By Jacquie Johnston

I wonder how many parents reading this are looking back on their own journey with mathematics at school.  I think I can safely surmise that a large percentage of you are remembering times of anxiety, frustration and bewilderment. 

You concluded that you were not good at maths, and couldn’t wait to finish school so that you never had to do it again.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that.  Maths is not just something you do, it is part of the very fabric of life.  It is not confined to the manipulation of numbers on paper, but is a relational science dealing with quantity, distance, time, area, volume, weight, …………. and the list goes on.

The idea that some people just cannot do maths is not supported by research unless there is a diagnosis of dyscalculia, maths’ equivalent of reading’s dyslexia. True dyscalculia is rare, but a disproportionate number of people struggle with maths, and that needs to be addressed. So, what can you as a parent do?

Firstly, research has shown that children pick up on their parents’ and teachers’ own maths anxiety.  Parents who struggled with maths at school often tell their children that, “I wasn’t good at maths at school, so you probably got it from me.”  Perhaps a more helpful response would be, “I had some gaps in my maths learning at school too. Let’s see if we can find out why you have gaps so that you don’t struggle like I did.”  This will show your child that you understand what they are going through, but there is a solution to their problem.

God created everything by number, weight and measure.  Sir Isaac Newton.

One of my ‘pet peeves’ is parents who tell me proudly that their three-year-old is going to be good at maths because they can already count up to, say, 100.  Although being able to count shows that a child can sequence words correctly, it tells us nothing about how they are experiencing the relationships in their world.  What language, then, should we encourage our children to develop?

In the English language we call words that express relationships between things ‘prepositions’.  As maths is the science of relationships this is the language you want to develop.  Prepositions are words like before, after, first, last, more, less, over, under, in, out, through, around and between.  There are about 70 commonly used prepositions, so have fun devising activities to introduce them into your child’s language and understanding.

My favourite is to make an obstacle course, and give instructions like, “Before you run around the chair, go through the table legs.”  Your child will thoroughly enjoy this game whilst developing language and increasing physical dexterity. 

A quieter activity could be threading beads.  Thread different coloured beads onto a string and put them out of sight.  Then get your child to copy yours by giving instructions like, “The first bead is red.”, “Before using a green bead, use a blue one.”, “Thread one more yellow one.”  When you have finished your child can compare their beads to yours.

As an Educational Therapist I have worked with many children who count easily but can’t do a simple addition like 26 + 1.

If numbers are not associated with quantity they are merely a sequence of meaningless words. 

The symbols we use to represent numbers, 1,2,3, … etc. are also meaningless unless associated with quantity.  Board games using dice are useful for linking quantity with smaller numbers. To extend this beyond the patterns on the dice, draw a circle on a piece of scrap paper (experiment with size according to your child’s age) then put 6 beans or pieces of pasta in a small container.  Instead of throwing the dice, the beans or pasta are emptied onto the circle, and those pieces at least partially within the circle are counted and used to determine the move.  You will notice that after a while your child no longer counts but recognises quantity easily although patterns change.

When a child has the language to express themselves mathematically and a good understanding of the quantities numbers represent they are on their way to building a solid number sense.


But in my opinion, all things in nature occur mathematically.  Renes Descartes.