I once bought a book containing loads of ideas for making maths games. I was very excited at the thought of printing off some paper game boards, finding a pack of cards and saying to my children, “Hey, would you like to play a game with me?” I imagined them learning their times tables or common number additions while they were enjoying themselves. They wouldn’t even know they were ‘doing’ maths.
They wouldn’t even know they were ‘doing’ maths? To me that sounds a bit deceitful. Would I be tricking them into learning maths? This makes me feel uneasy. Maybe that’s why I never actually used the book. It sat on our bookshelf until Andy discovered it. “I could use this at school!” my school teacher husband said with enthusiasm. Yes, it’s the perfect book for schooling. But maybe not unschooling where I want our children to pursue knowledge out of either love or need or both. I don’t want to sneak it into them.
The other day my girls went junk mail catalogue shopping. I suggested the activity. They voluntarily decided to go ahead and do it. But part of me disapproves of my own idea, despite my girls enjoying themselves.
Catalogue shopping is real. Many of us love browsing through the bright glossy pages dreaming about what we’d like to buy. We might even circle a few things we’re going to get next time we go into town. We probably add up the cost of what we’re going to purchase, to make sure we can afford it.
But my girls weren’t really shopping. They were doing a maths exercise that had been disguised as fun. Gemma-Rose really enjoyed choosing gifts for the family using the junk mail catalogues. But I don’t really think she cared how much her purchases came to, even though she didn’t complain about having to add them up. Actually, she was very clever. She left most of the addition to Sophie who likes doing such things.
The junk mail catalogue shopping idea was a success. I’m not sorry I suggested it. So what’s the problem? The problem is I know I could easily get carried away with similar ideas. Like this one I tried yesterday…
“How about you both choose a new recipe from the Aldi cookbook,” I said to Sophie and Gemma-Rose. “You could make a list of ingredients and then go to the Aldi website and work out the cost of everything. You can tell me how much money you’ll need to make your dinners. Then we can go shopping, buy the ingredients and you can cook the meals.”
Well, the girls liked the idea of choosing a new recipe. Their eyes lit up at the thought of shopping and preparing a meal of their own. But did they like the idea of pricing the ingredients and working out the cost of each meal? They didn’t protest at first. Maybe they thought, “If I want to cook, I’m going to have to do the maths first.” They had to fulfil a condition before getting to the part they were really interested in. But after a while, I could see Gemma-Rose was getting frustrated by what was really a boring exercise. She knows I never work out the cost of all the ingredients in a recipe before I go shopping, so why should she? I came to the conclusion that giving her such exercises to do will eventually put her off maths. Maybe she will even come to hate it.
I remember trying to teach Gemma-Rose how to tell the time. That was a bit frustrating. I looked for fun activities to help her understand what time is all about. I thought she’d enjoy all the games that taught this skill. But she didn’t. She ended up doing a lot of groaning and complaining. In the end, I bought her a clock and fixed it to her bedroom wall. I invited her to watch a few Brainpop videos with me. I then stepped back and forgot all about time. That was a year and a half or so ago. The other day I said, “Gemma-Rose can you tell the time?” She rolled her eyes and said, “Of course I can!” I didn’t need to find a fun way of teaching her about time. She learnt about it herself when she realised she wanted to use her clock.
I think back to those time learning games. Games aren’t the same as adding up columns of numbers. They should be a lot more fun. So why didn’t Gemma-Rose enjoy them? Maybe it was all to do with the type of game I presented her with. We can use maths to play a game or we can play a game to learn maths. There’s a subtle difference. Both might improve our maths skills but the second kind of game is really a maths exercise in disguise. And kids are very clever. It doesn’t take them long to discover our trickery. They know we don’t really trust them to learn what they need to know when they need it. We want them to learn NOW. The sooner they have those maths facts memorised, the better. Our child might start to feel pressured.
Now, I don’t think we should stand back, afraid to tempt our kids with some maths experiences. There are many wonderful ways of strewing maths. Maths is interesting. It can be fun purely for its own sake.
“I discovered a new way to add a long list of numbers without getting into a muddle. Do you want to see?’
“I found another video of The Human Calculator!”
“Do you want to play Sudoku? I found a generator online.”
“This Murderous Maths book is very funny. How about we have a look at it together?”
We can include our children in all our own real life maths experiences:
“Do you want to help me sort out these bills?”
And our children will come across maths experiences all by themselves:
Children will ponder and ask questions. Sophie might even have wondered, without any prompting from me, how much money she’d need to buy her junk mail catalogue gifts.
Yes, there are so many wonderful ways to enrich our children’s world with maths. And they will either be fascinated by maths or they will see a need for it, or perhaps both. We don’t need to trick them into learning it.
These are just a few things I’ve been pondering after I published my junk mail catalogue post. My words, “Would they think my question was a boring maths exercise in disguise?” really bothered me afterwards. If I am being honest, I think that’s exactly what I did present to my children.
So how are my children going to learn the maths skills they will need? If I observe and listen to my children, I should be able to find out…
“The best way to learn maths is to use it with your interests,” says Sophie. “But I don’t mind adding up numbers for no particular reason because I find numbers interesting.”
“I don’t,” says Gemma-Rose. “Adding up lots of numbers is boring. You write it all on a piece of paper which is filed away and never seen again. What’s the point?”
“It helps you to learn maths. What if you need to add up something?” I ask.
Gemma-Rose grins. “I’ll get someone else to do it for me!”
“She can add up really,” says Sophie. “I’ve seen her do it. She adds up her money all the time. She just doesn’t want to do it for no reason.”
“But some activities are useful. They help you learn maths. You practise what you need to know,” I say.
But Gemma-Rose is not convinced. “I’ll just pick maths up as I go along,” she says.
You know, if I resist the temptation to pressure her, I believe she will.