Maths on the go

The summer holidays are nearly upon us and for kids that means six weeks away from the classroom, homework and tests. And of course, that’s no bad thing, but just because school’s out for summer doesn’t mean your kids’ education needs to grind to a halt.

With the possibility of long car journeys ahead, or the inevitable delays waiting for planes or trains, why not grab the moment and sneak in some fun but educational games.

Steve Humble, aka Dr Maths, is the man behind many of Green Board Games’ maths related books and puzzles, and also teaches trainee maths teachers at Newcastle University. He believes that it’s important parents try to keep the learning process going when kids are out of school, and that maths particularly lends itself to learning on the go.

“It’s a great opportunity to show kids that maths is all around them,” he says, “and not just something that they have to learn at school. Numbers, patterns, shapes, they’re all there outside of the classroom and in the real world.”

So as well as packing one of Dr Maths’ books, or the fantastic BrainBox maths game, what else can you do to while away those long journeys?

One simple game, not unlike the numbers round in the Channel 4 programme Countdown, is to spot a number with at least four digits – it could be a flight number, a shop sign saying when a firm was established, that kind of thing – and then try and use the individual numbers to make a target value.

Targets with lots of factors like 24 and 32 are good ones to start with. So, for instance, the challenge could be to use 2651, the numbers on the side of a train, to make exactly 36, with a bonus point if you use all four numbers.

Another game Steve suggests is to see how many different shapes you can spot. Squares, circles and rectangles are easy, but what about more obscure shapes like pentagons, or even all the different types of triangles such as equilateral, isosceles and scalene*. Set a time limit and the person to spot the most is the winner.

Basic counting games can also help the time fly. In the car, everyone (best not to include the driver!) picks a colour and then records how many cars of that colour they see over a ten minute period. This also touches on issues of probability, with those looking for yellow cars, for instance, unlikely to be as successful as those spotting silver or red ones.

You can also play this game in the departure lounge, spotting people with different coloured coats, wearing glasses, on the phone etc. And if the kids are really into it, they could even illustrate the results with a simple graph or pie chart.

This is, of course, a variation on pub cricket, a game for the back roads which wend their way through the countryside, when you score runs each time there are ‘legs’ on a pub sign, and are out when there are none. So the White Hart would net you four and the Dog and Duck six, although it was never clear what you scored if you happened to drive past the Beehive…

So there you have it – a few ways to keep their brains switched on during their summer off. Have fun!

* To save you a Google search, an equilateral triangle has three equal sides, an isosceles has two and a scalene none.

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a maths surprise

It was snowing leaves in the park earlier today; great flurries of reds, golds, yellows and greens, as the first winds of autumn started to bite and one of our most magical seasons got well and truly underway.

Best whisper it, but leaves are great at adding a bit of autumnal fun to maths too. So with October half term upon us, why not pull on some wellies and a warm coat and set off with the children on a woodland treasure hunt – with a mathematical twist at the end.

You’ll also need to take some squared paper and pencils, as well as a ruler, some tape or other sticky stuff, and a few short pieces of string.

First you need to collect some leaves, either by simply picking them up as you wander along or by finding a good spot and then letting the kids have a free for all. Make sure they get a good random collection, though.

Get them to sort the leaves into colours – there should be a mixture of browns, reds, yellows, and the odd green too. Next, start counting, making a note of how many of each colour they’ve found. Once they’ve got their data, it’s time to plot the number of leaves of each colour on a simple graph. Or, if it’s not too windy, why not create a ‘living graph’ on the ground using sticks as the axes and the leaves they’ve actually collected, or even take the whole lot home and create a masterpiece for the kitchen wall?

You can also use leaves to help learn about perimeters and area too. Ask the kids to pick one leaf each and have a rough guess about how many centimetres they think it is round the edge, or how many square centimetres the whole leaf takes up.

Put the leaf on a piece of squared paper, carefully sticking down the stem to hold it in place, and then draw round the outline. Lift the leaf away and take one of the pieces of string and use it to trace around the leaf’s outline. Keeping your thumb and forefinger as a marker, lift the string away and measure it with the ruler to find the leaf’s perimeter. Who came closest with their guess?

Try it with different sized leaves – how big is the difference between a long thin leaf and a short fat one?

Now, using the outline of the leaf they’ve already drawn, see if they can work out how to find its area. First explain to them what size each square represents; then they’ll need to count up all the full squares and estimate how many extra ‘whole’ squares are made up by all the little fiddly bits round the edge. Add them all together and all of a sudden they know the area of a very random shape, and something which is a million miles away from the straight-edged squares and triangles they’ve drawn in class.

Of course, it’s not just leaves you’ll find on the forest floor at this time of year. Nuts, conkers and acorns will all have plummeted from the canopy and they’re all excellent for playing simple counting games – and so much more fun than using a boring pen and paper!

From Maths hater to Maths lover

Dave, a friend of The Green Board Game Co, recalls his journey from Maths hater to Maths lover and shares some thoughts on how to get your child on the same road…

So your child hates Maths. I can understand that, I really can. That was me; a skinny, playful boy who just wanted to get outdoors or get stuck into a great book.

What was the point of Pythagoras’ Theorem? Who really cares about natural numbers and integers? And don’t even get me started on that Maths teacher favourite: “Can you explain how you reached that answer?”
Frustrating. Impenetrable. Pointless.

