Applied playground math

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The mainstream press never misses an opportunity to point out how our children are falling behind in math skills and won't be able to compete in the global marketplace. But I don't believe it, and I'll tell you why.

For centuries, children have used counting rhymes to select a person to be "it" or divide into teams during playground sports. We pretend that it's a random and fair selection method, but every kid knows that it's all about manipulating the outcome.

When I was a kid, the amount of brain power required to control your destiny during recess was very small (thankfully). We used this counting rhyme, measured out as one count per word:

Eeny meeny miney mo
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers let him go
Eeny meeny miney MO.

That's 20 words. You can divide 20 by the number of kids in the circle, plan which kid you want to end on with the final "mo", and then perform a bit of playground modulus math in your head. If you manage to screw it up, then you could always tack this clause on the end:

My mother told me to pick the very best one and you are it!

Or "you are NOT it", depending on the situation. It's a cheap but completely legal loophole.

Many years ago, some smart kid co-opted this jump rope rhyme and applied it to team selection:

Bubblegum, bubblegum, in a dish
How many pieces do you WISH?

Whoever you land on with "wish" gets to name a number, and then you use that number to count off kids from there. That means that a quick-thinking child could announce a number that guaranteed a favorable outcome (unless the person counting resorted to the "my mother said" clause; mixing counting rhymes is a disrespectable move on most playgrounds).

That brings me to today, where playground team selection technology has advanced to an entire new level. My 10-year-old daughter and her friends use this rhyme to select teams:

King Tut had a very big butt
What color was IT1?

Wow! Not only does this introduce a new discipline (Egyptian history), but any child who wants to control his fate must now select a color with the proper number of letters to be spelled off ("c-h-a-r-t-r-e-u-s-e"). Our schools (at least on their playgrounds) are turning out students with this advanced level of arithmetic, linguistic, and planning skills.

It makes me feel good about our future.

(1) Archeologists disagree on the correct answer; it was either blue or purple.

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Chris Hemedinger

Senior Manager, SAS Online Communities

+Chris Hemedinger is the manager of SAS Online Communities. Since 1993, Chris has worked for SAS as an author, a software developer, an R&D manager and a consultant. Inexplicably, Chris is still coasting on the limited fame he earned as an author of SAS For Dummies.  He also hosts the SAS Tech Talk webcasts each year from SAS Global Forum, connecting viewers with smart people from SAS R&D and the impressive work that they do.

1 Comment

  1. Cat Truxillo on

    Chris, how did I miss this tax-day present? I love it.

    When I was a kid, always made 16 counts from eenie-meenie-miney-mo, giving 4 counts per line, as in "1-and-2-and-3-and-4." Since every line has 7 syllables, it works well without having to distinguish between 1- and 2-syllable words.

    I like your daughter's rhyme. I did not know that King Tut had a very big butt.

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