The hidden maths of childhood – and why it’s worth revealing

I volunteer with maths charity ‘Maths on Toast’ which aims to make maths fun through community events, like the Festival of Triangles, shape parade and Numbers x Fun.

‘Number Rumbler’ is a brain fizzing, fun family game which develops knowledge of times tables, and develops ‘number sense’- the understanding of how numbers relate to each other.

Maths on Toast has launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise £7000 for the first print run of this brain whizzing game.

I’m volunteering as a PR consultant, helping to coordinate the press and social media strategy for the campaign.

This blog was originally published on the British Science Association blog, written by Alexandra Fitzsimmons, Founder and CEO of Maths on Toast, and edited by me.

When I was a child, I played maths. We had Polydron, a toy that lets you clip together different shapes to build 3D forms, a book of pop-up fractals, and lots of origami. We also had a soft toys (each with strong characters), board games, and piles of books, from ‘The Way Things Work’ to school stories and fairy tales.

I went on to combine studies in maths and classics with archaeology and a career in museums. Frustration at a lack of maths within museum projects led me to set up Maths on Toast, a charity that makes maths family and community fun. So Dame Athene Donald’s public statement earlier this month about Barbies vs Meccano, made as incoming President of the British Science Association, caught my attention. Her comment that girls are disadvantaged by having only Barbies as toys and are less likely to take up science or engineering as a consequence is, I’m sure, right – but as far as maths goes, it’s only part of the story.

Why do people see maths differently?

In 2015, the YouGov / National Numeracy survey suggested that only 63% of people in the UK would feel embarrassed to admit to being ‘no good at numbers and maths’- while those who’d feel embarrassed to admit to being no good at ‘reading and writing’ is 76%, considerably higher. One reason for this difference, I have increasingly realized, is that maths is often defined narrowly, memories of long division and fast-paced arithmetic in school overriding any others. Few adults equate toys and games with maths. But Ludo, Scrabble, noughts and crosses, dice and card games all feature number and problem solving skills. Meccano, Lego, and chess are better known for their mathematical links – but not universally hailed.

Even more unhelpfully, maths is seen as something you can be ‘good at’ or ‘bad at’. Those who think they are ‘bad at’ maths probably won’t spot that when they won at Scrabble, say, they used maths skills (getting that Q on a triple word score) as much as literacy. It is this identity problem that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, it is compounded by another strongly-held belief – that maths ability is born not learned. Again according to National Numeracy, 30% of people in the UK believe that maths ability is inherent and studies show this very belief reduces achievement in the subject.

Parental anxiety over maths can pass down generations. Yet, I more than suspect, anxious parents just don’t spot the maths they are good at and enjoy. Like the strategy in noughts and crosses, the shapes and structures you can make out of Lego, the counting and adding in Ludo.

That’s where Maths on Toast comes in. We run family maths events – activities have included making icosahedrons, a triangle scavenger hunt, pattern colouring and more. Since our first event (when the families who came told us the activities were fun, but weren’t maths) we are explicit about where the maths lies. We train our team to talk about the maths, and (simply but powerfully!) we give out stickers that say ‘I had fun doing maths’.

But a lot more is needed to address this as a national issue. Even as we grow, the problem we are trying to solve gets in our way. When I am pitching our projects, decision-makers need depth of detail on the activities – why are they maths? Can maths really be fun? Setting up Maths on Toast has shown me that family maths, far from being an obvious social benefit, is to many people a radical, unimaginable novelty.

‘Number Rumbler’- a brain-fizzing, fun maths game!

While we started our work in public places, we believe that to be effective we need to work everywhere that families are found – including at home. By working with families, we’ve recently devised a game,Number Rumbler. Designed to be a game first and numeracy-improver second, the maths is apparent all the same.

We are crowdfunding to raise the amount needed for a print run – £7000, small by many scales but not an amount a new, small charity has to spare. If we can raise this, Number Rumbler, with its obvious yet enjoyable maths, has the potential to reach families everywhere!

We are in full agreement with Athene Donald that childhood toys shape identity and futures. And when it comes to maths, gender is one dynamic amongst many at play. There is a big task ahead of those who want to give ownership and enjoyment of maths to a population that, largely, doesn’t even notice when they’re doing i