MLC Co-Hosts Portland’s First Public Math Day

Vi Tamargo

“The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.” — Georg Cantor

In September, The Math Learning Center co-hosted Portland’s first Public Math Day with Two Rivers Bookstore  in St. Johns neighborhood.

The mission of Public Math Day strongly aligns with MLC’s mission, with the goal to bring opportunities to diverse children and families by engaging and interacting with math in their daily lives.

Scene from Public Math Day in St. Johns neighborhood of Portland in September

Interactive math activities including tiling turtles, pattern blocks, geoboards, sidewalk math, and  MLC’s free math apps  were available for exploration throughout the business district. We hosted two storytimes, reading "everyday" books and sharing bookmarks  to show that math can be a part of any book, no matter the subject.

Scene from Public Math Day in St. Johns neighborhood of Portland in September

The celebration was centered in the community booth at St Johns Farmers Market, where we drew in children and their families to play a Number Game Scavenger Hunt. They could pick from two options with the same objective: as a family, count or find numbers throughout the market and neighborhood. The energy and excitement was electric —one child was so eager to start the hunt that he ran straight into a chair! (Neither child nor chair was injured.) Throughout the day, my colleagues and I would pause and look around the market, inspired by the children scampering about to look high and low for the math that surrounded them.

Scene from Public Math Day in St. Johns neighborhood of Portland in September

When they came back to the booth, I greeted them with excitement: “Welcome back! What did you find? Tell me all about it!” The children would show me their sheet, and I would ask them about their most interesting finding or number. Every child then went “fishing” for a prize. Their faces lit up when they opened the goodie bag filled with Omnifix cubes, pattern blocks, geoboards, measuring tape, counting bears or some other combination of manipulatives for exploration.

Scene from Public Math Day in St. Johns neighborhood of Portland in September

Public Math Day was alive with joy and excitement. What resonated most with me was how simple, informal math opportunities like this one can lift the curtain off the often exclusive and elusive concept of math.

Math is often regarded as a subject we “have” to know but only a few can understand deeply. We label even the youngest students either a “math kid” or a “reading kid,” as if they must choose. At our booth, we invited everyone to participate in Public Math Day, but it was evident some folks felt that surely I didn’t mean to invite them. A few responded along the lines of, “Oh, no, my child is only 2.” 

I replied, “That’s great! There’s so much they can explore at that age!” I invited many two-year-olds that day — including my own — to count their mom’s eyes or shoes and to play with pattern blocks and tiling turtles. Math is for them, too. 

I also met adults who were intrigued but didn’t know if they could participate in Public Math Day. Thinking forward to future Public Math Days, I hope we can do a better job of having activities that appeal to grownups. Math is for everyone. 

Public Math Day left me thinking about how elusive this concept of “math” can be. Math is so often misconceived as rote memorization. It is so much more beautiful than that. It’s sense-making, exploration, patterns, and relationships. How do we share a truer depiction of math with families? I think of the sweet mom who said she wanted her child to take part but he only knew the numbers 1 and 2 — how could he participate? How do we stretch that definition of early math to mean more than just knowing number names? I think of the enthusiastic dad I chatted with: “Oh yeah, my son loves pattern blocks!” he said. “I keep trying to get him to do more math, though, but he won’t stop making patterns.” 

I responded, “That’s great! Math is patterns!” I keep replaying that conversation in my head because it reminds me of how much more we need to do to share that this space of informal play and exploration is not only a part of math, but it is math. 

Math is beyond beautiful, and events like these offer the world a peek into its beauty. I’m fired up when I think about the children and families who approached my colleagues and me to thank us, asking when the next math day would be held. I think about one girl who couldn’t have been more thrilled about a whole day of playing math. She proudly shared all of her Number Game findings with us, fished for her prize, and then merrily skipped away to find all the activities throughout the neighborhood. My colleague ran into her hours later at Two Rivers Bookstore. She walked out proclaiming to her dad, “This is my life! Math is my life! I live for this.”

The next hour, when I was wrapping things up in the bookstore, she returned. “She couldn’t stay away,” her dad shared. “She begged me to take her back to math day.” That made my day — maybe my year. When given these spaces to play math, families and children crave them and they want more. And who could blame them?

I’m humbled and grateful The Math Learning Center could take part in this community-building event to share our love for math with families. If you’re interested in learning more about our experience, email me at vit@mathlearningcenter.org .

For more on Public Math Day, check out Public Math  online and follow #publicmath  on Twitter.