How to make learning math (actually) fun for kids

A new study shows that kids learn more effectively when they can move around and be loud.

kids playing a hand shake game

Photo: Stocksy

I can vividly recall what math class felt like: dreary, silent and endless. We memorized times tables and quietly practised addition and subtraction, all while glued to our seats for what seemed like hours. There was a clear distinction between learning and playtime, the latter reserved for recess only.

But times have (thankfully) changed. Forget about silently scribbling out answers at your desk; these days, it’s not uncommon for kids to break a sweat during math class. At the Toronto Heschel School, for instance, a typical grade one math lesson looks something like this: six- and seven-year-old kids standing in a circle, tossing a ball to one another and excitedly shouting out numbers that add up to 10, or clapping hands with classmates—“Stella Stella Ola”-like—while counting aloud by fives. Students are now encouraged to be active and move around while learning their numbers, and this noisy and active method has been proven to be far more effective than the drills and flashcards we grew up with. Plus, it makes it easier to extend math lessons outside of school in ways that are actually fun.

“Children have a natural need to move,” says Galit Babitsky, who teaches grade one at the Toronto Heschel School. “If we don’t provide them with movement, they’ll find inappropriate ways of doing so, such as rolling around on the carpet or jumping off a chair. Linking movement to the curriculum is very helpful. It’s more meaningful that way, and they’ll remember what they’ve learned.”

There is research to back up Babitsky’s claim: A recent study from the University of Copenhagen found that children’s math scores improve when instruction engages their bodies. Researchers divided grade one students into three groups, each studying the same concepts: One group used their whole body during math lessons (for example, students explored problem solving by making a triangle with their bodies); another group was sedentary and worked on math using fine motor skills (using LEGO bricks for arithmetic); and a control group engaged in regular math instruction using pencils, papers and rulers. The children were evaluated before, immediately after and eight weeks later, and the kids whose instruction included whole body activity performed markedly better.

Malke Rosenfeld didn’t need a formal study to tell her that kids learn math better while active. The math and dance teacher based in Bloomington, Indiana, has seen how effective movement can be as a learning tool over almost 20 years that she has worked with children. In her 2016 book, Math on the Move: Engaging Students in Whole Body Learning, she explains that when kids use their bodies to explore mathematical ideas, they understand concepts much faster and pick up new insights along the way. “It opens up an opportunity for the entire class to work collaboratively to investigate and talk about the patterns they see in a way they might not do on paper,” she says. “It’s clear that students’ engagement in the material shows a marked increase when they are doing and thinking about math out of their seats.”

Rosenfeld even gets kids up and dancing to learn topics in dynamic geometry, such as transformations, symmetry and rotations, as well as patterning and problem solving. The Math In Your Feet program she developed integrates percussive dance and math by leading students through the process of creating their own percussive dance patterns on a two-by-two-foot square. “The body is best used as a thinking tool for making sense of math,” she says. “We’re all primed for movement.”

Jennifer Kranenburg, an elementary-school teacher in Chatham, Ontario, has found that these kinds of creative approaches are far more appealing to kids, especially those who may have language-based learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For one lesson that she was teaching to students in grades two and three, she replaced number cards with students’ bodies as a way to demonstrate patterns and relationships between numbers on the grid. “They loved it!” she says. “They became part of the math problems.”

From there, Kranenburg looked for as many opportunities as possible to engage in whole body experiences, including estimating the weight of a large pumpkin based on a child’s weight. “Geometry was a natural fit for full body movement,” she explains. “Students need to able to identify translations, rotations and reflections. By using their body to demonstrate these movements, they gain a deeper, more meaningful sense of what the terms mean. I began to realize that as my students moved away from traditional pencil and paper work into more meaningful experiences, they gained a much stronger sense of numbers and spatial reasoning and were using a rich math vocabulary to communicate. The mindset around math class changed and students were excited to participate.” The best part? Behavioural issues almost disappeared completely.

This type of activity-based approach also makes it really easy to reinforce concepts outside of the classroom. Even a visit to the park can lead to a major lesson in math—and your kids won’t even know it (win-win). Here are some at-home activities to get your kids interested in learning math in fun and playful ways.

Go for a walk

Skip-count by two, five and 10. Elementary-school teacher Jennifer Kranenburg suggests having your child count out every second step on the way up or down stairs, or every fifth step when you’re out for a walk. “This will help develop an understanding that the greater the number, the more of something it represents,” she explains.

Play number games

Get siblings involved to make it more fun, suggests grade one teacher Galit Babitsky. For example, have your kids roll a ball to each other, with one child calling out a number below 10 and the other rolling the ball and calling out the number that would add up to 10. Or apply the same concept to rolling dice. For example, if the first roll gets four, ask “What do I need to get to five?” “As soon as you have dice, kids are interested,” says Babitsky.

Act out word problems

Present your child with a word problem. For example, Jack has 16 stickers to share equally among himself and three friends. How many stickers does each person get? Have your child find 16 items to represent the stickers and hand them out to family members to find the solution, says Kranenburg.

Create non-standard units of measurement

When Math on the Move author and educator Malke Rosenfeld’s daughter was six years old, she noticed that her uncle Arlen was exactly the same length as the couch. They measured the sunroom into units called “Arlens” and determined how many Arlens could fit into the room. They also noticed that one Arlen was equivalent to five lengths of their cat, Lucy.

Plant a vegetable garden

Research the height of each plant ahead of time to ensure that the tallest plants won’t steal sunlight from the smaller ones. “Track the growth of plants and elapsed time and use probability to check the weather forecast to determine when you need to water or when Mother Nature will take care of it for you,” says Kranenburg.

Visit a nearby playground

“You can find math all around you,” says Rosenfeld, who recommends a visit to the playground. “Make up a game based on what’s there.” For example, follow the lines on the basketball court as spatial pathways.

Plan a family outing

When planning an outing, Kranenburg suggests using Google Maps to have your child help plan the fastest route possible. How much time do they predict it will take to get there?

Track your child’s growth

Record your child’s height on a measurement chart. Ask them questions, such as “How tall are you? What else is the same height? Which is shorter? Which is longer?” Record their height again a few months later and ask “How much did you grow by?” “Young children are, by nature, egocentric and love being the centre of their own math problems,” says Kranenburg.

Read more:
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