Few children actually enjoy fractions. I mean, if given the choice between running out the door to see friends or sitting at the kitchen table to stare at two numbers, stacked and separated by a line, I can think of few third graders who would actually pick the latter. (By the way, third grade is the level at which the Common Core Curriculum includes fractions in the objectives.)
For children with ADHD/ADD [Attention Deficit (Hyperactive) Disorder] and with learning disabilities in math, fractions can be particularly aggrivating. Fractions involve multiple levels of thinking, something children with ADHD struggle with in particular, as multiple levels mean longer periods of time needed to process. There are ways, however, to help children begin to understand fractions before they reach third grade and their teachers begin to prepare them for testing (which, unfortunately, is what we’re doing quite often these days in elementary schools).
Contrary to popular opinion, fractions are much more than memorized numbers balanced on little lines of ink. Fractions are conceptual. If children first understand the idea that a fraction is made up of parts from a whole, it’s going to be a lot easier for them to tackle the basics of fractions when they reach it in third grade.
Today we’re going to discuss three ways to use food to teach fractions. Why food? Children love food. Food is something that they come into contact with more often than almost anything else. Unless there are severe problems, children understand the idea of “more” and “less” when it comes to food. So today, we’re going to use pizza, chocolate bars, and cooking to demonstrate the concept of fractions in every day life, something parents can do with their children no matter where they are or how old.
Fraction Concept Food #1: Pizza
Pizza (or any other round food, such as cake or pie) is easy for children to understand using “whole” and “parts.” Why? Because we divide them up anyway. The important part to note with this approach, as well as the others, is that you’re not giving the children worksheets when you work with them on these types of fractions. Rather, you’re talking them through the division of wholes into parts as you create them.
For example, if there’s a big brother in the house, Brother might eat one half. You would explain to the child that when you cut the whole pizza evenly (and children are very quick to tell you if one side is bigger than the other), you’ve still got one whole pizza, but now it’s in two parts. If Brother eats one out of the two pieces, he’s eaten half the pizza.
A second example is with fourths. If you’re splitting the pizza four ways, have the child watch as you cut the pizza into four even pieces. Tell the child that Daddy is getting a fourth, Mommy is getting one fourth, and so are the children. Feel free to use other words that we associate with fractions in English, such as quarters. Again, you can explain how one whole pizza is still whole when it has all four pieces, but when people begin to eat the pizza, they’re eating parts of the whole.
Daddy ate one out of the four pieces. He ate one fourth.
When your child really understands the larger even portions of the pizza, you can move on to smaller pieces with larger numbers, such as eighths. Again, it’s important that the child remembers the pizza is a whole, no matter how many pieces it’s been cut into, until someone takes parts of that whole.
The great thing about this kind of lesson is that it’s painless. All you’re doing is talking to your child. You can begin this lesson as young as you want. If the child doesn’t understand quite yet, you haven’t done him any harm or pushed him too hard. All you’ve done is talked. And even if he doesn’t let on, there’s a good chance he’ll remember the vocabulary a little faster each time you bring it up. To him, it’ll just be part of everyday life, something Mom or Dad likes to talk about.
Fraction Concept Food #2: Chocolate Bars
Hershey’s chocolate bars are some of my favorite ways to introduce fractions because all children have some memory of having to share a chocolate bar with a sibling…and fighting over who got the bigger piece. Hershey’s bars are nicely divided up already into neat little rectangles so they’re easier to break up evenly.
“I’m going to breka this chocolate bar into two even parts for both of you to share. Casey, you get this half, and, Sarah, you get this half.”
“Since there are four of you here, we’re going to break this up into four even parts. Each person will get one quarter of the chocolate bar.”
These are ways you can start working on the concepts of fractions long before the children are even aware of what they’re learning. Once they understand the idea that you can break one whole object into smaller pieces, you’ve just won the first battle against fractions without the child even knowing it.
Fraction Concept Food #3: Baking
What kid doesn’t like to make cookies or cupcakes or cake or pie or other delicious little goodies? There’s great incentive in this lesson, as the child gets to eat her work as a reward. There are fewer words my students would like to hear than, “Come here, Kiddo! We’re going to make cookies!”
This kind of lesson is a bit more technical than the others, but is by no means unattainable. This lesson will require actual verbal instructions in order to get the desired result (yummy cookies), but that’s just another learning opportunity this lesson presents. Because this is a more difficult concept to teach, here are some tips:
1) Before you begin cooking or baking, explain to your child that making food requires very careful measurements. Just throwing in any amounts of ingredients will make the food taste bad. Although it’s not often in children’s nature to want to be slow and careful about things, ruined cookies might be worth taking a few extra minutes for.
(Although, it might making a lasting impression if you allow children to throw in whatever ingredients they want. They’ll probably see very quickly that these crazy measurements actually have meaning in the world when their cookies end up tasting like paste.)
2) Show the child your measuring cup(s). Begin with one whole cup. Help them understand that all the other cups are based on this one measurement. From there, you can explain that all other measurements will be measured by how many pieces this cup is divided into.
Baking is a great way to introduce formal fractions because it generally begins a simply as one whole cup, and goes as small as one eight of a cup. The measuring cup(s) is/are easily marked to read, and it’s easy to see the size differences when you measure out the ingredients.
3) You can get into the smaller measurements of tablespoons and teaspoons if you so desire. (FYI, there are 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon, if you didn’t know. I didn’t. I had to look it up.)
Remember, while this one might take longer, and might bring you a few unexpected dishes as the children learn (and throw stuff in the bowl before you can intervene), this can be a great time to bond. I remember cooking alongside my mother as a very little girl. I didn’t completely understand her measurements then, but I knew they were important. She was patient with me, and it wasn’t long before I began to learn.
The Important Stuff
The most important thing to remember with this early introduction of fractions is that it shouldn’t be a formal lesson. The goal is for children to slowly being to own the information on their own as time goes. This isn’t an overnight test prep; it’s a way of life in which we can help children conceptualize the world around them.
After all, in spite of all this testing, isn’t that why children are learning in the first place, to understand the world around them and make sense of it? Unfortunately, we often try to shove children into the formal education so fast these days that they miss the basics, the parts that all other skillsets and knowledge groups build on.
If we use basic lessons like this, if we take the time to talk to our children with higher goals in mind than to get them to just behave for a moment, we’re opening doors our children will discover years down the road, and we’re saving them loads of stress later on when they’re introduced to fractions in the classroom.
And what kid doesn’t want to bake a plate of cookies with Mom?