The Numbers Magician: Teaching Children Math Skills, Part 1

This is a re-post of my article from Parent-Edge Magazine: Sep 28, 2015

Math is one subject we cannot distance ourselves from – whether we make a career out of it or not, Math is an essential part of life. Math is more than just mastery over basic number functions. It is not all about + – x and divide. It is about understanding how numbers ‘fit’ into our day to day lives and the environment around us.

Does an early schooler notice car number plates and their function? Does she recognise the changes that an added family member brings into the home? Does she notice the change in weight before and after eating? Or how one apple relates to a bean, or a pencil in terms of volume and weight? I wasn’t fortunate enough to get that understanding of math until the time I learnt a new approach to Math.

This article is inspired by the teaching at my daughter’s school – Great Hearts Archway. I thank them for introducing these concepts to me. They follow Singapore Math as their module for teaching Mathematics.

In Singapore math, they focus on laying a strong foundation of Math concepts. The chart you see below is called a ‘Ten’s Frame’. In a Ten’s frame, there are 2 rows of 5 blocks and rows are filled with varying number of black dots. One block has one big black dot. Children are taught to understand how many dots are there without counting on their fingers.

E.g. in Fig. 1 kids are taught to see that all 5 blocks on top are filled; which makes 5 + one block at the bottom which makes 1. Hence, 6 blocks out of 10 are filled and 4 are empty. They are also taught to approach this problem in multiple ways. One could see it as 6 filled out of ten or 4 less than 10 or as times 5, where each row is seen as a multiple of 5.

Figure 1

In Fig. 2, there are 3 dots filled out of 5 at the top. Remember that always, the blocks on the top are filled FIRST before filling blocks in the bottom. However, kids are challenged to think in different ways to fill 3 in blocks of ten. So the teacher will typically discuss how the same 3 dots could be placed in any of 10 blocks below.

Figure 2

In Figure 3, one is filled and 9 are empty.

Figure 3

In Fig. 4, I have shown a 20s frame. After the ten’s frame concepts are founded, one can move on to the 20s frame. I have noticed how quickly kids are able to pick this concept. I observed 4 kids and it took them less than 5 secs to say 16! They did not have to wait to count on their fingers. Here they are quick to see 5 + 5 + 5 + 1

Fig. 4


The Ten’s Frame War game is a game my daughter’s teacher plays in school. It is an excellent way to repeat and integrate that concept while also challenging them to be quick to evaluate without counting on one’s fingers.

Split kids in pairs. Make an equal number of ten’s frame cards and give each child a pile. Have them open the top card and call out their number quickly without counting. The one who has the bigger number gets both the cards. You can decide who wins – the one with the most or the one with the least number of cards.


For pre-schoolers, there is a different way to introduce this math concept.

Make cardboard or hard paper squares approximately palm sized, each with different number of dots, beginning from 1 to 50. Start out with holding card dots of 1 to 10 in your hand in front of your child at his or her eye level. Face the child and show him one card at a time, quickly moving on to the next one. With each dot, say the number aloud.

E.g. – This dot below is number 1. Hence, just say ‘1’ while showing it and so on.

Fig 5

After 15 days of repetition, increase the number from 10 to 15 or up to 20 based on the child’s attention. Repeating this activity with infants starting 4 months, can strengthen math concepts early and set the stage for greater math understanding.

Remember that for children of any age, do not do math and reading activities when they are tired, hungry, sleepy or frustrated. It beats the purpose and is energy wasted because the brain is too busy to fix on something else and cannot attend to the learning.

Another way to teach Math is through ‘Hands-On Learning’.  When teaching 2 + 2, have concrete objects to show them. 2 spoons + 2 spoons makes a lot more sense to any brain than just the numbers 2 + 2.

You can further have 4 toys on one part of the sofa or on a chair on inside a hoola hoop. Then show the kid what it looks like when 1 is removed and then another 1. Then put the 2 removed toys on another part of the sofa, chair or into another hoola hoop. Now the child knows concretely what 4 looks like and how it can be divided into 2 groups of 2.

cups 1 group

cups 2 groups

You can also teach measuring skills from 2 years onwards. One can use one’s palm stretch from the thumb to the pinky finger to measure a table or a pencil. One can use a pencil to measure the length of the scale, the hand, the chair. Then one can weigh objects on both palms or on a weighing scale. How many erasers does it take to measure up to an apple? Do all apples measure the same? And so on. Measuring tapes and scales for real measuring are fun too. Kids love it! Measure their dresses, their favorite toys and even measure them while standing, sitting or sleeping.


We shall continue our math concepts in the following month’s article…


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