Using art and creativity to teach maths

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This is the first of a two-part series on making maths fun through art. Look out for part two tomorrow!

For those of us raised on flash cards, multiplication tables, and endless piles of worksheets and exercises, this might be a strange idea. However, experts are now saying that the old approach to teaching maths is not only unhelpful, but damaging

Stanford University professor Jo Boaler says that being good at maths comes from having a good “number sense”, which comes from having a fluidity and flexibility with numbers. This means knowing what numbers mean and how they relate to one another and the real world.

One way to encourage a strong “number sense” in your child is to tackle richer and more creative mathematical problems, instead of focusing on drills, she argues. Too much emphasis on rote memorisation will hurt your child’s ability to think creatively about numbers, and to find ways to break the problem down into its parts, and synthesise the answer.

Here is where art can really help. Art projects can help create rich and social mathematical experiences that are complex enough to be expanded in many different directions, yet easy enough to be immediately engaging.

As a parent, your role is to be the instigator. You have probably already taken the first steps to encouraging art and creativity at home, by providing art materials and encouraging free play. The next step is to inspire your child to think a little more deeply about their art in a mathematical way.

“Provide maths connections with whatever kids are doing. This is hard to do—it requires both pedagogical and maths concept knowledge, but it can be learned,” says maths educator and curriculum designer Maria Droujkova in The Atlantic. “And everyone can easily give general support: ‘How very interesting, I will investigate more.’ You can then look online, or ask on a maths circle forum, to find out what it means mathematically.”

Sometimes, it helps to have a little more structure in your approach. Depending on the age of your child, you can help them tackle a specific art project that encourages curiosity about a certain topic.

Keep an open mind, and think about what your child prefers to do. Does he like painting? The Google Art Project is a fantastic resource to explore artworks by Klee, Mondrian, Picasso, Escher and others. Or if she prefers to make things by hand, think about making mobiles to explore relative sizes, or using Lego to explore fractions and symmetry – watch this video for inspiration!

No matter what you choose to do, try to forget about achieving a certain goal, such as mastery of a topic. Focus instead on exploring the topic, asking open-ended questions and – above all – having fun!

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