Friday, November 9, 2012

Food for Thought: Using Snacks to Learn Math

Food as an incentive in the classroom is hardly a novel concept. Students are often given a treat if they earn a high score, and whole classes may be rewarded with a pizza party for behaving well or demonstrating certain learning goals. Food is an effective motivator, but we have some great ideas for turning snacks into learning tools for math as well!

Cheez-Its, for example, can be great tools for teaching geometry. Measure one of the crackers and draw a series of squares or rectangles so that an even number of Cheez-Its can fit inside. After handing out a shape and a handful of Cheez-its, explain that each cracker represents one square unit and ask kids to fit them into the shape. Once they’ve done this, it will be easy to count the number of crackers inside the shape to determine its area. Next, ask kids to count the number of crackers lined up along the length and the width of the shape, then multiply the numbers together. This tasty, hands-on activity will help them to move beyond simply memorizing that area = length x width. They will understand the reason for the formula, and be more likely to recall it and to use it correctly. (Thanks to Day in the Classroom blog  for the great idea!)

Hungry for more ideas? Foods that come in different colored pieces, like M&M's, Skittles or Fruit Loops can be excellent tools for teaching all kinds of mathematical concepts. Possibilities abound for helping younger learners appreciate basic number concepts. For example:

  • Ask students to categorize the pieces by color, then count and write numbers to show their results.
  • Use food to practice the concepts of “more” and “less.” After they have divided the pieces into color groups and counted each, ask students to construct sentences to compare different color groups. (e.g. “There are more purple pieces than green pieces.”) If working with more than one student, make it a competition to see who has the highest number of yellow, red, etc.
  • Write an equal sign (=) on one index card and a greater than/less than sign (>/<) on another. After kids have divided the colors into groups, ask them to place the cards between groups of colored pieces to show that one group has more or less than another. Challenge kids to figure out how to use just one greater than/less than card to show any relationship. (Answer: They can turn it to face the other direction.)

Colored food pieces are also ideal for practicing statistics. Try the following ideas:

  • Practice calculating percentages and fractions by having students count the total number of pieces they are given, then breaking the amount down by color. (To make this really concrete, be sure each student or group of students is given exactly 100 pieces of food.)
  • Have students practice making bar graphs, line graphs, or pie charts to reflect the number of pieces of each color.
  • Go online to find out the color distribution followed by M&M producers. Ask kids to count up a small number of M&M's and then compare them to this average. Then give them a larger number and ask them to repeat the exercise. Guide them to notice that the larger the sample size, the closer their numbers should come to the published averages. This is a great lesson in real life statistics, because in some cases larger sample sizes won’t get closer to the “right” average. Help kids understand why this is.

One cautionary note. Many schools have policies about food in the classrooms as part of their food allergy or healthy eating policies. M&M's, for example, have a "may contain peanuts" warning on their labels. So check carefully before implementing these ideas in classrooms.

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