Math for pre-schoolers
February 16, 2008 7:42 AM   Subscribe

My cousin's four year old son is obsessed with things like quarks and infinity. He insists to his mother that infinity is the last number. She isn't so sure, and wants to know more about things like strangeness. I don't want to determine this kid's future, but it seems fun to feed his curiosity. And since my wife's babysitter was Murray Gell-Mann, the responsibility has fallen partially on my shoulders to help answer his questions. What kinds of information can you recommend that I give to his mother so that she, an attorney and not a mathematician, and her son can learn more about this information. In particular, what kinds of books, games, and projects would introduce him to other neat ideas in mathematics and physics?
posted by billtron to Education (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Actually, he might be in kindergarten.
posted by billtron at 7:43 AM on February 16, 2008

Have him read Godel Escher Bach
posted by pwally at 7:53 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

If your cousin wants to learn more about the mathematical concept of infinity, and doesn't want to study mathematics for a couple of years, she really can't do better than Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace (of all people.) It's not written at a kindergarten level, but it would definitely give your cousin a better grasp of the subject when she's trying to explain it to her son.

Oh, and get the kid a toy gyroscope if he doesn't have one already. There's some really nifty, counterintuitive physics involved with how it works despite its apparent simplicity.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:00 AM on February 16, 2008

I read Carl Sagan's Cosmos when I was his age. How much I understood at that time, I couldn't tell you, but I loved it and carried it around for the rest of my life. The DVD series would also be a good idea.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:01 AM on February 16, 2008

What is infinity plus one? Isn't that the stock answer to an infinity question? Anyway, my nephew was one of those baby genius types. Get him a series of complex puzzles. My nephew could whip together jigsaw puzzles while I was still staring at the same piece. The logic of puzzles helps build that math and spatial ability and keeps them challenged.
posted by 45moore45 at 8:01 AM on February 16, 2008

Richard Feynman wrote fondly about how his parents - not scientists - nurtured his intellect when he was young. There are several collections of his autobiographical writing that are good reading.

"Infinity is the biggest number" is a pretty good start for a four year-old. I wouldn't worry about explaining transfinite ordinals until he's at least six :-)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:12 AM on February 16, 2008

45moore45, the confusing thing is that he's not that good at jigsaw puzzles. His sister blows right through them, however.
posted by billtron at 8:14 AM on February 16, 2008

At that age, I had started reading Martin Gardner's column in Scientific American. Now they are all collected into books. He also has a few others such as Aha! Insight! which are worth a look because they are illustrated with cartoons but contain some deceptively deep mathematical problems.

I was also reading Smullyan books such as the the Lady or the Tiger or Satan, Cantor and Infinity.

For Relativity, you can gloss over the math and SpaceTime physics contains a lot of good analogies and apparent paradoxes in dealing with relativistic thinking. (ouch, must be pricey because its still used as a textbook)
posted by vacapinta at 8:34 AM on February 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

For the concept of infinitely small, The Fractal Geometry of Nature would be an excellent choice. Beautiful pictures.

For infinity in the large-scale sense, Gravitation would be nice. Yes, it's expensive and way too advanced, but it's got pictures and quotes and verbiage- he'll love it.

For math in general, Proofs Without Words would have been totally awesome to have as a kid.

For particle physics in particular, Griffiths is unfortunately the most accessible book I know- except for pop culture stuff at Borders. It's way too advanced, but he would probably love it- you know how kid are.
posted by proj08 at 8:39 AM on February 16, 2008

Seconding the Martin Gardner Aha! books.
posted by notsnot at 8:47 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

A good book for the kid (not the mom) might be Math for Smarty Pants - judging from the reviews it looks like it's aimed at 10-year-olds or so, but my brother and I devoured it when we were 5-6. Not sure if it tackles infinity, but there's lots of interesting stuff in there. We also ate up Square One, if you can find episodes of that. (Brother is getting his Ph.D. in math this spring. Me, not so much, but at least I passed calculus.)

Bear in mind that he is still a little kid! Even if he's a math genius, he may not be a reading genius or be interested in grown-up books.

(btw, Countess Elena, I used to carry around Cosmos when I was in preschool too! I thought I was the only one. Don't think I understood as much of it as my parents think I did; I thought the guy's last name was "Sugar.")
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:47 AM on February 16, 2008

I was always curious about stuff like that when I was a kid. I remember my mom would write down all the questions I asked (that she couldn't answer) and we would look them up.

