Vacation Math for Kids

Practice math skills with time differences, layovers, delays, and an analog watch

My daughter just bought a hot-pink slap watch. She thinks it’s cool because it’s a slap watch, that’s pink–with tiny Diamonique stones encircling the face.

I think it’s cool because it’s not digital.

Like most middle school kids, my daughter is not so good at reading an analog clock. In fact she resists it like crazy. But today, as I sit in the Philadelphia airport waiting for my 5:55 pm flight to Seattle, I’m thinking about how useful her new watch will be.

I swear I am not a math geek. Sure, I have a degree in math education, but I have never subjected my daughter to flash cards or worksheets.   (Okay, there was that time when she asked for me to make up addition and subtraction worksheets. But she initiated. And I thought it was kind of weird, too.)

Still, as a former math teacher, I guess I do notice everyday math more often than other parents do. And vacation can be the perfect time to talk math. (Get ‘em when they’re relaxed and don’t expect it, right?)

This trip, my family is split on two different flights with two different airlines. I got a free ticket with frequent flier miles, but it didn’t come cheap. My flight to Philly was delayed, and by the time I arrived, I had missed my connection. Suddenly my 45-minute dash to concourse B turned into an 8-hour layover.

Meanwhile, my partner and daughter are somewhere over Michigan about now.

All day long, I’ve been thinking about time. I’ve calculated my new arrival time and the time it will be on the East Coast when I finally touch down at Sea-Tac. If my daughter were here, I’d help her figure out how long the flight will take.

And this is where my daughter’s new watch comes in. By picturing (or looking at) a clock face, anyone can quickly manage time zone differences and flight times. No addition or subtraction required.

Just think of the face as a circle, broken up into wedges. Any number directly across from another represents a 6-hour time difference. In other words, 4:00 pm is 6 hours later than 10 am. And 7:30 pm is 6 hours earlier than 1:30 am.

For other addition and subtraction problems, just count forward or backward. I know that my family is landing at 1:30 pm PST and there is a 3-hour time difference. That means I can expect a phone call from them at about 4:30 pm. I just picture the clock face and count three hours from 1:30 pm.

Maybe my daughter is glad to be on that flight with her other mother, instead of sitting here listening to me ruin the charm of her new watch, but I still think this is pretty cool.

And all of this extra time I have means she’s going to get a little mini-lesson tomorrow—hopefully when we’re sprawled out under a tree in a Seattle park. No pressure.

Laura Laing is the author of Math for Grownups, a funny look at how we adults use math in everyday life. She also blogs at



  1. says

    I’m a math tutor. I love to find math in the everyday. I have to say the lessons in elapsed time are not my favorite, but boy the kids do struggle with them. When I say to use a clock and count out 5 or 15 minute intervals, the kids don’t know what I’m talking about. My own son prefers to read the digital clock to find out what time it is – Egads!

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