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The Magic of Math

I've had a mathematical brain for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of the vintage math text book my first landlord gave me as a child. He also gave me a real fur hat. The hat was alright, but the book got me giddy. There were almost no words in it, not much in the way of arithmetic drills, either. Instead, it used pictures to demonstrate key concepts. Though I didn't have the technical vocabulary yet to formally describe the mathematics contained within, I understood. Math was beautiful.

A couple of days ago, a friend linked to an article from The Atlantic titled "5-year-olds Can Learn Calculus". As a math enthusiast and parent to toddler, I clicked on the link immediately. The article was full of fascinating information that got me thinking about my own parenting. But there was one comment that resonated with me on a personal level:

“It’s not the subject of calculus as formally taught in college,” Droujkova notes. “But before we get there, we want to have hands-on, grounded, metaphoric play. At the free play level, you are learning in a very fundamental way—you really own your concept, mentally, physically, emotionally, culturally.”

Maybe part of why I was always so good at math was because I thought it was fun.

Both of my parents dropped out of high school so that they could go to work. I've read the articles about the learning gap and its risk factors. Statistically, I was starting at a disadvantage. However, it's the details that matter in these situations. And, despite circumstances pushing my parents to terminate their formal education early, they still placed high value on education. I never went to a fancy pre-school, or even Headstart. But I did have access to books, toys that encouraged free play, an older brother who loved to show off what he had learned, and a mother who was always interested and encouraging.

I built structures with blocks, Legos, and Ringa-Majigs. I made pictures with Spirograph. I learned how to crochet. I helped measure ingredients for cooking and fabric for sewing. I counted and rolled pennies. I played card games and board games. The world was full of patterns and sequences and relationships--and it was so much fun! Once it was time to learn math as a formal discipline in school, it was just an extension of all this fun stuff I already did.

Math, I later explained to a friend in high school, was just a game. You were given a few fundamental rules and then it was just a matter of figuring out the patterns.

These days, I don't remember much in the way of trigonometry or calculus--I've been out of practice for too long. But the mathematical brain remains. It comes in handy when I'm stringing beads or folding origami. I use it to organize my living space and pack my suitcase. It makes me a darned good knitter. Still, sometimes, I wish I could stretch my proverbial math muscles a little more.

Which probably explains why I am newly obsessed with hyperbolic crochet. Advanced mathematical concepts modeled through yarn craft? Count me in! So now, when I have a little bit of down time, I find myself enthusiastically hooking pseudospheres and hyperbolic planes for my 2-year-old. Hopefully, in a few years, she can learn how to make them herself. And maybe she'll marvel at the math that surrounds us, too.


Mar. 9th, 2014 06:45 am (UTC)
Some really fascinating concepts here. Thanks for opening this up. I'm one of the people who not only doesn't understand Calculus, I don't understand how anyone can understand Calculus! But now, it makes a bit more sense in that math really is like learning a language and that if you get it early, it really is almost second nature. For some reason, Geometry always made sense to me, but Calculus was like slogging through hip deep mud. But then again, I was playing with Geometry when I was a in 4th Grade and didn't even hear the word Calculus until high school. Maybe it's not too late to develop a math brain?
Mar. 11th, 2014 02:12 am (UTC)
There's a lot of math in the world to marvel at and appreciate. It's a big part of music, and dance. As I mentioned above, the patterns aspect is also a big part of knitting and crocheting (particularly lacework or afghan squares). Part of developing a math brain, I think, is to just start to notice how the different branches of math manifest in the world around you. And to let go of the need to be able to do the actual calculations and instead think about things on a more theoretical level.