Many of today’s parents didn’t particularly like mathematics when they were in school. There were too many rules and procedures to remember and problems lacked contexts that had any real meaning. Maths was the “quiet” subject of the day. We all sat in rows and weren’t allowed to talk or work together on any problems. Our “reward” for completing the problems on the blackboard was simply a worksheet of more problems! It was difficult to become engaged or interested, which meant that we didn’t enjoy it and we weren’t inclined to persevere. Sound familiar?
It’s sad to know that many students are still learning the old-fashioned way.
It doesn’t have to be like this because maths can be a joy to learn for primary school students. I believe that for most kids, it’s not their inability to do math that’s the problem, it’s that they don’t enjoy it. This might sound counterintuitive, but if we focus on their enjoyment first then the skills will follow. What if we concentrated our attention on engaging the hearts of young learners in order to excite their minds? What would happen if we made maths enjoyable for them? Would they be more likely to persevere and thereby increase their chances of success? You bet they would.
Here’s some suggestions to make maths fun for our young learners – it’s all about having fun while developing deep conceptual understanding and thinking skills.
- Incorporate games into learning time
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting maths needs to be filled with fun and games involving laughter every minute. Many of us engage in sports or regular physical exercise that can be challenging, difficult, or even stressful at times. But that doesn’t mean we enjoy them less. Games are a great place to start, especially for young ones.
At ORIGO Education, for example, we have developed games and other activities that help engage students with mathematics. Games ordinarily involve a winner and a loser, so we try to focus on activities that have the same rewarding feeling of a game, but with no losers.
- Make mundane practice more stimulating
Basic mathematics activities can be tedious and uninteresting for many students. To counteract this, try taking a basic skill and turn it into an exciting activity. Imagine you want to have your students practice adding four single-digit numbers in their heads. Yesteryear’s approach would be to give us a worksheet of equations or a blackboard of problems such as 6 + 3 + 7 + 4 = ___ to complete. But there is another way. Let me introduce you to my special square. It’s special because you can randomly find my favourite number, 20, in many ways.
Follow these steps to find 20:
- Start by circling a number in any one (horizontal) row. Then cross out all the other numbers in that row and column.
- Circle another number, then cross out all the other numbers in that row and column.
- Circle one of the remaining numbers then cross out the other numbers in that row and column.
- Circle the last number and add the four numbers you circled.
Your total should be 20. If you repeat the process by circling different numbers your answer will again be 20. The steps you just completed involve mathematics and specifically require children to add four single-digit numbers. To further enhance this learning experience you can have students make their own special square.
Start by finding eight numbers that add to your special number — for example, 16. This requires the student to experiment with all combinations of numbers. For example, they could be 1, 3, 0, 4 and 5, 0, 1, 2. Then follow these steps.
Use the template above. Write the numbers along two sides of the square, as shown.
In each small square, write the sum of the number in that column and row.
Cut out the large square or erase the eight numbers from the outside.
Follow the first set of steps to test your square.
- Encourage them to use maths in their everyday lives
Prompt your children to count in 2s, 5s, and eventually 10s. Ask them to identify and describe patterns they might see. Look for and use real opportunities to have them calculate in their head. (e.g. What is the total cost? How many more do we need? About how much longer will it take?) Their answers are less important. It is more important to have them verbalise their thinking by asking, “How do you know?” or “How did you figure that out?”
Games and similar alternatives engage students to help them enjoy maths as they learn. But there are many other activities that don’t involve winners and losers that serve to win the hearts — and therefore minds — of young learners. Happy teaching.
About the Author
Hi, I’m James Burnett. I am an educator, author, publisher and father of three. I have been in mathematics education for more 25 years, and I am passionate about helping primary school children enjoy and better understand maths through the work that I do as the founder and CEO of ORIGO Education.