Friday, 27 April 2012

Having a Maths day.

I looked at the jumbled heap of toys, clothes, food and a large blue sleeping bag on the living room floor and realised that this activity had actually worked. My two children had understood the concept of a Venn diagram, and found objects that fitted into two hula hoops labelled "things that are blue" and "things we could take on holiday", with the space where the hula hoops intersected overflowing with the blue sleeping bag.  We were having a "Maths day". Is this a bit geeky, or is cool? I like to think it's the latter, but then I do love Maths. It was the first in a series of "challenges" that I set them, with little prizes as they completed each one - chocolate coins, sparkly pencils and stickers.

My four year old loved the idea of taking 5 big steps and 10 jumps then climbing up 12 steps to find the treasure, while the 7 year old found circles and cylinders in the kitchen. They both made me cuboids out of lego, after first sharing the pile of lego pieces equally between the three of them. (Yes, I know I've only got 2 children - we were playing with Flower, the 4 year old's imaginary friend that day).

Here's another idea - if you want 5 minutes peace (exactly 5 minutes that is), set a stopwatch for 5 minutes and sit your kids next to a window overlooking a road. Get them to fill in a tally chart that records the colours of the different cars that drive past. If they're up for it they can then make this into a bar chart. They might need your help for this bit, depending on their ages - this is why it's only 5 minutes of peace. Mine actually co-operated on this one, and worked together to spot and record the numbers of cars driving past. I have no idea how accurate their recording was, but did that really matter? Probably not.

You can adapt these to older kids too. Draw Venn diagrams on a piece of paper and write in the objects, or names, if hula hoops and toys are too babyish. Make it more difficult by adding another circle and labelling them with things that interest them: Names of x-factor, big brother and BGT contestants, or whatever they're into. They could do a survey among friends and family of favourite types of TV programmes, or music, or hair colour, or time spent on the internet every day! Then ask them to present the results in an appropriate type of chart. Play "I spy a shape" with more points for more unusual shapes. E.g. 1 point for a circle or square, 3 points for an oval, 5 points for a hexagon or pentagon.

I think Maths is fun and my kids love these kind of challenges. My only problem is the time it takes to tidy up after a Maths day - now where did they get that blue sleeping bag from?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Is it impoortent too bee abel to spel?

Well, if you understood the title of this blog, you could argue that it probably isn't that important. If the main purpose of language is communication, and I have communicated my ideas effectively, then what does it matter if the spelling is wrong? Well, I think it does matter. Employers, examiners and teachers all rate spelling highly; you are taken more seriously in formal situations if you can demonstrate that you are able to spell; if children (or adults) are worried about spelling, it limits the choice of words they will use when writing. In the days of automatic spell checks on computers, we can argue that the computer will do the work for us. But there are still times when we need to handwrite something, and correct spelling creates a good impression. Indeed, a computer spell check is not infallible. Despite the fact that my computer helpfully highlighted impoortent, abel and spel for me, it didn't pick up too and bee, because they are real words, but I have spelt them incorrectly in this context.

Many children struggle with spelling. I know from experience that the weekly list of spellings from school to cover, write and check can be a real battle to complete. It's not the most exciting activity and children don't always see the relevance of learning spellings. So how can we help them? There's no easy answer to this one because what works for one child may not work for another. Indeed, some children may love the write, cover, check method and achieve top marks every week. For others, games can be a huge help. Hangman, scrabble and anagrams may all grab the interest of some. Shannon's game is similar to hangman, but you give the person guessing the first letter of the word and they have to guess the correct letters in sequence. For example, if the word that they are learning to spell is question, you give them a piece of paper with 'q' and 7 dashes as in hangman. They must try and guess 'u' - if they don't guess it after 10 tries, write in 'u' and they have to try and guess 'e' and so on. When learning how to spell long words, you could write them on pieces of card and cut them up. Ask you child to put the words back together like a jigsaw puzzle. There's also plenty of online spelling games out there, and many interactive children's toys that teach spelling.

Do you remember learning spelling rules and rhymes at school? Try teaching you child some of these to see if they help spellings stick in their mind. "I before E except after C" is one we probably all know. It has plenty of exceptions though, and it's useful to add "Or when it sounds like A" (as in "neighbour" and "weigh"); "Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants" (Because); "Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving" (Rhythm); It is neCeSSary to wear one Collar and two Socks; and my personal favourite: "Dash In A Real Rush. Hurry Or Else Accident!" (Diarrhoea)

Finally, don't underestimate the value of reading when learning how to spell. How many times when wondering how to spell a word have you tried it out on a piece of paper, and chosen the one that "looks right"? If a child has seen a word before, in different contexts, they are more likely to be able to spell it correctly. And that can be reading anything; fiction books, factual books, comics and magazines, even cereal packets. Encourage them to look at words around them and make reading and sharing books fun.

The more that children encounter the written word and spend time playing around with words and letters, the more chance they have of remembering both specific spellings, and general spelling rules. It's not the end of the world when we spell something wrong, or when we have to rely on our computer to spell check our work for us, but helping your child to develop good spelling skills now will meen that they will always be able to maik a good impresion in their writing, even wen the compewter spel check lets them down.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The imaginative child

I didn't admit this in my first post, but as well as being a parent (of 2 children aged 4 and 7), I am also a teacher. I wear a number of different hats throughout the week. One of my favourite times is my voluntary work with the local toddler group, where I am "The Messy Lady". Glue, paints and glitter are in abundance during the session (and for the rest of the day!). Working with the little ones is exhausting but gives me the chance to hear parents' concerns, worries, hopes and joys about life with a preschooler, and to watch the kids playing make-believe games.

