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A Math Expert Explains Why Halloween Candy Is Good For Kids’ Brains

Halloween math fun FTW!

Candy might be bad for your kids’ teeth, but it doesn’t have to be bad for their brains! Once parents pilfer a few favorite selections from their kid’s Halloween candy haul, the upside to having a giant stash of treats in the house is limited. Between negotiating portion sizes and living with kids who are short-circuiting from too much sugar and red food dye, the Halloween candy haul can be a pain. But, as educator, researcher, and author Dr. Deanna McLennan reminds parents, the sweet bounty poured from those orange plastic pumpkin buckets, can serve as a fun way to teach kids some mathematical concepts

Learning arithmetic can seem like a chore, so the key is incorporating math into the fun stuff!  “Sometimes, I play alongside the children so I can support and scaffold the math that I see emerging in their play, and this develops their understanding further,” says Dr. McLennan. “It also helps me recognize what knowledge the children have and plan for how I can support their learning moving forward.”

Want to put those mini Snickers bars and boxes of Whoppers to use teaching some fundamental concepts? Start with these four ideas and see what other inspiration arises. 

1. Teach Monetary Value

How it Works: 

In a world of credit cards and autopay, kids have fewer and fewer opportunities to learn about monetary value through observation. But they tend to enjoy playing store, and the days following Halloween make a candy store easy to pull off. McLennan even encourages parents to include kids in the setup process. 

“Children can help assign monetary values to their candy – they can rank their preferences in order and give those candies higher values,” she says. “Use play money (or create your own using paper) and encourage your child to ‘pay for’ their candy choices to help practice identifying different coins or bills.” 

What This Teaches:

Once the store is set up, any number of concept parents can build any number of concepts into the game. Kids can practice estimating the total cost of their purchase, approximating sales tax, or counting out correct change. And if they aren’t content with their purchases, trading with siblings is always a great opportunity to talk through relative value. Assuming they can sucker a sibling into accepting candy corn as part of the exchange.

2. Teach Relative Value

How it Works

If your kids don’t offer up any trades on their own, don’t feel like you need to start with a lecture — relative value is living right there in their bag and you have to do next to nothing to teach it. Just say these words with us: “Go ahead and trade.” “See a raw deal?” “Do you like that candy?” Once kids realize there’s an invitation to assemble their ideal assortment of candy, they’ll be eager to deal. You may have to do some explaining as to why you assign a higher value to some candies over others. Be it the size of the item or the sentimentality of wanting to enjoy the candy of your youth, walking kids through your rationale will give them a better grasp of relative value. 

What Do Kids Really Learn?

Necessity, preference, and availability all affect how people value different items. Kids will start to learn the basics of supply and demand, why items may fluctuate in price, cost different amounts depending on where you are shopping, or cost way more than they take to manufacture. And opting for cooperative language over competitive language has the added benefit of showing relative value can help find deals that are mutually beneficial, instead of going the cutthroat route of trying to win a trade. 

Teach Sorting, Estimation, and Multiplication

How It Works

Don’t feel like you have to do all of the work. Even setup can be part of the game. Ask your kid how fast they can gather a specific color of candy, which works best with a package of Skittle or M&M’s. Or go all out and let them pick which characteristics they want to separate, and then sit back until they have all of the gummies separated from the chocolates or candy bars with nuts in a different pile than those without. After all, kids love taking inventory of their haul. 

What Do Kids Really Learn?

For younger kids, the sorting will be the crux of the activity, but as kids get older the sorting is a setup for more elaborate lessons. Miniature, colorful candies are great because parents can use them with groups of kids whose math skills are at varying levels. And the visual process of grouping candies into multiples is more manageable for parents to teach than walking through standard equations.

McLennan also suggests brushing up on the basic math lexicon so parents can use some of the terms their kids hear in school. “When prompting children in these activities, use math vocabulary in the appropriate concept to help empower children to understand the words in action, such as sum, equation, estimate, array, and equivalent,” she says.

Teaching Fractions

How it Works

Fractions can feel like a foreign language when written down on paper, but make a lot more sense when represented visually. Parents tend to have far more practice sliding decimal points around than dividing numbers fractionally, but it’s still a necessary skill to develop. Segmented chocolate bars work well because they can be broken into uniform pieces. But any of the sortable colored candies also provide vibrant visuals.

What Do Kids Really Learn?

They may have a hard time conceptualizing fractions, but kids are quick learners when it comes to maximizing how much candy they get. Comparisons are where parents will get the most mileage in helping kids develop an understanding of what the numbers in fractions represent. “Real objects that kids can manipulate help them understand the values in a real-life situation that they care about,” McLennan says. “Ask children math questions like “Would you rather have 1/2 or 1/4 of your chocolate bar?” to help them see how fractions relate to one another.”

Teaching Shapes and 3-D Structures

How it Works 

If you’re stressed out by pesky numbers that can make math concepts confusing, tackling geometry can provide a viable alternative. Have younger kids arrange candy into different shapes, or you can make shapes that your kid can identify. For older children, structure building with chocolate bars is a fun introduction to STEM concepts. See who can build the tallest structure using a set number of  Snickers and toothpicks. 

What Do Kids Really Learn?

“STEM activities are incredibly rich learning tasks for kids,” McLennan says. “Playing with your food can be fun, especially when you can eat your creation after.” Play that incorporates building, designing, creating, and other inventive or discovery-based processes spurs the curiosity that is foundational to STEM work.

How well kids practice handwashing and other germ mitigation techniques may affect how appetizing their creations look to others, but they certainly won’t be dismayed from eating their own shapes and structures. 

But parents shouldn’t limit themselves to candy when it comes to seeking out fun math lessons.

“I have noticed over the years that when children play with math, they see themselves as true mathematicians and are curious about the natural math in their world,” she says. “They feel confident to take risks in their learning, and motivated to persevere with challenging math problems. They understand that math is an integral part of the natural world and appreciate the beauty within it, like the spirals of a snail shell or the strength of a woven spider’s web.”

Candy, dirt, bugs. Apparently, it’s not that hard to make math sound dreamy to a kid.