N.J. Mom Puts Kids To Bed With Math

The U.S. ranks 25th out of 34 countries when it comes to kids' math proficiency. One New Jersey parent wants to change that by overhauling the culture of math. An astrophysics graduate and mother of three kids, she started a ritual when each child was 2 years old: a little bedtime mathematical problem-solving that soon became a beloved routine. Parent friends began to bug her to send them kid-friendly math problems, too. Now Bedtime Math is gaining fans among children and math-shy parents around the country.

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Ask a lot of people and they'll tell you math is not their strong suit. In an international student assessment program in 2009, the United States was ranked 25th in math proficiency. A parent in New Jersey wants to help change that, beginning with a new nightly ritual, as Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.

ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE, BYLINE: When Laura Overdeck was growing up, numbers were part of her home life. Her mother was a keen baker, and Laura always helped measure ingredients. She learned about angles from her dad, who did carpentry in his spare time. Math became a favorite subject, and she went on to major in astrophysics. She knew she wanted her own kids to be math literate, too.

LAURA OVERDECK: And when we had our first child, when she was about two, we just started giving her a math problem every night, right alongside the bedtime story.

MILNE-TYTE: We're not talking baby trigonometry. The problem was more of a story involving animals, vehicles or candy that let the toddler count either in her head or on her fingers. It caught on with the family.

OVERDECK: Our third child, when he turned two, started yelling that he wanted a math problem, because he saw his brother and sister doing them. And it made us realize, wow, we have a household where math is fun. It's the sought-after thing at bedtime.

MILNE-TYTE: Friends got wind of the routine and started asking her to email math problems to them. In February, Overdeck launched a website where she posts daily puzzlers for children of different ages. She now has more than 5,000 people on her email list.

CAS STACHELBERG: Ah.

OGGIE STACHELBERG: Ah.

MILNE-TYTE: Oggie Stachelberg's dad Cas is one of Bedtime Math's subscribers. For Oggie, who's eight, the nightly problem is a welcome addition to the evening. It usually follows teeth-brushing.

O. STACHELBERG: Ah.

MILNE-TYTE: Tonight's problem starts off with a logic conundrum about Friday night traffic and then gets down to the numbers.

C. STACHELBERG: If it takes six hours to get to your destination, and you have a two-hour movie on DVD to watch, how many times in a row can you watch the movie on the trip?

O. STACHELBERG: Three.

C. STACHELBERG: All right. So what's the equation?

O. STACHELBERG: Two times three.

C. STACHELBERG: Equals?

O. STACHELBERG: Equals six.

C. STACHELBERG: Nice. OK. Ready for the bonus question?

MILNE-TYTE: Oggie's already in school, but Bedtime Math founder Laura Overdeck is particularly keen to hook kids on numbers before they get there. Take Calla Mishan, who just turned four. She's struggling with a hungry caterpillar problem. Her mom Ligaya steps in to help.

LIGAYA MISHAN: And then three more slices of watermelon.

CALLA MISHAN: That makes one, two, three, four, five, six.

L. MISHAN: Yay.

MILNE-TYTE: So why introduce the little ones so early?

SIAN BEILOCK: My lab has shown recently that kids as early as first grade report feeling anxious about doing math.

MILNE-TYTE: That's Sian Beilock, a psychology professor and author of "Choke," a book about performance anxiety. She says the more fun and familiar math is early on, the less likely it is kids will panic when they meet the subject in the classroom.

BEILOCK: There's actually research showing that the more parents use number words with their kids in all sorts of settings - you're going to get two cookies, or we're going to take a nap for 20 minutes - that actually improves and is correlated with students' math performance later on.

MILNE-TYTE: Laura Overdeck's introduced snack time math at a few Boys and Girls Clubs in New Jersey. She'd like to see the subject get a cultural makeover.

OVERDECK: You can hear totally educated adults say, you know, I'm just not that good at math or I'm kind of afraid of math. And that's a totally acceptable thing for a well-educated person to say. But you never hear them say, well, you know, I'm just not that good at reading.

MILNE-TYTE: She wants kids and their parents to become as fluent in numbers as they are in Dr. Seuss or Harry Potter.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte.

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