Parents who want their child to be good at, and enjoy, maths, should start by being positive about the subject themselves and try to make sums a fun part of everyday life, writes Helen O’Callaghan
A MOTHER’S hormone levels during pregnancy can predict her child’s ability to do maths, according to new research.
Researchers in the Netherlands recently reported on a study that found five-year-olds whose mums had low levels of thyroxine during the first trimester of pregnancy were almost twice as likely to score a sub-normal mark in an arithmetic test as children whose mothers had normal thyroxine levels.
Thyroxine is important for most bodily functions — when it’s low, the body slows, mentally and physically. A woman with low thyroxine will feel tired, cold, get constipated, have dry skin and hair and experience weight gain. The problem occurs in 2% to 3% of pregnancies but is easily diagnosed (by a simple non-fasting blood test) and easily treated (a tablet replaces the deficient hormone).
The lead author of the Netherlands study said it’s unknown whether an affected child’s poor maths performance will persist into adulthood.
But one factor that is much more likely to affect children’s performance at maths is parental attitude to the subject. Kumon instructor Anne Prior says quite often parents transmit their own negative experience with maths to their child.
“Parents tell kids maths wasn’t their strong subject, so children feel it’s common for maths to be a problem.”
Lead presenter with RTÉ’s Science Squad, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin’s passion for maths is well known. But Ní Shúilleabháin, now a lecturer with UCD’s School of Mathematical Sciences, never thought she was very good or gifted at Maths. “In Leaving Cert, I didn’t understand what trigonometry was about. I failed the Christmas test. I begged my parents to let me change to ordinary level but they said keep trying until the mocks.
“I worked with students from another school. I got their textbook and we met every Saturday morning and did maths for two hours. One day the penny dropped — it was just the effect of doing it collaboratively. I got an A1 and went on to study theoretical physics.”
Ní Shúilleabháin believes many parents quite unconsciously instil messages in children that it’s okay to be bad at maths or that some people are born to be good at maths and others aren’t. “Students get this opinion ‘if I’m not the best at it then I’m not good at all’. It’s really important to say ‘I’ll have another go’ or ‘I’ll try it this way’.”
Arlene Forster, a director with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), says it’s vital that parents are willing to get stuck into everyday maths activities with their children. “This will help kids get a positive feeling about maths and help them have a good impression and attitude.”
She says parents often see maths as a subject that starts when children enter primary school. “But children are learning, experiencing and feeling maths from the very moment they’re born. Really young children build symmetrical structures with blocks. Kids are very quick to see if something hasn’t been shared out equally — that’s early fractions. When children are involved in pretend play — buying in their ‘shop’ or measuring medicine in the ‘vets’— these are some of the many scenarios where children themselves use maths. Such activities are the foundation of the maths they’ll be learning in primary school.”
Forster urges parents to let children enjoy experiencing, on an everyday basis, activities that encompass the different aspects of maths. Ask children to sort laundry — to pick out all the socks and then pair them. Set them to solve problems, like dividing 12 cocktail sausages between six friends attending their birthday party.
Do action songs with them, such as ‘Ten in the bed’ or ‘Five little speckled frogs sat on a speckled log’.
“These reinforce the idea of numbers and counting back and kids love them,” says Forster. Choose picture books that talk about mathematical ideas, such as Tip Tap Went the Crab, which is good for counting, or Spot Bakes a Cake, where the focus is on measuring.
When children start learning maths in primary school, Forster emphasises the importance of parents chatting with their child about how they’re solving maths problems. And because maths strategies taught in primary schools today differ from those learned by parents, it’s good to ask teachers to explain some of these strategies.
One thing’s for sure, the more we see maths as all around us and something with which we can have endless fun, the more we equip our children to love and be good at the subject.
Tips from the NCCA for helping your child’s mathematical ability
Give containers to play with. Talk about: holds more/less or empty/full. Bake or play with sand/water with your child.
Make patterns using buttons or clothes pegs. Sort according to colour and then according to colour and size.
Give child maths objects to play with — measuring tapes, rulers, phones, watches and weighing scales.
Look at the clock — say how many minutes until you have to leave for school/go to bed.
Look at shapes — how many circles can you see in the kitchen? What shapes can you find in your bedroom? Look at books and find different shapes.
Draw or make shapes using sand, pasta, crayons and cardboard cut-outs. Identify shapes.
Talk about days of the week and time of the day: today, yesterday, tomorrow, morning, night.
Find numbers in your environment — on houses, cars, buses, in shops. Ask who can spot the most numbers.
Measure your child regularly. How tall are they? What’s their shoe size? Use words like big/small,
Play counting games — count the number of steps going up and down stairs. Play simple games using a dice, such as Snakes and Ladders or Hopscotch.
Make a pretend shop using tins and packets of food. Use real or pretend money.
Incorporate language: How many? How much? What change did we get?
Visit www.ncca.ie for tips sheets and video clips that help parents help their kids with maths.
Events that might help
The 19th National Science Week ( www.science.ie ), taking place this week, aims to explore and celebrate the ‘Power of Science’, as well as inspiring more young people to take up studies and careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), at events nationwide. This year marks the 10th Discovery Science Festival at City Hall Cork, with a programme of interactive exhibits and workshops for families and students. Open to the public tomorrow and Sunday, from 2 to 6pm, events for older students include a seminar with ex-NASA astronaut Greg
Johnson.And whether it’s discovering which superhero you are, or zapping the microbes from deep inside the human gut, there’s plenty to get a ‘positive reaction’ from younger students too. Admission is €3.50pp/10 (family of 3); www.discoverysciencefestival.ie
Mimitoys stock a range of science kits from Thames & Kosmos, including Science Experiments on the Go, €13.95, a new kit this year, with experiments on rotational speed, weights and balance, etc; or last year’s bestseller, The Human Body,€ 29.95, which explores anatomy using the five senses.
There’s a new Bodymagnet kit from Janod, €29.95, with 76 magnets to teach children about the body, muscles, skeleton, etc. Kits suitable for ages 8+, www.mimitoys.ie
Learning through role and imaginary play is an important part of early childhood development, helping to develop social and problem solving skills. Chad Valley’s dress up trunk has three role play outfits and accessories for your little one to pretend to be a scientist, doctor or vet. €21.59, age 3+, www.argos.ie
Irish-made Disney show Doc McStuffins has inspired lots of little docs to give their toys a check-up.
The pre-school favourite has been widely praised for providing a positive role model for children and dealing with important subjects. Meanwhile, this vintage-style fabric doctor’s bag from Le Toy Van, filled with wooden medical instruments and bottles, was one of eight winners at this year’s Slow Toy Awards ( www.slowtoymovement.com ), which celebrate well-made toys designed to last, €44.95, ages 3+, www.littleones.ie
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