I also run the Parents' Learning Project in primary schools, which aims to help parents better understand what their child is doing in school, and so help them at home. It was at one of these sessions that we started a discussion on imagination. One of the parents commented that some primary school age children seem to be naturally more imaginative; more able to make up a story on the spot or engage in an imaginary game. It got me thinking; is it actually the case that some of us are innately more imaginative? Does a lack of imagination hold children back? And can we do anything to encourage and develop our children's imaginations?

We are big fans of Charlie and Lola in our house. For those of you who haven't encountered this duo, Lola is a highly creative and imaginative 4/5 year old who, with her older and somewhat more sensible but highly supportive brother Charlie, lives in a world full of weird and wonderful creatures, strange lands and imaginary friends: Soren Lorenson gives Lola a confidence and a way of dealing with and working through problems that most of us as adults could do with from time to time! They seem to have very few toys; one of my favourite adventures is when they are in the dentist's waiting room and make friends with the smiley boy and girl on the poster who only eat apples and brush their teeth until they sparkle. Unlike normal children Charlie and Lola are surprisingly self-sufficient when it comes to playing games. I cannot imagine them complaining that they are bored or have nothing to do. Even when Charlie is busy playing with his best friend Marv, looking for a terrifyingly tricky monster, Lola simply has a tea party under the table, eventually managing to inveigle her way into their game and catch the monster with the help of Soren Lorenson, a bunny, and some pink milk.

Most of us don't have children like Charlie and Lola. Most of us need to acquire some toys and games and provide some stimulation at least some of the time. But perhaps these things should be a starting point for imagination. Even television can encourage imagination. Try asking your child about an episode of their favourite programme - what did they enjoy about it? What were the characters like? Can we dress up as a favourite character? What would happen if...? Don't underestimate the importance of these 5 minute conversations; encouraging children to think creatively helps them with their problem solving; role play can help them to prepare for new situations; telling and making up stories together increases their vocabulary, and allows them to test out new words.

The national curriculum in the UK expects that children in primary schools will be able to participate in drama activities, to use language to explore situations and emotions and to be able to create imaginary worlds in their spoken and written English.(1) Parents can give their children a great head start at home by encouraging role play, dressing up, let's pretend games: We're in a boat made out of this old box and we're sailing to a desert island where we'll discover... Most importantly, let your kids take the lead. Start them off, and help when they get stuck, but let the story be theirs.

The toddlers that I get sticky with have bags of imagination. For them, the boundaries between what is real and what is imaginary is still blurred. It's a shame that by the time they get to school some of these kids will be starting to forget how to make up a story. Let's rediscover this as adults and get into that cardboard box boat with our children.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Right angles and left angles

New blog, new ideas? Maybe not, but hopefully some new things to think about when it comes to our kids' learning. We all want the best for our children - we want them to achieve more than we did and go further than we have. We want them to be happy first of all, but we also want them to do well in school and achieve academic success of some kind. We want them to achieve their own potential, but for many of us, we're not sure how to go about helping them. There exists a danger in society that we become complacent and too often we blame the schools and the individual teachers when our child is seen to be "failing" at something. But the truth is that as parents we are the primary teachers of our children and it is our job to do our best to understand what they are doing in school and to help them with their learning.

Which brings me to the discussion I was having with my 7 year old today about shapes. After discussing squares and rectangles I introduced the idea of right angles. I'm not entirely convinced, as she told me, that they have never learnt about right angles in school, but I accepted that this may be the case and decided to tackle it myself, it being one of the less complex concepts I have to deal with when it comes to her learning. (Often I too am guilty of saying "We'll leave that to your teachers" when it comes to teaching new ideas and embarking on fresh topics; surely, I think, this is best dealt with in the confines of the classroom, where all the children are learning together, and I trust that the education system has it right on the time to introduce new ideas to my children. I know deep down that this is not the case; I know my children and their capability for learning better than anyone but like all of us at times I take the easy option and brush aside difficult questions. But I digress). The right angles seemed to be sinking in. She pointed to the corner of the room and we looked at the corners of the kitchen table and even discussed right angled triangles. But then, when asked how many right angles the square on the picture in front of her had, she changed her initial, correct answer of 4, to 2. I started to point out that no, it did actually have 4 when she looked at me with that grin of hers, and said, "No, Mammy, it has 2 right angles on this side, and 2 left angles on that side. Look!"

As parents we are all teachers. More than that, we are all brilliant teachers, and our kids listen to us, and watch us, even when they are doing their best to ignore us. Doing maths at home with children often terrifies parents, especially when the parents struggled themselves with maths at school. (DON'T ADMIT TO THIS. Never tell your child that you can't do maths. It gives them permission to be useless at maths too, and to stop trying when they meet an obstacle.) Have a go this week; count the wheels on bikes and cars with your 2 year old; ask your 5 year old to share out a bag of sweets with a sibling (good luck!), talk about right angles with your 7 year old, get your 10 year old to work out the best money-off deal in the supermarket, persuade your 15 year old to explain to you what the statistics in that newspaper article really mean.

My 7 year old knew full well that there was no such thing as left angles, but having a laugh is a vital part of learning, and she was thrilled when I got the joke. If we can make maths fun every day, surely we're onto a winner.