Becoming Real Life Maths Detectives

“We use maths all the time,” I say to my daughter Gemma-Rose. “Maths is everywhere.”

Everywhere? She doesn’t look convinced.

“You use maths to count your money,” says Sophie, “and when you’re cooking.”

Cooking? How many times have you heard this example when real life maths is mentioned? “Real life maths? You know… cooking…”

My girls cook all the time. I have lots and lots of cooking entries in my homeschool records book. They all say similar things: my girls measured the mass and volume of solid and liquid ingredients. They used grams and maybe kilograms, metric cups, millilitres and litres. They multiplied and divided. They recognised fractions. They used the oven and noted the temperature in degrees Celsius. Yes, there’s lots of maths there. But real life maths isn’t only about cooking.

“Let’s be maths detectives,” I suggest. “Let’s watch out for someone using maths.”

It isn’t long before we notice Imogen measuring out our puppy’s food. She uses a metric measuring cup. Imogen tells us how much food the puppy eats for each of her three meals. We quickly work out how much food she eats in a day.

Then Gemma-Rose spots Callum’s retractable tape measure which he tossed on the table and forgot about. She pulls out the end of the metal tape to measure the table in centimetres, noting she could have used inches instead.

It’s my turn. Can I spot some maths? Charlotte is making coffee. She splashes some milk into each mug, and I say, “I wonder how much milk Charlotte used.” I’m too lazy to get up and find out by performing an experiment. Anyway, it’s not an appropriate time: I have a cup of coffee to drink before it gets cold.

Instead I say, “I wonder how much milk is in each of those individual UHT milk portions, the ones you get in motels.” I do some googling and discover that each milk portion contains 15 mls. We decide Charlotte would have used more than 15 mls because she is more generous that a packaged portion. It doesn’t take me very long to work out how many 15 ml portions there are in a 2 L bottle of milk (133). I google the price of bottled milk and I already have the price of a 240 pack of individual portions.  I do a price comparison. Of course bottled milk is the better buy. We wonder why anyone would buy the more expensive individual portions and come up with some answers. Of course we note that hardly anyone would use only 15ml of milk in their coffee, if given the choice. If everyone did, 133 people would be able to use one bottle of milk and I have never known that happen. We’ve all witnessed lots of people putting milk into their coffee at a homeschool camp.

We sip our coffee or milk while we chat about these things. We’re not having a maths lesson. We’re wondering and pondering.

I tell the girls about a time when I used to buy sugar in individual portions. They don’t remember because they were very young when I did this. They want to hear all about my attempt to slow down my older kids’ intake of sugar. “Even though the sugar cost more per kilo by buying it in individual sachets, we ate less of it, so it ended up cheaper in the long run.”

We finish our coffee and swallow the last crumbs of our home made biscuits. While the girls return the cups to the kitchen, I open my homeschool records notebook and quickly type in all the real life maths we have discussed.

“I wonder what other real life maths we can spot.” I say.  “Shall we keep our eyes open?”  The girls are agreeable. They are going to use their maths eyes. “If you want to, you can use my tablet to take photos of any maths you find” … just a suggestion.

I’m looking around. Do you know what I’m seeing? Lots and lots of maths I never usually notice, maths we use without even thinking about it. I can see maths I can share with my daughters. Maybe we can have more maths conversations. (Aren’t conversations a great way to learn? They are enjoyable too.) We could wonder and ponder. We could take some photos. Perhaps we could do a little research if we feel the need. It might be interesting… as long as it doesn’t turn into a maths lesson.

It could be a big temptation to turn every interesting conversation into a maths exercise. I know maths problems will appear while we’re chatting. (They did while we were chatting about portions of UHT milk.) I also know if I insist my girls work them all out on their own, it will take lots of time. They will soon lose interest. They won’t want to talk maths with me. I wonder if I could do any workings out aloud, allowing my girls to see what I’m doing. Of course I wouldn’t stop them helping if they feel so inclined… Do you think that will work?

Yes, maths exercises is not what this is all about. This is about looking at the world together, with wondering eyes. It’s about showing my girls maths can be a very interesting and relevant subject.



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  1. Reply

    We actually did circumference with cooking last week! Making different sized cookies, we found the C of each one before eating it! Love your ideas here, Sue!
    Do you know the book Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi? Perfect for intro the concept of Pi and C to the kids! I have a post in draft with a few other resources, but I'm to sure I'll get to finish it! Like that book series though, very much!

    Sue, hope all is well…TTYS!

    1. Reply


      I haven't seen the book 'Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi' but I've heard other bloggers talking about it too. I guess you have other more important things to do at the moment, rather than finish your post. You are on your summer break! I hope you are enjoying some free time and relaxing. Those cookies sound good!

  2. Reply


    1. Reply

      Thank you Nancy!

    • Amy
    • June 10, 2014

    Ooooh, I'm a HUGE crochet fan & can do a tad bit of knitting….would love to learn more. Both my daughters can crochet….just not as passionately as me. 😉 My youngest daughter is quite the artist…..& I dabble in my art journal. Will look forward to reading more of your posts along these lines!

    1. Reply


      I love sharing my interests with my children. It's very special sitting in a circle knitting together, or sharing video making tips, or discussing embroidery designs. It sounds like you do the same kind of thing with your daughter. I'll have to share more of our creative projects on my blog. Thank you for wanting to share!

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