Martin and I share a belief we call “interstitial learning”, which could be summed up as the notion that kids learn in between the stuff of their lives. Not when they’re doing a lesson or studying a book, but at some moment when they’rejust living and the pieces they’ve been exposed to fall into place.

Rio particularly learns math this way, and today she multiplied for the first time. We were visiting a friend, and I gave her a five-minute warning that it was time to leave. “Choose your last activity,” I suggested.

She asked if instead of staying for five more minutes she could stay for three five-minutes. I told her she could, if she could tell me how many total minutes that would be.

She looked confused, and then said she could do it by counting on her fingers. She made it to ten, and without prompting started over on her first hand without losing her place. But at 12 she stalled out.

Rio has a real problem counting the teens. She tends to just blurt them all out in random order and then pick up counting properly again at 20. There was a roomful of people watching her.

“I can’t say the teens,” she said. I offered to let her whisper them in my ear, but I was worried she just didn’t know what came next.

She screwed up her face for a moment, shook her head and then said, “15! It is 15 minutes.”

And then, more hesitantly, like she could not quite believe it was real, “May I stay for 15 minutes, Mama?”

“Yes,” I said. She became fascinated with the minutes passing, savoring each one like a candy. I showed her how to read the kitchen clock to know when our time was up. And for the coup de grace, when her little sister melted down ten minutes in, I packed up our stuff and went out to the van.

Rio was waiting at the door at exactly the 15th minute, beaming with the joy that freedom and power can give one.

I know there’s a lot of good reasons not to reward kids for doing the work of being children – behaving well, learning, etc – but I feel like this was a good reward. It gave her something real, connected to some work she was ready to do but had not quite leapt into yet.

And now she knows 5×3. She repeated it with gusto to her dad the moment we walked in the door at home.

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