Functional Math Skills for Primary Grades

by Dana Rongione
Functional math deals with everyday skills like money, time and patterns.

Functional math deals with everyday skills like money, time and patterns.

Many children have a warped view of mathematics, believing it to be a subject where there is only one right answer and one proper way to arrive at any given conclusion, when, in fact, several areas of mathematics pose open-ended questions which allow multiple solutions to the problems and a variety of ways to arrive at those solutions. For example, when asked what coin combinations could be used to create 85 cents in change, the children could answer "85 pennies," "17 nickels," "8 dimes and 1 nickel," "3 quarters and a dime," and so on, all of which would be correct. Additionally, children feel that math has little to do with the real world and only involves memorizing facts and equations. To expel these myths, several teachers are now adopting a different teaching method that deals with functional math, skills which are used in everyday life. Functional math steps beyond worksheets and flashcards and focuses on providing real-world situations and opportunities for children to examine and use their mathematical knowledge.

Number Sense

The first functional skill children should master is that of number sense. This includes recognition of numbers and number words, various means of counting and the use and understanding of ordinals. To help children understand the “real world value” of these concepts, teachers and parents make an effort to relate the activities to the children's interest and comprehension level. For example, a teacher or parent can teach ordinals by allowing the children to take part in a race and then ranking the winners in the order in which they finished (first place, second place, third place and so on).

Basic Operations

It is imperative that primary-grade children have a good grasp on both the concept and execution of basic operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. It is not enough for a child to know that 2+3=5; it is vital that they understand what that equation means. Additionally, children should be taught how to estimate. Collecting, trading and other similar hobbies are excellent ways to illustrate these basic operations.


Even at an early age, children should understand about money and be able to determine whether or not they have sufficient funds to buy a particular item. In classrooms, teachers often use class stores or make-believe shopping trips to instruct students on the value of coins and the proper way to count money. Parents can use a similar method by helping their child keep track of his allowance and determining how much money he will need to purchase the item for which he's been longing.

Measurement and Time

From the basics of big and small to the specific units of measurement, measuring skills are used in most areas of life and are an essential element in a child's mathematical education. Children need to be able to tell time (both analog and digital) and understand its passage, as well as comprehend various means of measuring. To illustrate the function of measurements in real-life situations, teachers and/or parents can enlist their child's help in baking a cake, building a birdhouse or wrapping presents.

Patterns and Relationships

Mathematics is all about finding and studying patterns and relationships. Not only is it a study of numbers and concepts, but it is the process of seeing how those numbers and concepts interact and relate to one another. This particular focus evokes the child's curiosity and independent thinking, as well as his sense of logic.


About the Author

Dana Rongione has been writing since 2004. Her articles have appeared in "Teacher's Interaction" magazine, "Teachers of Vision" magazine and "Devo'zine." She is also the author of nine books. Rongione received two certificates of completion from The Institute of Children's Literature. She holds a Bachelor of Science in elementary education from Tabernacle Baptist Bible College.

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