The Importance of Fractions, Checkout Line at Target

So I’m standing in line buying an enormous popup canopy thing the other day at Target and there is a father-son duo right ahead of me. The dad looks to be early forties. The son – 10ish. They are clean cut, well groomed, well dressed and are buying what appear to be odds and ends (tanning lotion, juice packets and gasoline additive that proclaims “better mileage” on it).

Anyway, they are engaged in a discussion on “the importance of fractions” as it relates to an impending school assignment.

The son asks, “why do I need to learn about fractions anyway? I mean why are they important?”

The father looks puzzled for a second and then responds, “Ah, they’re not really important. It’s just one of those things you have to learn for school.”

“That’s what I figured. It seems like that’s the way it is with everything at school.” The son responds.

The dad flips the gasoline additive a couple times catching it after it loops in a nice, slow ark.

As a father, I’m keenly interested in hearing people answer exactly these types of questions. My mind raced. How would I answer such a question? Fractions are HUGELY important – how can you say they’re not? Are you crazy? I felt like squeezing the goo out of the father’s eyes.


I first thought of a recent gas tank dilemma: I checked a rental car out with 5/8 of a tank. When I was hotfooting it back to Enterprise Rent a car, I was at a quarter tank. Of course, ¼ is actually 2/8 so some basic math meant that I needed to insert 3/8 of a tank of gas. I guestimated the tank of my rented Ford Escape to be about 12 gallons (of course, I was wrong – by a lot – it is 16.5). I then did some ugly math in my head. If the gas tank were 8 gallons then my 3/8 problem would be easy, it would simply be 3 gallons, but assuming it is twelve means that it is actually 1.5 times bigger. So I broke it up into 1×3 (3 gallons) plus half of 3 (1.5 gallons) and rounded up to put in a little less than 5 gallons. (I always try to stop on an even dollar amount.) I’ll stop here and ignore gas prices, etc… But this is an example of a real world problem – with very real implications (money, time and a natural resource). Also, I would’ve explained my kludgy thought process to my son too. I didn’t mentally think of multiplying 3/8 x 12 as I didn’t want a “decimal” result. I thought of the problem in the context of fractions.

(3/8 x 8 = 3) + ½(3/8 x 8 = 3) = 4.5

Not an elegant thought process, but that’s the way my mind breaks up the problem.

Anyway, back to fractions. Gas tanks are obvious and boring when you are ten. Another way the importance of fractions could be explained could be in terms of music. Ten year olds can appreciate music. Music is full of fractions. Whole notes, half notes, quarter notes. Keeping time. I don’t claim to be a music guy, but even sharps are essentially a half step increment between notes. You could get a guitar and metronome and do some really cool explanations of how music is all about fractions. It might even help the child THINK differently about approaching problems. Then, of course, I longed to go buy an expensive guitar and metronome…… I digress.

It’s no secret that kids learn better if they can think in terms of the practical application of a concept. Luckily, I was beaten to death with explanations throughout my childhood. Even today, I receive lengthy discourses by my father and brother on “how things work” and I, in turn, torture those who will listen to me in the same fashion.

Ideas to make Fractions Fun for your kids

FOOD. Kids love food. They eat it every day…….if they are lucky. You could go to a pizza restaurant to explain fractions in terms of slices of pizza – or cake or pie.

SPORTS. Football is a great game of fractions. The field is 100 units long. If a team starts from their 20 yard line, they’ve got 4/5 of the field to go for a touchdown. If they pick up 5 yards on 1st and 10, they picked up half of the yardage required for a first down.

BATHTUB. Express the level of water in terms of fractions. “Oooh, the bathtub looks to be about five eighths full. Let’s put a little more in so that it reaches three quarters.”

TOOLS. Kids love tools. They lose them. Scatter them about. Torture animals with them. Tools are an integral part of a kid’s life. Grab a set of wrenches (not metric) and explain the differences: “See how nine-sixteenths is actually a little bigger than half inch?”

RULERS: Measure things. Kids love to quantify things. Measure the width of their foot explaining the incremental marks. Then measure something else. Compare the two.

If anyone else has a good idea, please share it in the comments or email me and I’ll attribute you if you desire.

Mexifornian Wise Man Says, “Fractions are MUY Importante!”

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