How to Create Maths-Ready Toddlers

A few weeks ago I sent a tweet to my followers on Twitter to ask whether anyone fancied doing a guest post for me. I like to do this occasionally because I think its really good to get the experience and interests of others represented on Being a Mummy. In this blog Melissa from @StonebridgeHair imparts her experience on teaching her children to become confident about maths. Melissa has some fantastic advice and some games I’m definitely going to play with the children!

In my mind, there are two extraordinarily exciting things a toddler can announce:
1. “Mummy, I can read this.”
Bus sign, on/off switch, Push to Open. You know you don’t care what that first word is that they read to you, but that’s the day you phone all the relatives.
The second one, in my experience, doesn’t seem to catch anywhere near the attention is should.
What you should be listening out for is:
2. “Mummy, if Daddy were in the car with us there would be three people.”
This, my friend, is a child who is maths ready.
Your child can not only count, she has just done her first mental maths problem.

Brain Shift
Neuroscientist Brian Butterworth of University College London, in his book The Mathematical Brain, reviewed a compelling body of research suggesting that humans – all humans – inherently have mathematical brains.
From a very early age, our brain is trying to figure out whether or not we’re getting our fair share of the cookies.
Counting, of course, is the first stage all parents do with their children.
And toddlers get the message loud and clear that being able to count stairs, chickens, grapes, Lego bricks and anything else countable is important, valuable work.
But when the brain is good and ready, one day something clicks and starts to count things that aren’t there, but could be.
Like Daddy, or their imaginary (sorry, invisible) friend, or the cookie you just took and ate – just like that! – from their plate.
This is a surprising discovery for the young brain, and they will share it with you to check whether this observation is right.
Depending on your reaction at this time, you can help support your child embark on a life-long love affair with, yes, maths.

My Experience: Not A Genius
My husband and I were both the “dumb” ones in the “smart” set in our respective Maths classes as we grew up, but went on to have successful careers in applied maths, my husband as an accountant and me as an equities analyst on Wall Street and, later, in London.
Having always been the one struggling in my peer group, it came as a total surprise when I started work in my 20s and found I was actually very good with numbers.
This revelation made me upset that no-one had ever challenged my fervent self-belief that I was slow at maths.
Imagine how much more I might have applied myself in school if I’d known there was a place for people at the level below all the geniuses sailing through the “pure” maths that I’d wrestled with all those years.

Lay the Foundation
I didn’t want my own children to have the same wrong impression of their potential.
So from the start I told, and still tell, them that they have mathematical brains.
This doesn’t mean maths will be easy to learn, but that they have all the capacity to learn maths if they choose to rise to the challenge.
This is the first component:
– Telling them you are confident in their potential, and
– Letting them know that ability comes with work and practice over time
The next important part of laying the foundation is understanding your child’s learning style, if you can.

Learning Styles and Modalities
I like to think of learning styles as being the way a person’s brain most likes to receive information.
We’re all different in what we like to learn, and I’m sure you’d agree that we are also different in how we learn.
I’m a bit radical, I think, in that I don’t believe that there are people who are “just bad at maths” or “just not arty.”
I firmly believe you can teach anyone anything, as long as the lesson is geared 100% to that person’s learning style.
The super cool thing about working this out for your child, is how quickly he will grasp your lesson if you’ve set it up precisely the way he likes to learn.
It’s a miraculous thing to watch.
The child feels immediately competent which in turn fuels a desire to see what else he can achieve.
This sort of self confidence provides a life-belt when he hits a rocky patch, uncovering material he may find difficult or confusing.
It is for this reason I strongly urge you to try and work out your child’s learning style, so you can guide and encourage him as he grows and goes through the school curriculum, particularly when it is delivered in a manner he finds hard to understand.
For example, my second child is very creative, kinaesthetic (physical and active) and highly interpersonal (relationships and personalities captivate her).
Language, however, is not her strong suit. She has always found it difficult putting her thoughts into spoken or written words.
Let her do an interpretive dance, though, or be a mimic and she’ll communicate for hours!
Explain why something is important and she’ll already be asleep.
Bah! In her mind, who cares what it’s for? Let’s just do it already!
Maths lessons with her when she was small involved an unbelievable amount of running around, which I talk more about below, and a bizarre process of naming and giving complex personalities to numbers.
You might think this is a peculiar and time consuming way to tackle maths, but our early work lead, as just one example, to her flawlessly memorising the number pi (3.14… etc.) to nearly 200 decimal places for a competition when she was 10 years old.
Everyone outside of our family found this feat astonishing.
To us, it was easy and a funny thing to work on together as a family.
But the point I want to make, and this is critical, is that I approached the challenge from a deep familiarity with her learning style and modalities.
5 Maths-Ready Activities You Can Do Right Now
Here are five lessons you can start using right now, adapting to your child’s passions and your family’s values.

