A permanent 10'x30' set of Number Wheels and TicTacToe grids on which K-6 students hop, skip, and jump around as they learn fundamentals of addition, subtraction, multiplication, fractions, and squares. | Credit: Courtesy

Number wheels and grids painted on concrete help math come alive. At Franklin Elementary’s summer school, Santa Barbara students are a hop, skip, and a jump away from learning how to add, subtract, and multiply. 

These kids are not learning by sitting alone in a wood-desk prison doing math worksheets; they’re learning outside, on teams, by competing against the clock to complete equations. The program is a summer grant project involving the Santa Barbara Foundation, Santa Barbara Educational Foundation, Tom Biesanz (a k a MisterNumbers on YouTube), UC Santa Barbara graduate students studying education, and the City Parks and Recreation Department’s Summer Fun Program at Franklin Elementary.

“Simon says jump to seven and three,” says program teacher Elaina Leddon, who recently received her master’s in education from UCSB. The kids follow the instructions, forming connections between the numbers underneath their sneakers and how they combine to make 10. If they want to find pairs that add up to 11, that calls for a round of Monkey in the Middle. 

Visual and kinesthetic playground-math gets to the heart of supporting child development. Let kids go outside, jump around, and work together, and they will learn something, studies show.

“Students are enthusiastically responding to this approach of learning through play,” says Biesanz, creator of Pattern Play Math. Biesanz’s math videos on YouTube bring in hundreds of thousands of views and have garnered him more than 26,000 subscribers. 

He has volunteered with United Way’s Fun in the Sun program for the last four years and was offered a grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation this year to implement his playground approach to learning math at Franklin’s summer school.

Programs like this are made for combating summer learning loss. If playground math can create a connection between math and fun, Santa Barbara’s students may stand a better chance when they take state assessments. In 2022, Santa Barbara Unified students scored 50.4 points below grade-level standards in mathematics. That’s still better than the state-wide average, but is categorically “low” on the California School Dashboard. 

Students completed an attitude self-assessment four weeks ago and then again when the official playground math program for Franklin’s summer school ended on July 13. The kids rated themselves loving math more and feeling more confident in their math skills than they did four weeks prior. “Attitude is so important for math,” Biesanz says. 

Until the end of the summer, the playground mathematicians will be working one day a week with the Summer Fun Program to welcome any kids who take interest in their number wheel games, including next Thursday, July 20.


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