Playing the numbers game

Claire Warden believes some cuddly toys and imagination can turn maths into magic. Douglas Blane reports

Petals, gemstones, ribbons and reindeer. A sackful of teddy bears, a box of little rosebuds, and a yellow hen stuffed with woolly chickens. Can this be mathematics? Well, yes, if you're lucky enough to be an infant in an education authority like Perth and Kinross where former Jordanhill lecturer Claire Warden, who runs the Mindstretchers company, has been turning maths into magic.

"When I visit a school, I take a lot of this stuff with me because I don't decide what I'm going to talk about till I see the children. Then I might notice a big octopus hanging from the ceiling, so I'll maybe start working with pipe-cleaners and, after a couple of minutes, somebody will shout: 'It's Ollie'. Then we'll tell a story about Ollie the Octopus.

"Or I might use bears or mice or hedgehogs."

She upends a big, soft bag and a cascade of teddy bears of all shapes and sizes comes tumbling out, followed by a canoe and a black shark with pearly-white teeth, which she tosses in a corner: "We don't need him."

"Each child chooses a bear to hold while I talk, then I pick out one who's bonding with her bear."

Ms Warden lifts from the pile a little wooden bear with a particularly appealing example of that gormless expression common to all teddy bears. "Suppose it's this one, then I'll make him the hero of the story.

"First I get the kids to tell me his name, where he lives and the number of his house. Then we figure out what size bed he needs."

She whips out a bright pink tape-measure. "Then he'll go on a journey and have lots of adventures, all of which involve numbers, counting, measurements."

As she talks, Ms Warden cites an eclectic mix of influences on her methods of teaching numeracy to the early years: Dan Goleman's work on emotional intelligence; Sue Atkinson's views on emergence in maths learning; Martin Hughes's work with resources that are familiar from children's homes; Peter Portillo's emphasis on the importance of starting from pupils' own ideas and abilities.

"Probably the biggest influence would be Numeracy Counts, the report by Learning and Teaching Scotland on the implications of recent research into early years numeracy."

If pressed to distil all this good practice and research into a few key principles, she says, the first would be that learning is most effective when children are actively involved - talking and listening, sorting and classifying, filling and emptying - and when all their senses, as well as their emotions, are enlisted in the learning experience. "The aim is to make it as multisensory as possible," she says.

Secondly, children have different "motivational buttons" and learning styles: "The secret is to find the button that works for each child. One wee lad was said to have a short attention span, but when he discovered what was inside this bag" - she pulls out a handful of metal bolts with wing-nuts threaded along their shafts - "he was engrossed for ages.

"Finally, no matter how young the children, they have a lot of prior knowledge and should be encouraged to focus on their own thinking and not try to guess what is in an adult's mind."

To a teacher encountering this highly imaginative approach to numeracy for the first time, its appeal is immediate - but it also raises a few questions. Is there enough time in the day? Yes, because numeracy is core business and, by combining it with work on language, both subjects benefit.

Does it give children and teachers creative freedom at the expense of acquiring essential number skills? No, because it is not a substitute for conventional methods - boring worksheets can be discarded but textbooks can't.

Most importantly of all, does the method only work when practised by someone with years of experience or a natural gift for storytelling?

This question is answered firmly in the negative by Veronica Beckett and Kathleen Robertson, early years and pre-five support officers respectively with Perth and Kinross education authority, both of whom are now happy to take Ms Warden's methods into schools themselves.

Ms Robertson talks about the powerful effect the methods have on the adults who work with pre-fives. "It has given them a buzz and raised their confidence," she says. "They feel it's an approach they can easily adopt - even the ones who aren't comfortable with mathematics."

Ms Beckett emphasises the effect on the children. "It works with all of them, not just those who are good at maths.

"One of my nicest memories is of a little girl coming up to me in the playground, months after I'd given a storytelling session in her class, hugging me around the knees and saying: 'I remember you - you're the maths lady'."

Active Learning Active Numeracy (ALAN) is entering its third year in Perth and Kinross, and Ms Warden is now setting up similar initiatives in South Ayrshire and Moray.

Claire Warden is talking on Active Learning - Active Numeracy at 10.30am on September 14The Mindstretchers shop is at The Warehouse, Rossie Place, Auchterarder, Perthshire, tel 01764 682866

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