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Moebius Noodles aims to make math fun for playground set

Posted August 11, 2013 8:37 p.m. EDT

Maria Droujkova and Yelena McManaman expected to answer questions about math when they came out with their first book, "Moebius Noodles: Adventurous Math for the Playground Set," earlier this year.

But, in addition to those questions about teaching young kids math, they're also hearing a lot of stories from parents about the subject. Maybe it was a teacher who seemed to enjoy embarrassing students in class or a parent angry about a low test grade. The tales all focus on one moment: When math no longer became fun or interesting.

Those stories flowed when the two were part of a recent Science Cafe at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

"Everybody had a story to share," Droujkova remembered.

Added McManaman: "And they all said, we don't want that for our kids." 

Their goal with "Moebius Noodles" is to present math in a very different way from the usual worksheets and memorization that you'll find in most math classes for preschoolers and early grade schoolers. While those tools have a place, the two say, the book offers games and activities that parents and kids can do together to explore all kinds of math. They want kids to have, what they call, a "happy familiarity" with math.

"There are literally hundreds of topics in math," Droujkova said. "And arithmetic and shapes are only two."

Droujkova of Cary and McManaman of Raleigh met about four years ago when McManaman began exploring homeschool options for her then toddler son. She signed up with Cary Homeschoolers and noticed that Droujkova, who holds a PhD in mathematics education from N.C. State, was offering a math class. McManaman was intrigued ... especially because of Droujkova's obviously Russian name. The two are both native Russian speakers.

McManaman did well in math in school, but never really enjoyed it. She left Droujkova's class inspired.

"Maria's course gave me so much confidence to explore math more," she said. "It was extremely interesting, very unexpected. I knew I wanted this for my child."

Droujkova, who also homeschools her teenager, has been working with kids for more than 20 years. She's built local and online groups where kids and parents work together to solve math problems. And she's started a publishing company to print books, including Moebius Noodles and more that are in the works by Droujkova and McManaman and other authors.

Open up Moebius Noodles and you'll find that it's dramatically different from your usual math book. There are no equations or worksheets here. Instead, the pages, filled with colorful illustrations, describe games where kids can start learning the basics of symmetry, function, grids and numbers. It's designed for babies to seven-year-olds. 

Droujkova and McManaman designed games that require only items that you'll find around the house. Examples: Folding sheets or towels to see how small they can get in a discussion about function or composing your own dance in a lesson about symmetry. All of the activities were tested by kids and parents who were part of local and online math groups. 

The two authors say collaboration between parents and kids is an important part of the process. They'd love to see math games and activities become a regular part of family life just like bedtime stories or playing catch. In many cases, they've heard from parents who say they're learning right along with their kids as they play the games. And that's important.

"It's an honest exploration," Droujkova said when parents and kids are learning at the same time.

The two don't expect every family who follows along with their games and recommendations will churn out future mathematicians. But they do hope it means fewer of today's kids will have the same kinds of moments that made math not so fun for their parents. 

"Whatever they decide to become, their choice should not be limited by the fear of math," McManaman said. "Math should not be a limiting factor."

For more information about Moebius Noodles, watch my video interview with Droujkova and McManaman. Go to the Moebius Noodles website, Facebook page, forum and newsletter to learn more about the book and how to get involved in their online and local programs.

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