‘Where Math Is Like Dessert’

In “Bedtime Math,” astrophysicist and mom of three Laura Overdeck pairs more than 100 fun, imaginative stories with age-appropriate math problems kids can do in their heads at bedtime. Her goal: To make math as commonplace as the nightly bedtime story. In an email interview, Overdeck discusses why she created her nonprofit organization to promote math among children, how her children motivated her to do so, and why doing math is good at the end of the day or any time of day.

The Intelligencer: Why is getting kids more interested in math important?

Overdeck: The state of math education in this country is nearing an emergency. Right at a time when demand for skilled workers is climbing, we are suffering weak performance in math in our schools. More U.S. college undergrads are now majoring in “leisure studies and recreation” than in all physical sciences combined. If we want to generate a next generation that can cure diseases, develop environmentally friendly energy and build better gadgets, we need a next generation of kids who love math and want to study it,so they can become the inventors and innovators who improve our lives.

At a more personal level, we want our kids to live their own lives well, and succeed in making good decisions. Whether it’s sizing up a mortgage, comparing sale prices at the store or wondering whether buying a lottery ticket will pan out, those who feel comfortable with numbers will always make smarter decisions for themselves and their families. As parents, we want that outcome for our kids.

To raise a next generation that loves math, we need serious culture change, and that is what my book “Bedtime Math” hopes to ignite. It takes topics that are not just kid-friendly, but truly kid-appealing, and weaves them into math problems about everything from skateboards to cookie dough to the 10-Second Rule for eating food off the floor. Many adults don’t think of math as playful, and in fact find it scary, tedious and geeky. With “Bedtime Math,” we hope to show parents that it’s easy, fun and cool. That raises the chances that their kids will enjoy it – and go on to study it and excel at it.

The Intelligencer: How did your experience with your own children help formulate “Bedtime Math”?

Overdeck: My husband and I, being fans of numbers, started out counting stuffed animals with our oldest child when she was 2 years old. As parents, we all know to read to kids at night, but it struck us, why not do math also? Our daughter enjoyed these nightly riddles and they became a regular part of the nighttime ritual, so we continued them with our second child. When our third child turned 2 and started hollering that he wanted a math problem, we realized we were onto something: We had created a household where math is like dessert.

Friends asked if we’d consider writing down our math problems and sharing them with others, which led to my launch of a blog and daily email list. Within a week, parents were writing to say that their kids were now bugging them for a math problem. Just a little over a year later, over 40,000 subscribers and followers enjoy the daily math problem with their kids. And we now have the book, “Bedtime Math,” which pulls together a whole new set of wacky math problems and is fully illustrated to convey the excitement and energy that math should have.

The Intelligencer: Doing math in your head can be stimulating during a time of day when winding down is important. Also, bedtime often is a rushed time with so many things to do – bath, brush teeth, read, talk about the day, prayers. Adding one more thing might be tough. Can parents employ bedtime math, say, at the dinner table or in other settings?

Overdeck: It’s odd that people ask whether math at bedtime is overstimulating, when the time-honored way to get sleepy is to count sheep! In fact, math at bedtime has been a boon to bedtime at our house. Let’s be clear: I have three kids, ages 9, 7 and 4, and they are really lively. Giving the kids a math problem gets them to sit still for a minute and focus. It really settles them down.

Obviously Bedtime Math can be done at any time of day; the key is for parents to work it into a repeating routine so it becomes a favorite part of the day. Many parents have said they’ve moved Bedtime Math to carpool time, dinner time or bath time, while others have said that it helps launch the bedtime routine. Regardless, I should note that recent studies have found that we retain learning best when it happens right before sleep, whether it’s a nap or the night-long stretch. So we might think about keeping it at bedtime!