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It All Adds Up: Using Media to Help Kids Love Math

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This time of year always reminds me of my grandfather. Before the rest of the world realized it was spring, he would head out into the garden at the very beginning of March, having seen the first signs that the long nights were over, and long days were ahead. Ever his faithful companion, I would head out into the garden with him, to plot out our strategy for the summer.

It was there, in the garden, that some of his best lessons were imparted. My grandfather had the mind of a scientist, but at his heart he was a story teller. And so, out there among the clumps of dirt rows, he would turn even the most basic exercise like calculating how many seeds we needed to plant per row into a giant puzzle. I was too young to realize it, but he was doing a lot more than just planting things in the garden. Using his great imaginative powers, he helped show me how math and science were essential parts of my everyday life.

Not everyone has someone like my grandfather to help them see the connections between arithmetic and geometry and the greater world around them. In fact, many people, tempered by their own experiences with math in the classroom, shy away from talking about math at all with their children. A recent PBS KIDS survey found that nearly 30 percent of parents have anxiety about teaching their child math. In part, this issue stems from the fact that 25 percent of parents find it hard to incorporate math into conversations and activities at home. Math may seem harder to weave into natural discussions and activities in the home, leaving time- and resource-strapped parents unsure where to begin.

And the disconnect between math in the classroom and the real world is especially profound for girls. Research shows that as early as second grade, children start to adhere to the stereotype that 'math is for boys, not for girls,' according to a study published in Child Development. And a recent study showed that female elementary school teachers' comfort with mathematics has an outsize effect on the girls they teach. In classrooms with female teachers that did not have a strong math background, girls did not perform as well in math, whereas boys' performance was not impacted.

It's more important than ever that we address math literacy in this country. Clearly, as we move into a more connected, technology-driven world, the jobs that our children, and our children's children will hold will increasingly be tied to STEM skills: science, technology, engineering and math. In this context, it's especially alarming to note that the U.S. ranks 25th among 34 countries in children's math achievement.

At PBS, we feel a certain responsibility to help address this gap in so many children's education. For many years, we have been focused on helping children learn basic literacy skills, to give them the building blocks they need to enter school and begin reading. We've seen some great success with these programs, from Martha Speaks to Super WHY! Beyond our broadcast programming, we've expanded our KIDS shows onto multiple platforms and developed supporting content for parents and child care providers, to make sure that there is an entire ecosystem of resources available for kids to learn.

But as we looked at our work with a critical eye, we realized that we needed to step up our efforts in helping kids learn math literacy. That's why this week we're launching "It All Adds Up," which aims to boost math learning at home -- and everywhere -- by providing resources for parents. With these free resources, which were developed in partnership with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) through the Department of Education's Ready To Learn Initiative, parents can use their mobile phones or computers, or do hands-on activities, to help their children learn basic math skills. We're also developing PEG + CAT, a new preschool series that follows Peg and her sidekick Cat as they embark on adventures and learn foundational math concepts and skills.

And we've assembled a team of early childhood educators and educational bloggers, called Math Mentors, who will provide parents tips and ideas on how to help their children learn early math concepts and to integrate math activities into their daily lives.

My grandfather passed away 14 years ago. But I hope that by sharing these math resources with parents everywhere, we are honoring his legacy. By empowering parents to help their children discover math, and offering resources to help families tackle the challenges of math literacy, I hope that the seeds that my grandfather planted so long ago will continue to grow as the next generation of children discover that math can be fun and relevant, just like I did in my grandfather's garden.