Friday, November 4, 2011

M&M Math

I was a little under the weather on Halloween (even my costume couldn't buoy me up...ha!) so we had a limited trick-or-treating experience.  Luckily, we still came home with enough M&Ms to do this fun activity.   This activity introduces the idea of graphing to your child, in a fun and edible way!  While it is more of a math activity, the concept of graphs (what they are, what they show, etc.) are extremely important in all aspects of science.  There are many, many ways to extend this activity for older kids which I'll discuss at the end.

Materials Needed:
  • small packages of milk chocolate M&Ms ("Fun Size" works well)
  • graph paper (free printable graph paper)
  • crayons or markers in the same colors as the candy
Note that you really could use a variety of candy here, from skittles to large packages of jolly ranchers.  It's best to have at least 15 pieces of candy in your sample, which is just about what is in the milk chocolate M&Ms "Fun Size" bags.  We also did the experiment with Peanut M&Ms, but there were only 7-8 pieces in those bags which is a bit small of a sample.

Process and Pictures:
Start out by asking your child if they know the colors that M&Ms come in (red, orange, yellow, green, blue and brown).  Show them the package of M&Ms and ask them to predict which color will have the most.  Remind them that they can't eat the candy until the end of the activity - probably the hardest part for them!

Open the bag and empty it onto the table.  Ask your child to sort the M&Ms by color and then place them into lines that are next to each other.

Have them count the number of M&Ms in each of the color lines.  Ask which color has the most and which color has the least.  You can ask them if any of the colors are missing and talk about the idea of zero, if they are ready for that.

Another thing you can do is have them count the total number of M&Ms that they had in their package.  If you are doing this with more than 1 child, you can have them compare to each other.  And, hey, if not, I think that means mom or dad or grandpa or auntie or whoever is doing the activity gets free license to have their own package of M&Ms.  For purpose of scientific advancement, of course!

Once you are done with counting and discussing the M&Ms, then show the child how to make a graph of their results by coloring in one box for each M&M in the appropriate color.  So, if they have four green M&Ms, then they should have four green boxes.  My five year old was able to do this on her own, but I helped my three year old by outlining the appropriate rectangle size on the graph paper when she told me how many M&Ms there were and then had her color inside the rectangle that I had drawn.  Once they are done with each of the colors, you can go back through and ask the same questions you did earlier, but this time have them use the graphs they have made to answer the questions.

What's Happening?
Graphs are extremely important in science as a way to communicate results in a visual and often clearer manner than using just words.  You can explain a graph as a picture that shows the results of an experiment.  There are many different types of graphs, from the bar graph that we did in this activity to the common pie and line graphs to less common graphs such as radial graphs.  Once you have introduced the concept to your child, keep an eye out for graphs that you may come across in your day-to-day activities (i.e. in the newspaper or on an advertisement) that you can point out to them.

For older kids, there is a huge amount of math that can be done with M&Ms, including averages, percentages, mean, medium, mode, etc and there are lesson plans out there for every age from elementary school to AP Statistics.  There is a good activity at Science Buddies that provides some step-by-step instructions, a data table and some good links to other sites that can assist with some of the math concepts.  And, you could incorporate the use of a spreadsheet program like Excel.

The other important science concept that could be discussed with older kids is the idea of sample size and how that affects the results of an experiment.  One small bag of M&Ms is a very, very small sample when compared to the total population of M&Ms.  If you are interested, I found this pdf from Oregon State that has the percentages of M&M colors apparently from the Mars website - although it must be an older page because the direct link to it is no longer active.  Just don't let them talk you into buying a case (or more!) of M&Ms in order to have a larger sample size so they can better test their hypothesis!


  1. Ah, graphs -- a subject close to my heart. :-)

    And I think a large sample size of M&Ms is a good thing!

  2. I have to admit that I'm not adverse to a large sample size, either! Glad you liked the graphs! =)