I remember reading King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub and The Gruffalo and I Love You Stinky Face to my kids since before they could talk. When they would stub a toe or get hit in the head with a playground swing, we would start reciting the lines, “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another…” Now the offspring are 7 and 9 and we read together at bedtime–with books like Harry Potter, I’ll read two pages, my 9-year-old will read one page and my 7-year-old will read half a page. All along, I’ve been sure that all this practice and the good vibes of sharing books as an expression of togetherness will help boost their reading skills. It does, of course.
So why don’t we do the same thing with math? Why don’t parents and children share math the same way we share reading?
That was the question of Bedtime Math, the brainchild of Laura Bilodeau Overdeck (who happens to have a BA in astrophysics from Princeton and an MBA in public policy from Wharton). Oh great, you say, another ed-tech app promising to make my kids like math! But how many apps have a study in the journal Science to back up their claims?
University of Chicago researcher Sian Beilock is best known for her work on performance under pressure, as described in her book Choke. (Disclosure: I’ve interviewed Dr. Beilock a couple times for articles and books, specifically about how something called “stereotype threat” can undermine girls’ math performance.) She and her lab recognized this gap between at-home support for reading versus at-home support for math, and they wondered what would happen to kids’ math scores at school if they got parental support at home.
To answer the question, Beilock recruited 587 families from 22 Chicago-area schools and split them into two groups: one that used Bedtime Math and another that used a similar app focused on reading.
“Math app questions covered topics such as counting fluency, geometry, arithmetic, fractions, and probability; reading app questions dealt with reading comprehension, vocabulary, inference, phonics, and spelling,” she writes.
Because Big Brother can watch your app usage, Beilock was able to determine how often kids and families used Bedtime Math and the reading app. Then she assessed kids’ math skills, once at the beginning of the school year and again after a year of using these apps.
You guessed it: kids who used Bedtime Math improved their math skills far beyond those who used the reading app; the more times a child used the app, the greater was the improvement in their skills. Overall, the math skills of high users of Bedtime Math outpaced high users of the reading app by about 3 months. The growth was most pronounced in kids with “math anxious” parents–for kids in these math-averse families, “even a modest amount of high-quality interaction about math increases the quantity and quality of math input their children receive and therefore boosts children’s math achievement,” Beilock writes.
Of course, we all know why we prefer reading a storybook to drilling math facts with our kids before bed: storybooks allow us to engage with our kids in the best possible way, while math too often seems like something we inflict on our children along with Brussels sprouts, swim lessons, and violin. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Math can be a sweet, interactive experience. And the more you share that experience with your kids, the more their math skills will benefit.