Those were the three words that my 9-year old self would have used to sum up Maths. In fact, in my mind the only ‘point’ of Maths class was to find new uses for my fountain pen. I’ll let your imagination run wild on that one…

Reversing the equation
Wind the clock forward 25 years and here I am – a (slightly less skinny) young man busy poring over budgets, analysing quantitative survey data, devouring website statistics, and calculating odds based on previous trends.
And absolutely loving it.

So what happened to turn this self-confessed Maths ‘hater’ (who languished in the bottom Maths group throughout Secondary School) into a self-styled Maths ‘lover’ (who’s happy to admit he gets quite excited by percentages)?

Along the yellow brick road to my Emerald City of Maths there have been a number of essential signposts; big things that helped me gain a new perspective on those previously unfathomable numbers. If your child is anything like I used to be, they might find them helpful too.

The constant companion of statistics
Want to know what made me first realise that Maths could be friend, not foe? Baseball. Strange as it might sound, growing up in America as a boy with a natural interest in sports meant that before long the numbers behind the game began to capture me.

Watching the rise and fall of batting percentages, tracking win/loss percentages, working out the Average Earned Run ratio (OK, I’ll stop now) – it was all part of the fabric of the sport I loved. When my focus turned to football (of the round and kickable variety), my accidental friend followed me too. Now it was about points needed to qualify for Europe, goal difference, goals per game ratio… you get the general idea.

Because of my love for sport, I learned to love statistics – the constant companion of pretty much any competitive activity.

Show me the money!
I remember standing at the sweet shop – sweets counted and in the bag, coins in hand… and not having enough of one to pay for the other. It was gut-wrenching, embarrassing even. I had made a miscalculation – a school-boy error, if you will – and my sweet tooth would end up paying for it.

It was the beginning of a dawning realisation that there was a point to Maths: budgeting. Since that early coinage faux pas, I’ve learned to master the money I have in my hand in order not to be caught out – whether pocket money, student loan, early marriage budget, or workplace sales forecasts.

I’m pretty sharp on the numbers now, because I know that they matter – for my stomach, and other important areas of life.

Making numbers beautiful
On my bookshelf at home is a book called Information is Beautiful. It’s a collection of some of the most beautiful, clever and interesting pictorial depictions of data. Sometimes unimaginatively called ‘Infographics’, these pieces at their best can be a magical blend of cold, hard data with warm, soft art forms (click here to see some examples).

They serve as a reminder that the world of Maths, when touched by the world of Art, can in fact be beautiful. What at first seems so literal, linear, and limited can actually be lovely. It’s a revelation that has allowed a number of people I know – those who see the world in picture form – find a doorway into another world.

That’s a quick glimpse of the journey I’ve been on with this strange companion called Maths. Let’s be clear, I’m not about to take up an Applied Mathematics professorship at Cambridge, but I can genuinely say my perspective on this subject has been turned around 180 degrees.

So, if outbursts like “I hate Maths!” are common in your home, my hope is that your child might follow a similar trajectory to mine – from Maths hater to Maths lover.

Maths: No More Fear and Loathing

Jenny Laurie is an advanced skills teacher in mathematics and leader of The St Marylebone School Maths Hub – a national centre of excellence in maths education and training. She shares her thoughts on how parents can shed their apprehensions about maths, and help their children do the same.

“I simply don’t have that elusive maths gene”. This is what many of us parents are tempted to think when facing the challenge of helping our child with their maths homework.

Contrary to popular belief, the skills that you need to be numerate are not actually inherited – they are grown through practice. Evidence from the American psychologist Carole Dweck reveals that it is our mindset, rather than our ability or talent, that leads to success in maths.

Dweck’s basic idea is that there are two types of mindsets that people adopt when learning – fixed or growth. When we view our ability to do maths as ‘fixed’, it has a negative impact on our performance. So when we cannot solve a maths problem, we interpret it as confirmation that we have reached our mathematical limits, and assume there is nothing we can do about it. By contrast, when we adopt a growth mindset, we move from “I can’t do it” to “I can’t do it…yet”.

As a teacher, I meet many children who have been turned off maths at a young age simply by being told that they just “don’t have what it takes” to be good at the subject. We work hard in our school to change this mindset and, by following a few simple tips, you can combat this message at home – ensuring maths doesn’t become a subject filled with fear and loathing.

Point out the maths in the everyday
Take every opportunity to include your child in everyday activities involving maths and numbers. Get them to help with paying for shopping and counting the change. Get them to measure out ingredients for cooking; ask them to read timetables when you travel on public transport. This will not only get them to see the maths everywhere they go, but will also get them asking questions about how life is organised with numbers.

Be positive about maths!
I meet many parents who have had a bad experience with maths; some say things like “I hated maths at school” or “I was never any good at it”. This leads their children to take on many of those same feelings.

Students who have the most success in maths are those whose parents; despite their own experiences, are positive about maths. They are not scared about maths and are willing to learn alongside their child, showing them how important it is to their child’s future. You may feel that your skills are not up to scratch to be positive in helping with maths homework. Help is at hand though, through the National Numeracy Challenge ( – set up in part to enhance parents’ skills and get them feeling more confident in supporting their child’s learning.

Praise effort rather than talent
This shows your child that, by working hard, they can always improve. You may be surprised to know that as a maths teacher I still get stuck with some bits of maths. Getting stuck with a problem is not a bad thing – it’s an opportunity for you to sit down with your child and figure out the solution to the problem together. Remember no one can know all the maths in the world; sometimes you just have to know where to go to get help. Search online for the solution – there are heaps of self help videos and websites ready to help you and your child fill in any maths gaps.

It may take time, but the sense of achievement you will both feel by learning together will take you into your next maths challenge full of confidence – with fear a thing of the past.