Something to count on;Maths

27th March 1998 at 00:00
Numbers are scattered all over your home. Mark Whitehead reports on ways in which schools can help parents and children to find them

Reading at home with the help of an adult is a familiar experience for most young children - but many parents find working with numbers a daunting task. Often they have bad memories of failing maths themselves and the modern curriculum is unfamiliar to them. But parents can be an big asset in helping to develop their children's number skills, and the spin-offs for teachers could be enormous.

"Numeracy has always come a poor second at home," says Helen Atkins, a basic skills specialist at the Friary Education and Training Centre in Cardiff. "There is a psychological block telling parents they can't do anything to help, even though they are desperate to. But with the right sort of c approach they can be a tremendous asset which teachers can use."

A course that she has devised for Cardiff schools, as part of her Bachelor of Education degree, aims to show parents how they can help. The key is in overcoming the fears many adults have about maths. The course, developed after extensive research in primary schools and piloted last year, recognises that most people already use many mathematical skills - usually without realising it - in their everyday lives. And parents, says Helen, are natural teachers. The 10-week course, titled 'Maths, You and Your Child', also aims to show them that the concepts being explored by children nowadays as part of the national curriculum are not hard to understand. Symmetry, for example, can be explained with mirror images. Everyday items, including toys, games and magazines, coins and buttons are used to show maths in action.

Parents are encouraged to play and chat with their children, and to encourage them to listen and ask questions.

Maths learning can start at home from the youngest age with such activities as nursery rhymes and songs ('Ten Green Bottles', for example), counting practice using stairs or sweets, guessing and estimating games, and looking for patterns and shapes.

Many of the techniques can be used by teachers as part of their own work in the classroom.

"The important thing is to get parents and children to see that maths is something they use all the time," Helen says. "This course aims to show them just how much maths they're already doing."

For details, contact Helen Atkins, the Family Literacy and Numeracy Centre, co Herbert Thompson infants school, Plymouth Wood Road, Ely,Cardiff CF5 4XD.


Parents are asked to write down all the everyday things they do involving maths. The list is usually very short. One listed only "look at watch", "spend money", "cooking, and "shopping".

But they are then given a long checklist, which includes everything from using calendars to setting the video. The parent who came up with only four items in the open-ended question found that, in reality, she was familiar with 42 mathematical activities. These included using a diary, looking at television programme times, measuring for curtains or carpets, household budgeting, map reading, using a telephone directory, recipes, do-it-yourself tasks, writing postal orders and cheques, bingo and lottery cards, using bank or benefit books, bus or train timetables, shopping lists, checking change, planning your day, setting the microwave, reading the gas or electricity meter, planning a journey or trip, reading a doctor's prescription, planning meals, and wrapping a parcel.

Maths talk

A series of hand-drawn pictures shows various objects - some glasses, trees, a cake cut into several portions - and course members are asked to write down as many expressions they can think of to describe them. The aim is to understand the language of number, measurement, space and shape and information. They soon discover, to their surprise, that many mathematical expressions are already familiar to them - simple words such as bigger and smaller, equal and total.

Steps to learning

Participants are given a series of simple tasks, ranging from sums of addition to matching similar objects, and they are asked to rank them in order of difficulty.

Comparing their findings, they quickly see that some tasks are easier than others. Concrete tasks, for example, matching pictures of everyday items such as patterned hats and scarves are simpler than working out written sums using numbers. Exercises such as this help parents see that learning takes place step-by-step, moving from the concrete to the abstract.

It's not all black and white

The parents are divided into groups and given a random selection of buttons of different shapes, sizes and types. They are asked to separate them into similar groups.

Some people divide them according to their size, others by the number of holes, and others by their colour. The discussion which follows shows that maths is not always black-and-white - there can be more than one correct answer to a question.


The idea of surveys is introduced by asking the parents to pick a topic that they would like to know more about. Last year, they decided to find out more about their children and devised a questionnaire for group members. Analysing the data that they had gathered, the parents concluded that they had enough children among them to make a nursery viable. Their conclusion showed how investigation using mathematical concepts can be useful in real life.

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