Featured post

7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Monday, 4 June 2012

Creating a Math Rich Home: Learning from Asian Moms

I’m an English teacher, so creating a language rich home for my young children came easily and naturally to me. And since most parenting literature emphasizes language (read to your kids, talk to them etc.) over all else, I always felt as though I was doing a great job on the cognitive development front with my kids.  Then I moved to Asia.

Asian moms care deeply about Math, and their goal seems to be creating a math-rich home for their young children, as opposed to just a language rich home.  Surprisingly, there’s very little literature/research on this particular topic. I’ve read tons of parenting books, and they all pretty much ignore the development of early math skills. Yet, in Asia, parents are very focused on cultivating mathematical minds from the get go. (Unfortunately though, they don’t formally research and publish their ideas.)

After a lot of searching, I found a few good academic resources on this subject. Jo Boaler’s book, What’s Math Got To Do With It, and the Sidwell Friends School Math website for lower schoolers, provide lots of good tips for parents. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot makes an interesting case for the early and deliberate development of visual-spatial skills in her book "Pink Brain, Blue Brain" and Stanislas Dehaene explores the way our brains process and understand numbers in his book Number Sense.

So, how should a parent go about creating a math-rich home? Here are a few suggestions, culled together from books, websites, and lots of informal discussions with Asian moms.

   Stage 1 – Ages 1 to 4
   Don’t just think books. Think blocks. Lots of blocks and building sets. Since a strong spatial ability is tightly linked to higher level Math proficiency, most researchers believe that block play will help kids in Math. In fact, there are studies that show a correlation between the sophistication of early block play and later Math achievement.
      Also get your kids to do puzzles since they develop both problem solving strategies and spatial skills.
 Play-doh, art, sand play, and general outdoor play are obviously really important at this stage as well. From the research that I've done, general manipulation of objects/play with objects helps children create a strong foundation for Math. Similarly, activities that involve sorting, classifying, and stacking/nesting of objects are great as well.

Count with kids A LOT.
If you live in a big city with lots of skyscrapers, get them into elevator math. Going up and down on an elevator is kind of like riding a number-line. Kids get to press a button and then see the elevator move up each floor. Talk to kids about the numbers on the elevator. Read the numbers. Calculate how many more floors you need to travel to get to the desired one.
Count when you grocery shop (I need five apples) and when you clean up (Let’s put five blocks back in the bin). Get them to help you cook (we need five eggs).  Count whenever you can.

Use Math talk when you can; for example, can you find me two blue blocks. Great, now find two green ones. How many blocks do you have altogether? Let’s count. See two plus two equals four. Use words such as add, subtract, half, one third, taller, shorter etc.

Don’t just think numbers. Think shapes and patterns. Get kids to draw and color shapes. Get them to identify shapes around them. Get them to look at and identify patterns with shapes.

And finally, let them measure stuff. For some reason, my kids love playing with measuring tapes. So get them to measure all the furniture.

Stage 2- Ages 4 to 6
This is when Asian moms start getting very serious about Math. They figure that kids are now old enough to start learning the real thing. So they introduce concepts, and then they do what Asians love to do: they practice A LOT.

Most Asian kids I know start a Math enrichment program like Kumon, Abacus, or Math Monkeys around age 4 or 5. The idea here is to get kids really familiar with numbers and mental math. I researched these programs and found that they are very, very drill based. Now, I’m all for some daily drilling, but to me Kumon seems mind-numbingly boring. As a result, I chose not to enroll my son in Kumon. However, I know several moms who swear by it, and it definitely makes kids very, very familiar with numbers and basic computations (add, subtract etc.) If, like me, you’re not willing to go the Kumon route, you can still buy the Kumon books and use them a few times a week so that kids get some amount of drilling/practice.

Other great ways to get kids to become very familiar with Math include board games. Play lots of Snakes and ladders and any other game that involves adding and subtracting. Play card games. Make up games with dice and cards. Games like Yahtzee and Ludo work well too. Play mental math games when you're in a car or bus.

Use lots of blocks, legos, jigsaw puzzles, and games that involve numbers and strategies (Connect Four, for example). All of these will help kids develop spatial skills, which are tightly linked to higher level Math proficiency.

Introduce the Tangram game – great for getting kids to disembed shapes, and thus develop spatial skills.

Stage 3: Formal School (Grade 1/Primary 1 onwards)
Now, when I think about Math in grade 1 and beyond, I think about it on three levels: Math facts, Problem Solving, and Spatial Skills. Kids need to work on all three levels throughout the year so that by the end of the year they have not only developed a mastery of math facts but also developed their problem solving and spatial skills. For most kids, Math Facts are the easy part; it's the more analytic problem solving and the more creative spatial skills that are harder.

