A child’s journey into mathematics…past Barbie and straight on to Donald Duck

About a year ago, a Singapore school math question went viral (remember #cherylsbirthday?), shining the spotlight on Singapore’s famously successful math curriculum and its fiendishly difficult exam questions, a couple of months before we were due to move here.

The competitive and stressful local school environment was something I was pretty concerned about when deciding to relocate back to Singapore. I wondered what sort of maths ability would be expected in Primary One. Did everyone else know all their times tables already? Had they all been training on abacus since toddlerhood? Would Miss Chu need extra math tuition to cope? Would I need to attend classes to help her with homework? (Singaporean parents need tuition too to keep up, apparently!)

As it turns out, P1 maths has been surprisingly straightforward. To date, they have only covered a few topics like basic arithmetic from 0-20, shapes, pattern and ordinal numbers. Maths homework is light, and she rarely brings back more than 10 minutes worth of worksheet-based problems, most of which seem to involve colouring in. The “Singapore Math” method is known for slowly teaching a mastery of the basics, and it seems to hold true so far. (It gets pretty tough later on though!)

I’m thankful that the curriculum starts off slow and steady, as I worried that a fast-paced, drill-and-kill approach would’ve turned the poor kid off mathematics before she’d even had a chance to play around with it.

So I’ve been wondering…why is it that we aim to cultivate a “love of reading” but rarely a “love of maths”? Proficiency, yes. But love? Are you kidding me?

At this young age, most children still enjoy maths. It’s concrete, its visual, they can make patterns and it relates to their everyday lives. But at some point along the line, playing around with these:


slowly gets replaced by doing this:


And for many children it can be downhill from there.

What is it about the way maths is taught? Why is it universally the most disliked subject in school? Those who catch math-phobia rarely seem to recover, and being “rubbish at maths” is often worn as a badge of honour. Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, discovers that research pinpoints the onset of ‘maths anxiety’ around the age of eight. This is when schools tend to start testing speed and memory rather than conceptual understanding. Now, speed and memory are necessary aspects of mental math agility, but are not the defining feature of a good mathematician.

Worse still, it seems the gender bias in mathematics is as prevalent today as ever. Even though its been over two decades since Teen Talk Barbie was programmed to declare “math class is tough!”; the idea that somehow boys are better at math and science, (and girls are better at languages) persists, globally, right into the workplace, even though mountains of research conclude that the bias is overwhelmingly cultural.


In 1992, a talking Barbie was released which declared “math class is tough!”. The offending phrase was removed after much protest. Mattel seem to have done it again in 2010 with “Computer Science Barbie” whose accompanying book caused such a backlash there is a site dedicated to rewriting it.

It’s subtle, but these mindsets affect the expectations and encouragement of parents and teachers, and as a result, the gender gap in math widens as students progress from primary through to secondary and higher education, all the while absorbing the myth that girls just aren’t as good at maths (or science and IT, for that matter!)

With all this in mind, I’ve been wondering whether its possible to make the journey of math education a little more… captivating? I know how to impart a love of reading. But is trying to cultivate a love of math a waste of time?

Here are a few general ideas and strategies I’ve picked up so far.

1. Be aware of role models and exposure to gender stereotype

Parent and teacher beliefs about maths ability has been shown to significantly impact a child’s own attitude to maths. Whether it’s a casual joke about not managing to figure out how to split the bill, or slightly lower expectations in maths for a daughter than a son, children pick up on these cues.

2. Use games and manipulatives to develop early “number sense” – knowing the relationships between numbers and how to use them flexibly.

We tend to have lots of beads, seeds, blocks and marbles around the home just because we like making stuff, but we find these sorts of things are also really useful for talking about number and explaining mathematical concepts visually, and so are good to have to hand when you find the opportunity to talk about something. Legos are also great for this!


And of course games are ideal for encouraging an interest in number…especially when it comes to adding up the score. Here are some of Miss Chu’s favourites.


Sum Swamp (fun for basic addition/ subtraction), One Banana, Two Banana (Counting in 1s,2s,3s with a bit of probability thrown in), Yam Slam travel version (counting larger values and dice probability strategy), Ikea’s LATTJO Kahala game (strategic counting game), Rubiks Cube (to mess with your mind).



Forgot to add Qwirkle – a fun strategic pattern making game – the scoring system makes for good addition practice!

Jo Boaler has some interesting insights on number sense (and how to get it) at her website www.youcubed.org. There’s a useful page of math tasks for students at all levels and another for recommended apps and games.

3. Find books and videos that will broaden their “big picture” view of mathematics.

Maths has so many facets, arithmetic might be boring but they might be inspired by probability, geometry, or patterns in nature. Good narratives also bring a concept to life, and make it easy to remember. For example, One Grain of Rice beautifully illustrates exponential growth. Here are a few I’ve picked up, some after borrowing from the library first.


Infinity and Me, Johnny Ball’s Think of a Number (fascinating!), This is Not a Math Book, One Grain of Rice, and One is a Snail, Ten is a Crab

The kids also like this (really retro!) but sweet intro to the maths all around us…as discovered by Donald Duck.

4. Make and construct things

Maths is hard work when it seems irrelevant. Constructing things requires measurement and working out of quantity and size, and is a hands-on way to engage kids in everyday math. Building, baking, sewing, origami… all simple ways to talk about numbers in a concrete way.


I’ve recently dusted off the old sewing machine to make skirts for the girls…and we are realising how much maths is involved! What length of fabric does it take to get a good twirl?

I know, this talk is all very well but when the going gets tough at school, will I succumb and pile on the worksheets and past papers? I really don’t want to sacrifice potential long-term interest and learning at the altar of short-term hoop-jumping. I don’t doubt that the Singapore local school system will turn out reasonably numerate kids. But for me, it would be even better if they learn to really enjoy mathematical thinking, problem solving and appreciate the wonder of maths for its own sake. It will vastly open up the spectrum of things they are able to confidently pursue. And they won’t be passing on math anxiety to another generation. We’ll just have to see how it goes…



  1. Great post (as always), I’ve always loved Maths and try to pass on the enthusiasm to the kids but there is a real cultural anti maths feeling to fight against not to mention the gender bias issues! Loved the skirt and looked like a good skirt to twirl ratio!

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