How to Teach Kids Variables

Why Learn About Variables?

As with many coding basics, variables are all around us in the world, but we rarely refer to them by name. Kids see examples of variables in, for instance, sports — the score is 3 now but it could change to 4 or 6 later. Variables enable them to double the size of a baking recipe or track how many pages they have left in a book.

This implicit ability to use variables is already very powerful. As kids learn more advanced mathematics, they gain a deeper understanding of variables — learning to recognize the ways that they have already been using variables and how to refine their usage for more complicated tasks like what-if scenarios.

This is a necessity for kids to evolve their basic arithmetic skills into important life skills such as setting up a budget.

Learning Variables for Kids

Understanding how to connect our implicit use of variables with the way that we learn variables in math classes can be difficult. This is where coding can be helpful. Because coding offers an immediate and often visual result when kids play with the values of variables, it offers an easier way for them to understand how variables are working, paving the path for them to understand the mathematics of variables.

The goal of this article is to provide answers to the following questions, giving you the basic information that you need to introduce variables to your student.

  • What is a variable?

  • How are variables used in math?

  • How are variables used in coding?

  • How does the usage of variables in coding relate to their usage in math?

What is a Variable?

The easiest way to explain variables to kids is with real-world examples. The number 3 is a constant. If you say there are 3 apples in a basket, everyone knows exactly how many apples they should expect to see. The number of apples in the basket is 3.

But what happens if we add a 4th apple to the basket? The number of apples in the basket is no longer 3. While 3 is a constant, the number of apples in the basket apparently was not! This can happen because the number of apples in the basket is actually a variable. It was 3, but now it has changed to 4. It can even be unknown, but it is always a number.

This is the basic idea that kids learn about variables: you can talk about the number of apples in the basket without actually knowing how many apples that is.

Variables in Math

The first time kids run across variables is usually in a math class. Variables in math have two parts: a value and a name. Variables are often introduced in math by asking students to solve for the value of a variable, typically x. In earlier pre-algebra math classes, students fill in a blank.

3 + 3 = _

This blank is eventually replaced by x.

3 + 3 = x

The child is asked to solve for x instead of filling in the blank as they used to do. This tea