Level 1 – Mastery of Math Facts - Procedural Knowledge.
Kids have to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide quickly and efficiently. This is stuff they will use all their lives, and even if a calculator can do it for them, it is essential that they learn how to do it themselves. This is really basic foundational stuff. And the only way that kids get really, really familiar with numbers is through daily practice. So, whether you go the Kumon route or not, you’ve got to give your first grader lots of daily drills on this material. In Singapore, kids in primary 1 are adding and subtracting multi-digit numbers with frightening speed. And by the end of the year, they all know all their times tables. You’ve got to admire the dedication that Asian moms have towards making sure their kids know their Math facts. The sheer reverence for Math is something else.

While many Asian programs (Kumon, for example) allow kids to use standard algorithms (stack and carry to add with regrouping, for example), many Western programs and many Asian mental math programs advocate solving complex computations by breaking numbers apart. For example: If you have to subtract 83 – 15, you could think of 15 as 10 and 5. First subtract 83 – 10 to get 73 (very easy) and then subtract 73 – 5 to get 68. You could even think of 5 as 3 and 2, so 73 – 3 = 70, and 70 -2 = 68. Kids need to work on decomposing and recomposing numbers quickly. They’ve got to be flexible with numbers. Jo Boaler’s book claims that this is a distinguishing trait of high achieving Math students in schools. I think that kids need to be taught both the standard algorithms as well as the "mental math" techniques so that they can use whatever works best given the situation.

Level 2 – Problem Solving - Conceptual Knowledge
Singapore Math workbooks are great for this level. They introduce kids to interesting and complex word problems that require good verbal comprehension and significant logical and analytic thought. These books are not for the faint-hearted. They are about two or three years ahead of your average American text book, but then Americans don’t seem to care about Math the way Asians do.
Jo Boaler advocates making problem solving more creative by offering kids “Math Settings” or a range of materials (for example, blocks or dice) so that the kids can create their own problems. They shouldn’t just be able to respond to a question, they should be able to ask their own questions too. Some of the Singapore Math books provide equations (14 + 8 = 22, for example) and then ask the kids to provide a word problem for the equation. Writing word problems is a great way to make sure that a kid really understands a mathematical concept.

Level 3 – Spatial Skill Development  - Creativity
So this is where I’m not so sure that Asian programs really work. They seem to be very workbook oriented and they need a more hands-on element. I’m terrible at spatial thinking, so I get worried that my kids may inherit my deficiency in this department. However, research suggests that spatial skills can be taught and improved with practice.
Activities to improve spatial skills include building models using directions or pictures (Blik Blok,  Lego kits, modeling clay, Origami) and understanding how to put shapes together or disembed shapes (Tangrams, measurement activities, building activities).
Additionally, video games (Tetris, action games) supposedly help in this department. However, video games seem to come with a whole slew of problems of their own, so I’d be careful about overdoing gaming.
According to Conrad Wolfram, director of Wolfram Research and author of an article on connecting Math to the modern world, "programming is the way you write down Math in the modern world." It makes sense to begin programming activities (lego-programming/elementary robotics, Scratch, Logo etc.) with kids in elementary/middle school. 
Kids need more opportunities to do hands-on stuff like taking apart a simple machine and putting it back together. Or simple carpentry projects.
Another great activity, which is very popular amongst Indian kids, is chess. I’m not a chess player, but it supposedly teaches spatial skills and problem solving skills simultaneously. This is an area that I find particularly challenging as a parent. It is definitely incredibly important in the 21st century, where visual-spatial skills are absolutely necessary to understand and navigate the digital world and the real world.

 I think that creating a Math rich home and investing significant time and energy in Math from the get-go is a good idea. Just as early reading and talking help prime kids for success in school, I’m fairly convinced that early exposure to Math games and Math concepts help prime kids for success in Math. One more thing: in Asian families, succeeding in Math is not an optional thing. Just as kids have to learn to read fluently, they have to do well in Math, and that’s that.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Maya,

    I agree with you that making of a mathematics genius is the dream of Asian moms. It is somehow written in the genes with years of practice. Wouldn't it be a perfect scenario, if we can blend Asian mathematical skills with the western articulative skills that stems from the importance given to language? In a way, many in our generation are in the pursuit of making that perfect blend out of our children.
    This is a good read with lots of information. I will post the comments after reading your other blogs. Keep it flowing...

    1. Yeah Sindu, these posts are a good read...I've read them all and they are all excellent...