By Elizabeth Jansen van Vuuren, mother of two teenage boys, has taught Maths and English to students aged 8 to 48. She is a (new) devotee of the parkrun movement and loves being part of the learning process, seeing each child develop their unique potential. Read about her workshops and lessons on the Fun Maths facebook page and website.

When we were growing up, it seemed the world was divided into people who were ‘good at maths’ and those who were ‘bad at maths’. This latter group often hated and feared the subject, and felt there was little or nothing they could do about their apparent inability – it was just bad luck.

Researchers into maths education are now finding that we are all one kind of person – someone who can learn to work with mathematics, and do so well. We are all able to use the language of mathematics to describe quantities and shapes, to express problems and find solutions. Just like we can all learn to use words to communicate thoughts and feelings.

So we have to ask why so many children struggle with maths at school, and perform poorly? The answers to this question can take more than a blog article to fully explore, but two key findings of recent research are that:

  1. Fear and a sense of disempowerment blocks maths learning.
  2. At the foundation of learning to use the language of maths lies a very solid number sense, or knowledge of numbers and how they fit together. This knowledge is developed through a physical experience of numbers.

What does this mean for us as parents? Professor Jo Boaler from Standford University has put together an excellent list of 6 tips to help parents transform maths for their children. These tips relate closely to the two points above. Here are some of them, in brief.

Build maths confidence:

  • Always be encouraging when children are working on maths problems. Don’t tell them they are wrong, rather try and figure out their thinking and then guide them to the right track.
  • Never associate maths with speed.
  • Never share with your children that you were bad with maths at school, or disliked it.

To develop numbers sense,

  • Play and encourage maths puzzles and games – really any game which involves dice and counting. Think Snakes and Ladders, the traditional game Moruba (the ‘cow game’), Ludo, and Monopoly.


And here is my own recommendation:

  • Make numbers part of your family interaction. Talk about prices in shops, how many eggs in a box, how many will be left after breakfast, how many days until a birthday… For older children, discuss the price of petrol, how many litres your car needs, distances to places, oven temperature, or the population of your city. In this way, numbers become less scary and more real.

Allow numbers to show up in conversations and activities naturally – they are all around us, after all.

Further reading:

“Anyone can learn to high levels” by Jo Boaler.

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