In our case, it was the egg. Many eggs, to be precise. Our eldest daughter Kathleen was four years old when our hobby farm was purchased, and we
were already fretting about teaching her
math. Ironic, considering that both of us
formerly taught mathematics at the university level. But it’s one thing to teach Calculus III to a student who just aced Calculus
II. It’s quite another to teach arithmetic to a
child still counting on fingers. In our opinion, the latter requires much more creativity and resourcefulness. And of course,
patience. Thankfully, the chickens saved
the day. We hadn’t intended to jump into
poultry just yet, but twelve little red hens
and one enormous rooster conveyed with
the property. So we had chickens. And they
were the perfect tutors for our daughter.
Kathleen started collecting the eggs
laid each day, using a little basket. Sud-
denly, counting was no longer work—and
no longer boring. It was fun! How many
would they lay today? Every afternoon,
she would race to the nesting boxes, quiver
with excitement, then peek inside and be-
But our chicken tutors taught more than
just counting. We soon accumulated some
more birds and divided our flock between two coops. This created a multitude
of teaching opportunities. Every day, our
daughter would report to us how many
eggs were produced by each individual
coop. Practice in ordering numbers came
naturally, as she always told us the largest
yield first, without us even asking her for it.
After a few lessons in addition, we started
asking her for the individual coop yields,
along with the grand total. Her first expo-
sure to the concept of subtraction occurred
one day when we asked her how many more
eggs were laid in the larger coop than in the
smaller coop. Then we started asking how
the yield changed day-to-day. Did it in-
crease or decrease? By how much? So many
possibilities, we realized. And it wasn’t even
intentional! At least, not initially.
It didn’t stop there, of course. Oh, no.
The chickens had more to teach. Why stop
with addition and subtraction? We began to
show her the limitations of addition by asking her questions along these lines:
• How many eggs were laid today?
• If they laid the same number three days
in a row, how many eggs would you have?
• What about for a week? Or a month?
By the end of that sequence, it was ob-
vious that the power of addition was not
limitless. Something more was needed.
And there was our motivation for multi-
plication. Just like that. Well . . . learning
the multiplication tables was not “just like
that.” But at least there was a reason to learn
by Brian and Melanie Fulton
Which Came First,
or the Egg?
Teaching arithmetic is
certainly doable with the
right motivation—and in
our own backyard.