Have him read Godel Escher Bach You might want to read it too him. I mean, the kid is only four. I read that book when I was in middle school and loved it but I'm not sure how much I would really get out of it at that age.

At four, i would imagine, he is not going to be able to understand calculus or the advanced math stuff, but he can appreciate the beauty of it all. Find well written books about this stuff geared to a general audience and read that stuff to him.
posted by delmoi at 8:52 AM on February 16, 2008

Definitely, definitely Powers of Ten (version 1, version 2).

When I was that age I loved the Eyewitness books. Amazing pictures, there's a lot of information but the format is kid-friendly. Actually, I still love them.

If your cousin is considering learning this stuff along with him, she might consider reading Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything with him. It's more science than math, but it's written in a very nontechnical, story-filled way, and the illustrated version is a visual treat. I'm sure a lot of it will be too advanced for him, but it's full of good introductions to all kinds of things.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:59 AM on February 16, 2008

Does this kid's mother read books to him? The Cartoon Guide to Physics would be a great book for them to read together.
posted by Class Goat at 9:03 AM on February 16, 2008

It's been years since I've read them, but I remember the Brown Paper School books having some interesting math and science concepts in them. They're targeted for 9-12 year olds but I think a lot of their content would work great for a parent and bright kindergartener together.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:12 AM on February 16, 2008

She should read him The Number Devil.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 9:15 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was way into that stuff at that age and wanted to be an astrophysicist at age 6. It isn't as uncommon as you might think. I'd give him regular popular books on the subject, because I'd bet he reads really well already. When I was 6, I read 2001 A Space Oddessy by Arthur C. Clarke and I'd bet he can handle adult books just fine.

(ok, I didn't handle it just fine, I freaked out when reality melted down in the last 3rd of the novel, but I could read it and kids are a lot smarter than you think. Any kid into quarks at that age is gonna be pretty smart and will teach himself to read tough things just to get at that knowledge. That's the way it was for me).
posted by Ironmouth at 9:36 AM on February 16, 2008

There's a book from the 1960's called "The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics" which is a great introduction for children to many math concepts. Maybe slightly advanced for a preschooler, but still a good book for kids.

You can find it used on Search for "golden book of mathematics" and you'll get multiple hits for the same book, which you can buy used.
posted by ShooBoo at 10:25 AM on February 16, 2008

Long range thinking - Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. I had a pretty decent grasp of at least the earlier chapters by the end of 4th grade, and that's sooner than you think from an adult perspective.
posted by bettafish at 10:51 AM on February 16, 2008

I still don't understand A Brief History of Time, and I'm in a career where I should be able to handle it. Just saying, it might not be the best starter for a little kid.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:56 AM on February 16, 2008

... but the illustrated Brief History is basically perfect for kids.
posted by fatllama at 11:09 AM on February 16, 2008

Asimov On Numbers.

NY Times, 1977: "Take infinity, for example. To many people the very idea is scary, but Asimov tames it, makes it completely comprehensible, explains why its arithmetic is different from ordinary arithmetic and then expounds the three different kinds of infinities mathematicians have dug out."

"Reading these essays, one wonders why teachers in elementary and high schools can't use Asimov's techniques to make their subject more palatable to the average youngster."

posted by Exchequer at 11:20 AM on February 16, 2008

I wish the Eames Mathematica exhibit was still around - I loved it when I was 9 or 10 and it would have been perfect for this kid. Seconding Math For Smarty Pants and another book in the same series, I Hate Mathematics! (it's not really just for kids who hate math) because I enjoyed them when I was little. The Eyewitness books are also wonderful.
posted by dreamyshade at 11:48 AM on February 16, 2008

To build logic: The Set Game.
posted by messylissa at 11:55 AM on February 16, 2008

Seconding Gardner, Smullyan, Asimov. PUZZLES, not answers, are fun. Math puzzle books from the 60s or so are often much better (more sophisticated) than ones from the 90s, for example.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:53 PM on February 16, 2008

I had a DK book on theoretical physics. I can't remember what it was called, but I loved the shit out of it when I was around that age.
posted by Electrius at 5:16 PM on February 16, 2008

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