Mathematize Your Home: What’s Algebra But a Lost Number?


Algebra doesn't have to be a nightmare!

I remember my high school Math days as bleak days of terror. Geometry was bearable, but Algebra, Trigonometry, and Calculus were the stuff my nightmares were made of. I remember in one Calculus class, our teacher asked me to stand and recite and I couldn’t answer the question. I was totally humiliated (The Hubby loved that particular Math teacher, though, and was most likely loved back; in fact, that teacher was a guest at our wedding).

I do not want my kids to have the same mathematical distaste. Although I have learned to—if somewhat begrudgingly—like Math, I want them to be more enthusiastic about it, the way their grandfather is (I always tell the story of Lolo Ike’s bewilderment when no one quite shared the thrill of discovery over ways to divide with some number like 26 or such). So far, I think we’ve built some decent foundational skills with minimal pain and some fun, thanks to jellybeans and board games.

Raine will be moving up to fifth grade in a few months, and obviously, so will the complexity of the Math concepts she’ll be learning. I’m glad that she’s had some rudimentary exposure to formal Algebra in her old schools, so she’s fairly confident that “Algebra’s easy. I like Algebra!” Good for her. I think our brainwashing is working.

I know, though, that the thought of teaching Math, especially higher level ones like Algebra, give a lot of parents the heebie-jeebies. But I, in my newly enlightened state of peace with Math, do have a few ideas about it, and I think they’re pretty doable. After all, what is Algebra but the quest to find those darn missing numbers, who usually hide behind the names ‘x’ and ‘y’? There is a more technical definition, of course—but do you really want to get into it?

Also, we already use Algebra in our everyday lives without knowing it! Say you bought two shirts and a pair of jeans, and you gave the cashier P1,500, and got back P300 in change. Next time you wear your new outfit, someone compliments you on your jeans. So without looking at the receipts and price tags, and knowing that your two shirts cost the same (P400 each) and because you want to pseudo-humbly reply, “Oh this pair? I got it dirt cheap, just X bucks!”—can you figure out how much your jeans cost? Of course you can! Most likely in your mind, too.

You quickly figure out that everything cost P1200. You next work out that the two shirts cost P800 together, and since you know how much you spent, that leaves you with the price of the jeans: P400 (and yes, go on and humble brag about your amazing find that flatters your bum just so). If you put that in an algebraic equation, it could look something like this:

x + 2y + 300 = 1500

where x is the cost of your jeans, and y is the cost of your shirts (of course it doesn’t have to be x and y; you can use j and s, you rebel you).

But the point is, we do use Algebra. And we can solve algebraic equations fairly well. We’re just too stumped when we see it out of the ‘real world’ and in a text book.

Now how do we teach our kids Algebra? By doing the things we normally do. If I have jellybeans (obviously a big hit in the HP household, still) and both my kids have to share, I can say something like, “Treat time! I’m giving you 10 jellybeans to share. How many do you get each?” They can quickly tell me that they get five each. But in an algebraic equation, that could be something like

2x = 10

Or moving on to a more complex problem, with higher jellybean stakes, I could tell one of them, “I’m thinking of giving you 20 jellybeans, but only 2 every day. How many days will you get jellybeans?” She could easily figure out to divide 20 by 2, and then look forward to getting 2 jellybeans for the next 10 days (in equation form, that could be something like 2x = 20, where x is the number of days).

To up the ante (and lower the sugar levels), I could also work with, “I’m going to split these 40 jellybeans between the two of you, and I’ll give you 2 jellybeans a day. How many days will you get jellybeans?” So now they’ll need to figure out how many jellybeans will be given out in a day, and then divide the total number of jellybeans by the daily number of jellybeans to get the number of days the JBs will last. In a simple equation that would be

2(2x) = 40 where x is the number of days

After computing, they’d get x = 10, or two jellybeans a day for 10 days (not much upping of ante, apparently).

And as we’ve seen with the jeans-and-shirt example, shopping and change are always fantastic means to practice Math. Raine, for example, enjoys going to the neighborhood bakery by herself (or with Breeze) without any adult companion. She not only enjoys the freedom, she also likes buying popsicle packs (yup, they sell those at our bakery). Last summer, the girls decided to sell popsicles (another story on its own), and I told Raine that she could buy popsicle packs with whatever was left from the P100 after buying bread. How many popsicle packs could she get to start their business?

Raine knows that a loaf of bread is P40, and a popsicle pack is P20.  So to get how many popsicle packs she could get, she would have to subtract the cost of bread, and then divide the change by 20. In an equation that would be

40 + 20x = 100 where x is the number of packs.

Do we present the girls with equations whenever we solve these kinds of problems? No. Do we tell them that they are solving Algebra? No. Are we checking off Math skills covered? Not really.

What we are teaching them is how to analyze the problem and figure out ways to solve it. Also, we’re teaching them with tangible things that they can relate to, and that motivates them. I mean, jellybeans! Popsicle packs! It can be anything, really. The girls are also pretty quick to compute book budgets, number of erasers, and how many more days until their birthdays. It’s a matter of finding something that they like, and recognizing the opportunity to figure out problems.

Will we ever teach the girls formal Algebra? Of course. But I’m hoping that when we get to the algebraic equations, their eyes won’t glaze over like mine usually did.

I’m hoping that when they see 3x + 2 = 11 or 5x – 6 = 24, they’ll say, hey, this is just like when we had to figure out how many jellybeans we can have. Or at the very least, I can say that, and their reaction will be, oh right! This is easy. And it will be.

Happy math days ahead!


A version of this article is included in the There's a Math Teacher in The House newsletter, to which I have started contributing to. This newsletter is published twice a month by MATH-Inic, a system that teaches mental Math techniques that will help make Math fun, fast, and easy. The newsletter contains tips on how to promote Math in your home; techniques to speed up calculations (useful for competitions!); and fun things you can do with numbers. Sign up here to receive the free There's a Math Teacher in The House newsletter and other updates from MATH-Inic



  1. great thoughts. Yes, if only we could convince our kids and ourselves that algebra isn’t as hard as we all fear. My daughter doesn’t like math and finds it a huge challenge, but using a story-based curriculum that integrates algebra into real life application has really helped her.

  2. Thanks Kym! I think real life applications are really the key to Math. It was only when I ‘grew up’ did I realize that Math I had to learn was pretty useful. Most of it anyway :p

  3. Kym, what story-based curriculum do you use, btw?

  4. Very good thoughts. If we could make it more common day, and allow them to see the uses of math more often, it would not be such a difficult thing to approach. – Lori

  5. Lori, exactly! Hoping we have materials that use more real world examples 🙂

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