  • Pay attention to how receptive your child is to these ideas. If they don’t enjoy it, drop the game. It may be they prefer one game played with Daddy (like Danger Maths) rather than Mummy.
  • Or they may want to take it in a different direction, like allowing their invisible friends to play Bus Driver.
  • Go with it, no matter how weird it may strike you. It may give you another clue about your child’s learning style. Let your child set the pace.
  • Once you’ve determined your child’s learning style, you can shape these activities to suit your child even better.

  • And one final, really important tip: always walk away when you’re having a lot of fun.
Never keep going until a child gets tired or loses interest.
This keeps the memory of the Mummy (or Daddy) Maths game a happy one for your child, and ensures they’ll ask to do more maths with you again.
Be warned! Your child may want to do these over and over… and over.. and over…

Bus Driver
Set up chairs in a row and gather a collection of cuddly toys or action figures. The front chair is for your child, the bus driver!
Where is the bus going today? Let the child decide.
Along the way, she’s going to pick up some passengers.
Announce stops (with a big screech of brakes, of course, just like a real bus!) and tell your child how many passengers get on and get off, letting the child place the toys on their bus.
At each stop, ask how many people are on the bus now.
Eventually extend the question by asking theoretical questions, like if two more people get on/off, how many passengers will you have? If your baby sister and Grandma got on the bus, how many would you have?
Adapt the journey to your child’s passions.
For example, they might prefer to be a Spaceship pilot, Safari Explorer, Submarine Captain or Prima Boss Ballerina. Be creative!

Stair Maths
Make cards with numbers and have the child set them in the corners going up a flight of stairs.
These cards should belong ideally to only one child. Let them decorate them, if they want. This helps them “own” the numbers.
If they don’t want to make or colour the cards, that’s okay too.
The ground floor will be zero.
To start, call out different numbers for the child to climb up to from the ground floor.
Moving on, ask them to start on a number and go up (“adding”) or go down (“take away”) and telling you the answer.
Go down the stairs to count down, with zero being Blast Off, of course!
Make the problems more complex (go up 2 and then down 1) as they master simple addition and subtraction.
This is excellent for learning at a very early age how to count up and down in twos, as well as learning even and odd numbers.
Warning! Watch out for doing Stair Maths with more than one child at a time.
It can become very competitive. It’s better to give the children different problems to work out in turn.
If you have a day out anywhere, like parks or zoos, that have marvellous huge flights of stone stairs, take some chalk with you and take advantage.
If anyone complains about your writing numbers on the steps, say your children just love doing maths (with a helpless shrug) and suddenly you’ll be parent of the year.

Danger Maths
My husband came up with this. Basically turn any kind of drilling (number bonds, times tables, counting by 5) into torture until the child calls out the correct answer.
Tortures we’ve used:
Sit the child on a swing and continue to pull back and back higher, not letting go until the child says the right answer.
Perch the child on top of a garden plastic slide, seating them  as if to slide down. Daddy stands ladder-side tipping it back towards his body until the child calls out the correct answer.
Holding children upside down by their ankles.
Throwing them in the air or in a pool.
Bouncing them on a trampoline.
The main thing is to come up with something thrilling that your child thinks is the most hilarious thing ever. This will totally exhaust them.

Smartie Maths
To start, give your child a small bowl of Smarties and ask them how many they have, or how many there are of each colour.
Start creating problems based on these numbers, for example, what do you get if you add the Reds and the Pinks?
Every time they get a right answer they get to eat (and thus subtract) one or more Smarties – which becomes another problem they can solve (How many do you have left?).
You can also do early times tables work, doubling and halving groups of Smarties.
You can do this with raisins or whatever, but I like Smarties because the different colours give you an opportunity to create a wide variety sorting and pattern problems.

Pizza Maths
Everybody loves Pizza Maths!
Start by asking your child how many pieces she’d like her pizza cut into.
If she chooses a difficult number, do it anyway and let her know she picked a tough one! They like to find difficult maths problems for Mummy. Do your best.
You’ll get good at weird numbers of slices with practice, trust me!
Then tell her the fraction you cut the pizza into. Name the different fractions eaten and left on the plate.
Eventually – and this is exciting when it happens – your child will spontaneously start adding and subtracting fractions and announcing equivalent fractions of various amounts.
Conversions of 3/6 to 1/2, for example, comes very early. Especially if they have to share a pizza with another child!
She might even independently discover some basic division of fractions at a very early age if you do Pizza Maths frequently.
When your child is in Year 5 or 6, this groundwork can help explain percentages, which many children have difficulty comprehending.
Melissa Hill is the founder of Stone Bridge Hair Accessories in the UK, where she spends her day counting and sorting extraordinarily beautiful French hair clips into different piles. 

Disclaimer: No money has changed hands, I thought this a wonderful post and i’m grateful Melissa wrote it for me.


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