Big Numbers

Last week, during a period of cooperative play in the block area, two boys became involved in an argument over numbers.  I’m not sure what they were initially counting – if anything – but when I observed them they were simply spewing out random numbers and insisting that their ‘number’ was bigger than their opponent’s number.

First the six year old would shout “One hundred forty three six” and then the seven year old would reply “Fourteen hundred seventeen eighty”.  After several turns back and forth they realized that neither of them knew which of their numbers was the largest so they asked me.

I picked up a scrap piece of paper and as I repeated the numbers they had said, adding when necessary, I consolidated them into a single number and wrote it on the paper.  Their ‘one hundred forty three six’ I wrote as 149 and the ‘fourteen hundred seventeen eighty’ became 1,497.  They excitedly listed more numbers and I continued to write them down – I needed a bigger paper.

I chose a long piece of paper and as I wrote their numbers down I put the larger numbers higher on the paper.  I also lined up the digits into columns so they could see the placement.  They were starting to catch on and when one said “one hundred and a thousand and four” (1,104) the other one would follow with “one thousand and two hundred and five” (1,205).

Then one grinned and said “Twelve thousand” which I promptly wrote way above the other numbers.  The second child thought for a minute and then said “twelve thousand and one”.   The numbers continued until the page was nearly full and the children tired of the activity.

Then, on Monday morning the seven year old tried to explain the game to the other two school-age children who only attend before school and had not been here when this game was first played. They all agreed that this was an excellent activity for 6:40am on a Monday.  I got my pen and paper — and another cup of coffee.

The girl was the youngest of the three children – she started the game with the number ‘20’.  After six turns she reached ‘900’.  The seven year old who started this game began where he left off last week – he said ’12,512’.  The nine-year-old grasped the concept immediately and said ‘one million’.  The six-year-old answered with ‘one hundred million’ which was followed by ‘one trillion’, ‘a googol’, and then ‘a googol and one’.

The oldest child said that was almost as many people as there are in the world.  I said I didn’t think there were that many people but we could find out – so I Googled (ironic) ‘world population’ and we checked out this site.  Then we went to this very interesting site to learn where each of us placed in the world.  Now they know my birthday and my age!  They also know there are twice as many people on the planet now than there were when I was born.

Every day this week we have spent the first hour of the morning exploring these big numbers.  Yesterday they wanted to know how many zeros ‘a gazillion’ had so we searched for the answer to that.  We found this site so ‘a centillion’  has become the new favourite number.  I didn’t want to write 600 zeros but the nine-year-old did…

I don’t have a lesson plan for today — we’ll have to see what their questions are.  I’m fairly certain there will be big numbers involved.

What do you think?

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