Macaroni math and other fun learning opportunities in the kitchenWhen the holidays roll around, moms (and dads) may find themselves in the kitchen for long stretches, preparing meals and getting ready to entertain guests. Your children may want to be there with you while you work, so here are some ways to keep them busy and happy—and sharpen some math skills at the same time.

Easy Abacus

Is your child a budding mathematical genius? Then why not help him or her make a ziti abacus?

Use a shoebox as a frame. Punch eight holes in the box, four in each end, spaced evenly. Thread a string through the first bottom hole and knot it so that it can’t slip out. Then thread nine pieces of ziti through the string. Slip the string through the first top hole. Now weave the string through the remaining top and bottom holes, adding nine pieces of ziti to each strand.

The first strand, starting from the right, represents the “ones” column; the second strand, the “tens”; the third, the “hundreds”; and the fourth strand represents the “thousands” column. Each piece of ziti represents one digit, so that two pieces of ziti in the second column equals “20,” three pieces in the third column is “300,” and so fourth. Your child can use the abacus to do some low-tech mathematical computations by raising and lowering the pieces of ziti and “reading” the results.

So, what’s a plateful of ziti plus a ladleful of spaghetti sauce?

Macaroni Math

Let’s see, how does that old song go? “Stuck a feather in his cap and called it vermicelli.” We may be confused about “Yankee Doodle,” but your kids won’t be mixed up about addition or subtraction when they use macaroni noodles to do some math.

Give your child some noodles (gear the number of noodles to your child’s math level) and a place mat or dish. Then, as you’re cooking, present your child with simple arithmetic problems. You might, for example, say: “How much is two plus four?” To find the answer, your child counts out the appropriate number of noodles and tells you what the total is.

Older children who can handle larger numbers can use different-colored noodles to calculate higher totals. Each color can represent a different amount: yellows are ones, reds are tens, greens are hundreds, etc. Your child can line up the noodles in columns and add or subtract the appropriate amounts.

Entertaining your kids while you cook isn’t so hard. You just have to make every noodle count!

Reprinted with permission from 101 Offline Activities You Can Do With Your Child, by Ruth Bennett and Steve Bennett (BPT Press, 2011);