’ meals as a Math Challenge incentive.
Also this year, a dedicated group of “mathletes” formed a competitive team at Rockwell. Adam Pumputis, Asteria Yiu, Avani Amin, Emma Chao, Margaret Stepaniants, Milo Mincin and Nicole Sarwono earned third place in a “Math Is Cool” competition on April 25 and brought home ribbons and medals from the May 3 Washington Math Olympiad, one of the largest competitions in the state.
Kahn complimented Sarwano, “This is really an illustration of the power of what just one person can do to make a difference … she was just like ‘Math Gone Wild!’”
Sarwano reacted, “None of this happens without other parents stepping up. I’ve had a lot of support.” She and Kahn urged other parents to check out such resources as AcademicLeagues.com or “just Google math games,” to start their own math enrichment groups.