Teaching Charts to a 5 Year Old

Earlier today, I left my site statistics window open at the dining room table as I went to get Gavin a cup of apple juice.  As I was in the kitchen I heard from the dining room “Daddy, I like your painting.”  Not having painted anything in about 15 years,  I didn’t know what he meant.

Returning to the dining room, apple juice in hand, I saw him sitting in my chair happily appreciating the artistic merits of the chart of emails sent by day over the past month.  I like the chart too, because it shows that SittingAround is growing.

My “Painting,” or notification emails sent by day for the past month.

Realizing that he’d never been exposed to visual representations of information before, I though it would be a good idea to give him a quick primer.  I expected his attention would last maybe three sentences.  Six charts in, having shown him bar charts, spider graphs, x-y plots, and pie charts, I realized he was more interested so I started to probe on understanding.

I showed him this bar chart and asked, “Which day do you think we have the most signups?”

SittingAround User Signups by Day

Instant and correct answer: “Tuesday.”

So I showed him another chart and asked “Why do you think they call this a spider-graph.”  This time answering like I was a bit of a simpleton, he says in his explain-simple-concepts-to-my-parents voice “because it looks like a spider web.”

Touche kindergarten child, touche.  Perhaps I’ve underestimated you.

I ask if he’d like to make his own charts, which gets an excited jumping up and down yes.  About twenty minutes and three charts later he clearly felt like he’d mastered the topic and was ready to move on to blowing bubbles on the deck.  The following are the charts that we created this afternoon.

TV Shows, using a simplified X-Y axis

TV Shows Gavin Likes vs. How often he gets to watch them
Data Table for TV Shows Gavin Likes

Toy preferences, using a simple bar chart

Scale of 1-10 how much Gavin likes each toy. Notice how he considers my Iphone to be one of his toys.
Data Table for Toys Gavin Likes

Food, using a four factor spider graph

Gavin’s Take on different foods. I think this one is my favorite. Notice how we have somehow convinced him that Kale is the perfect food. Secret to that, I think, is lots of galic and olive oil.
Data Table for Gavin’s take on foods


Gavin’s Summary:
Q: What did you think about daddy showing you charts today?
A: “Awesome, Awesome”

Q: What was your favorite chart?
A: “I think toys, yeah, toys, toys toys”

Q: What is a chart?
A: “I don’t know but I made a chart at school today.  Its just a plain old chart, you know, number charts daddy.”

I’m a big proponent of explaining things to kids that are beyond what I think they can understand.  I figure it primes them to the basic concepts and words for the next time they are exposed to the idea.  It also has the advantage of occasionally finding an area where my son’s comprehension is way beyond what I expect it to be, like happened today.

If you’d like to try this with your own kids, the excel file we used to make these charts is available here.  Gavin 5 year old charts.xls

  • http://twitter.com/pete_thedevguy Peter Conerly

    Awesome story! And yeah, zucchini tastes terrible.

  • Sarah

    Very cool! When I was little I used to make bar graphs and circle graphs based on the colors in a bag of m&m’s! 🙂

  • Rebecca

    When Gavin’s dad was little he lined up frozen peas and made designs – in his high chair. Guess this is a case of ‘like father-like son’. lol

  • Westsan

    You’ve got to start with number lines first. Why would you teach a chart without a foundation?

  • Anonymous

    Very nice – way to notice his interest and teach the lesson naturally from there. When they’re ready, they really do astound you with what they know and can logically imply.

    Admiration, Hope and Love,