For many parents, even the prospect of helping kids with math homework fills them with dread. Because at the opposite end of math competitions and Mensa clubs lies mathematical anxiety, a very real phenomenon.
No matter where you fall along this spectrum, the simple fact is, there is no reason to fear math. Because unlike life in general, pretty much every math problem is solvable.
And with a little bit of encouragement from you, the inquisitive little genius with the growing brain running around your house can easily turn into a “math person.” Here’s how.
1. Wow them with your own knowledge
Start by banishing “I’m not good at math” from your home vocabulary. The moment you say that, you’re telling your child that mathematics falls in the realm of superhuman intelligence and that it’s okay not to be good at it. On the contrary, everyday math is easy to do and easy to demonstrate.
- Take a sneak peek at their textbooks ahead of time and proactively help them with their homework or assignments.
- While at a supermarket or restaurant, add prices up mentally and announce the amount. Next time, get them to do it.
- Bring your work home, especially the part with Excel sheets.
- Change the amounts of ingredients in the kids’ favorite recipes and point out the difference.
If all else fails, fake it till you make it. Mike Kimball, Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has proposed a “love it and learn it” hypothesis, where you first need to spend time thinking about math and work on your skills until you get better at it before you pass on the excitement to your children.
2. Play games that involve numbers, puzzles and problem solving
It’s easy to assume that math is all work and no play. Nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of common kids’ games, such as marbles, hopscotch, and Monopoly involve counting, adding, subtracting, and pattern-matching.
As they grow older, you can teach them games like chess, checkers, and dominoes. Jigsaw puzzles, Rubik cubes, loose parts toys, Sudoku and other puzzles are also critical in helping children develop an aptitude for math.
However, you need to be careful not to make it look like school work. Nigel Nisbet tells the story of how he tried to “teach” math in his classroom and failed miserably. But when he bought loads of chocolate and challenged students to figure out how they could have more for less dollars, they came up with solutions that have boggled even established candy manufacturers!
- Recognizing and matching patterns
- Building block towers or other structures
- Arrange things in sequence or do a series of activities
- Spatial activities, which involves moving or rotating things, or fitting them together
- Comparing the amounts, sizes, shapes and attributes of things
- Sorting things into different categories
3. Take the STEM approach to education
Given today’s pace of change and the sheer amount of information that kids are exposed to, traditional education is woefully inadequate in equipping children with the knowledge or skills they’ll need when they grow up.
In an uncertain world, fundamental knowledge of how to make things work matters much more than simply knowing how things work.
Enter STEM (an acronym for Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). STEM education is a cohesive approach that encourages kids to explore, experiment, and “discover” facts and knowledge related to these four subjects. In place of a disconnected and instructor-led curriculum that rewards cramming, STEM focuses on hands-on learning of science and math and their real-world applications in tech and engineering.
When kids develop an interest in popular science, planes, cars, and stars, and an aptitude for emerging tech and gadgets, they naturally learn more about math. Here’s a few things you can do to cultivate a STEM aptitude in your kids:
- Allow them use smartphones and iPads in the best ways possible. Don't restrict them just for the sake of limiting screen use.
- Encourage them to play outdoors with sand, sticks and stones. Don’t be too concerned if they break a few windows (or bones).
- Teach them to operate vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, clothes irons, and so on. Also explain to them (Google it, buddy!) how they work.
- Let them read your Maps app and direct you while you’re driving somewhere.
- Enroll them in a coding or robotics class.
4. Show them the relevance and usefulness of math in everyday life
Busy in your toolshed on a rainy Sunday afternoon? Twiddling your thumbs, waiting for a football game to start? Having dinner at your favorite restaurant? Out shopping at the local supermarket? It’s the right time to talk about numbers and shapes with kids!
- “The score is 21-12. By how many points are we leading?”
- “How many minutes to go before the movie begins?”
- “I filled up the gas tank 4 days ago. The meter is 4 points down now. When should I refuel?”
- "How many pieces of olives do I get if I eat 3 slices of the pizza we have here?”
Questions and conversations like these give your children a “number sense” and help them relate math to the real world. Mental calculations give children an intuitive understanding of numbers, positions, and patterns, laying the foundations for strong problem-solving skills in their later years.
Nobody wants to learn things they don’t need to, least of all kids (and least of all math). The more authentic learning experiences they have, the better they’ll understand the purpose and applications of mathematics. Shopping, baking, and driving can be the ideal activities to give them these experiences.
As Eddie Woo profoundly declared in his TEDx talk, “Mathematics is a sense, just like sight and touch; it’s a sense that allows us to perceive realities which would be otherwise intangible to us.”
Over to you
We encourage our children to read, code, dance, sing, and play the violin as well as tennis. Yet, we leave it up to the school to teach them math – that too, for just about half an hour a day.
With a bit of time and effort well spent, we could be raising a generation of geniuses, thinkers and doers who can truly make the world a better place.
Shreiya Aggarwal-Gupta is the owner of the early education startup Kidpillar, which aims to provide developmental opportunities and resources for young children in the field of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) via kid-friendly journals, practical DIY-kits, and simple project-based learnings and workshops. Shreiya is also a passionate blogger, computer science engineer, finance whiz, and “perfect mommy” to her son.
A note from ThinkFun
At ThinkFun, we love it when learning and fun collide. It’s why we do what we do. Every game, puzzle and brainteaser we create is aimed at igniting a spark in a young mind. Still curious? Check us out on the web, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube or Instagram.
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