The trick to removing the fear of math in children

February 12, 2019

When I was a child, I was terrified of Maths the way some people are terrified of heights or being stuck in a narrow elevator or being attacked by a gang of bees. I was phobic. Maths-phobic.

This seems strange in retrospect, because as an adult I use maths a lot, and use it reasonably well. I calculate my taxes correctly, I draw household budgets, and I compute taxi fares based on distance and rates pretty fast in my head. In other words, I turned out ok at maths.

So why was I so scared of numbers?

Maybe it was because no one told me what the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears was really about.

Huh? What does an old European fairy tale have to do with maths and my childhood fear of numbers? Stay with me to find out. I’m going somewhere good with this, I promise. When we read the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears with our children, we think it is about many things. It is about a girl’s curious discovery of a cottage in the woods. It is about her finding just the right sized chair to rest in, the right porridge to eat and the right-sized bed to sleep in! It’s about the thrilling imminent danger of being discovered by the three bears, and Goldilocks’ escape from the forest.

But there is one important aspect of the story that we don’t immediately catch onto, which in fact, is one of its primary themes. Goldilocks and the THREE Bears is also a story about counting. It’s about counting to three, in specific. The story features three beds, three chairs, three bowls of porridge, and three bears. Again and again, Goldilocks counts up to three objects. When they discover her trespasses, the bears each complain about the three eaten bowls of porridge, the three sat-in chairs, and the three slept-in beds.

The tale is told in this way to establish a cognitive recall of the number three for most children. While we are on the subject of mathematical concepts as themes, Goldilocks and the Three Bears is also about qualitative comparisons. A chair is too big, a bed is too narrow, and so on. It encourages a child to move beyond cardinality or pure numbers into the realm of comparative analysis, the jump a young learner makes to start thinking in terms of one and many, large and small.

But who would have thought the story of Goldilocks had maths in it? We don’t make that association easily because we are conditioned to think of maths and stories as the opposite ends of the learning spectrum.

Like many learners, I learnt best through stories, but no one around me was putting maths in a story. On the contrary, I was being told that the faculty for maths and the faculty for storytelling belonged in different galaxies altogether. If I didn’t understand maths as hard numbers, I just wasn’t “mathematical” enough. No wonder I started to sweat at the thought of subtracting three digit numbers!

I’m happy to report now that these stereotypes about maths and stories are exactly that. Stereotypes. Maths and stories aren’t unrelated concepts but instead two versions of the same impulse: to make sense of the vast, unknowable world that crouches over us.

We tell stories to establish meaning in chaos. And we quantify for the exact same reason. We number time into days and hours to deal with its infinity. We tell stories about where we came from, and where we are going. We count. We tell stories. We make patterns. We are creatures who crave narrative. Without our stories, we are nothing. So essential is storytelling to our survival as a species, that the brains of children and grown-ups have evolved to learn through narrative structure.

That is the first reason storytelling is a great learning tool for maths. The other?

Stories are fun! They have imagination, humour and ups and downs that hook the learner and set her imagination ablaze. They inspire emotion and thought. Stories stick around in your head. Who wants to get up and walk away from the grip of a cracking yarn?

As a writer of educational content for preschool children between ages 2 and 7, I keep dipping for inspiration into the narrative-math continuum! When told as a narrative, Maths is immediately relatable, especially for early learners who are both highly visual and interested in stories. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of using stories to help early learners understand math concepts. Stories are the bridge that can take your child from simply mugging up numbers to actually understanding how counting works in real life!

The Hand Monster

One example: Recently I wrote a few scripts teaching early learners how to count. In one of these scripts, The Hand Monster, which is about how to count to Five, a small boy imagines his hand as a famished five-horned monster who won’t stop at eating five of anything. Five rocks, five laddoos, five leaves — everything is game for the hungry beast. I tried to put classic storytelling elements — fantasy, role play, humour, a plotted adventure — in a Maths story to make it more absorbing.

I wrote it for my inner math-phobic child. You can watch this story on the Kutuki App with your child/ niece/ inner math-phobic child to see if it works!


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