Not long ago my kindergartner was sitting at the counter finishing her breakfast toast when she pointed to two water bottles sitting in front of her. “Mama, is this math?” she asked. I tried to figure out what she was asking about. Were there number markings on one of the water bottles? I didn’t see any.
“Is what math?” I asked.
“This,” she said, grabbing the yellow water bottle and moving it back and forth.
I stood up and walked over to see. She was looking intently at the water in the yellow bottle as it passed back and forth in front of the green one. As she did so, light shone through and turned the water in the yellow bottle green.
“Oh,” I said, “how it changes the color?”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “Is that math?”
In retrospect I should have turned the question back to her: “Do you think it’s math?” or “Tell me why you think it might be math.” The question “What is mathematics?” is a really interesting and complicated question–we spend a whole semester talking about it in my college-level History and Philosophy of Mathematics course!
But sometimes daily life is distracting and I don’t think to ask the good questions until later. This time I just said, “Actually, what that looks like to me is science. Science and math do have a lot in common, though.”
My second grader was listening in and he was not satisfied with my response. “But it kind of is math,” he piped up. “Because really, everything is math.”
I paused. “You’re right,” I said to him, and to my daughter. “There’s math in everything.” Because, even though I think it’s a bit more complicated than “everything is math”, so many of my college-age students tell me they never felt math was applicable to them, that math seemed unrelated to the questions that interested them. So I should want my kids to see math wherever they want to look for it, and be willing to look for it where they want to see it.