How Sports Helped My Son Love Math

“What’s 2 + 2?”

Thinking… “Four!”

“3 + 5?”

More thinking… “Eight!”

I quiz my son on his math homework, and he enthusiastically shouts out the answers. He doesn’t get all of them right, but he’s into it. And he tries his best.

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, there was a time when he would rather have watched grass grow than add two and two. His teacher, of course, said he needed to practice. But no one could explain to me how to get an active kid to sit down and focus on a repetitive worksheet.

It was around the same time that my son signed up to play soccer for the first time. Early every Saturday morning, we trudged down to the local park with other families for an hour of team soccer. I use the word “play” loosely here because I’m not sure how much soccer they played. It was more like a bunch of 5- and 6-year-olds swarming the ball and banging shin guards.

But even though their skills were basic at best, the little boys and girls on the soccer team were fanatics about keeping score. They weren’t really supposed to keep score because the league had a policy that “everyone’s a winner.” But you couldn’t tell that to these kids. They hooted and hollered about beating the other team by such-and-such to such-and-such. And my son, being a fast runner and an active kid, had scored the most goals. That’s when I put my own two and two together.

“How many goals did you score, kiddo?” I asked my son after the game.

“Um… 12.” I knew the little guy was making it up—he had no idea!

“Well, did you count them?”

“Um… no.”

“Can I help you count them?” I suggested.

“Uh… OK.”

I smiled. Then we went through every goal. The first one where a friend kicked the ball off my son’s elbow and it went in. The next when he ran into a player on the other side and the ball rolled in. The third, when the other team scored on its own goal after his wild kick. And so on until—“I scored five goals,” he exclaimed.

Every game after that, we counted goals. And slowly he got better at counting. A few games later, he asked me what an “assist” was, and we started counting those (though, to be honest, an assist is a rare event for young kids’ soccer).

Just when I start running out of soccer math ideas, baseball season started and he started watching a game now and then on television. It was awesome to see my son count balls and strikes for a three-hour ball game.

Baseball opened up a world of numbers to him. Hits, walks, runs, strikeouts and batting average—the game had it all! And he loved it. It turned out the best way to get my son to enjoy math had really nothing to do with math at all—it was about connecting with my son’s interests.

A few weeks ago, as we watched the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants play in the World Series, my son asked me who I was rooting for. Neither, I told him. They’re not my teams and I’m not rooting for anyone. Of course, that was only half true. In my heart, I was really rooting for my son.

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