Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Playdough maths

We were just sitting at the dining table, after dinner, playing with the playdough(*), while Chris took the dog out for his evening walk. One of my favourite things to do with playdough is roll it into balls (adventurous, I know). I find it quite a soothing activity and love getting the balls as round and smooth as possible.

I was doing this, almost without thinking, while glancing at my Google Reader to catch up on a few blogs (as you do) and passing the finished balls to Rosemary.

At some point I noticed that she was counting the balls, each time I gave her a new one. And counting them properly, which is something she’s only recently got quite good at – she used to be very impatient and either skip items or count one item three or four times. The next ball I finished, I held it up and asked ‘If we put this one down, how many do you think there will be? If there are four balls now. What comes after four?’ ‘Five!’ ‘That’s right. Shall we count them and see if we’re right?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘One, two, three, four, five. Yes! We’re right!’ ‘Yay! Four and one make five. Is there any more playdough?’ ‘Here you go.’ and so on and so on, until we got to ten. Then she started putting them into the jar while counting them and then taking them out and handing them to me and counting them.

At some point during this, it suddenly occurred to me that we were doing maths. You know, simple addition. Wow – how exciting is that? I’ve been waiting all my life for a child who will enjoy doing maths with me. And it’s starting already. I do hope we can keep up her interest, so that she lets me join in with her algebra with her, too, when the time comes.

What spontaneous learning activities have you come up with recently? Is there something you’re really looking forward to doing with your children when they’re ready?


(*) Technically, it’s called Soft Stuff, as it’s the dough from the Early Learning Centre. You can read my review of the Bumper Activity Jar over at The Great Toy Guide, if you like.


  1. We count putting her vest on: one (head), two(arm), three (arm).

    I was surprised when my 'one' was followed by 'twoooo'

    No where near maths, but I guess this is kind of how you started?

    ps. Does it have the yummy play dough smell?

  2. Oh I love this type of 'play' with the kids and always end up doing it without realising it too. Just this morning we had an accidental french lesson on the way to camp - it was just silly and fun, but still...it was french!! I also love to play at 'maths' with my oldest, even tho it was one of my worst subjects. I too am very partial to algebra though. Sometimes I worry that I wont; be able to keep up, when the schooling starts to get really seriously, but mostly I just can't wait to refresh my knowledge and have some fun with it all.

  3. If I suggest to my son that we look at some numbers or letters he runs off. But if we end up looking at them through playing together it really works. He learnt his numbers from Thomas the Tank Engine trains and letters from eating Organix alphabet biscuits. It always has to be on his terms though which is fine with me, he's only little and has years of school ahead of him yet (don't want to put him off!).

  4. He i do that too - but then i go one step further and make little animal figures, that's how exciting my life is! If only i could get excited about maths like you - unlike you i fear the day my kids come to me with their algebra equations hoping for me to help them- thats NEEEEVER gonna happen, i'm useless. Thankfully their daddy is good at Maths, i knew there must have been a reason why i married him.

  5. Ooh I love it when the play dough balls are as round and smooth as possible! It's my slight OCD I think! Not sure being good at maths runs in our family (I still have nightmares that I'm sitting maths A-Level and I can't even answer 1 question). It's horrible. I tried simple stuff in the car with Renée and her friend the other day and her friend was getting them all right and Renée was getting them all wrong. Poor love. I think it upset her a bit because she's normally good at things. I always try and throw in French with them (cos hubby is French, not just cos I'm being fancy)!! They don't mind that. And we're always doing little spelling things, so I think they may be more into words than numbers...

  6. My DS is 6 and over the last year every morning as we drove to school we counted the llamas at the llama farm we drive past. I decided (for the sake of convenience) that there are probably 20 of them. He counts the ones he can see and then tells me how many are hiding. If his sister counts a different number, we don't argue, we just assume that they were not looking in exactly the same places, and he counts how many are counting if she is right. Her job (age 9) is to tell me what percentage of the llamas are visible and what percentage hiding.

    It amazed me that over many months they continued to think this was fun!

  7. Oops - he counts how many are HIDING if his sister is right!

  8. How cool to see her mind working like that! My daughter is fascinated with figuring out how old her brother will be when she is a certain age (When "lm 7 he will be...?" which is awesome because she is getting the concept of subtraction. I think that is a key to teaching maths, keeping it relevant. I loved the subject but started to struggle at A level.

  9. Zoe: Yes, it has that smell - I love that smell! The homemade dough doesn't have it. I quite often find myself sniffing the dough, it's so nice. (Gosh that makes me sound weird!) Yes, we've always counted things with her, since she was pretty much a teeny baby - clothes, stairs, whatever's to hand really. But I think it's just now that she's really understanding it.

    Nicola: An accidental French lesson sounds fun! Chris is great at bringing science into play - I was never much of a scientist though, so not so good there. I yearn for homework to help with! Can't wait.

    Whistlejacket: I think that kind of learning is wonderful, even though I would love to sit down and do pages and pages of sums (maybe I should just dig out my old maths books and do some on mmy own!). I especially like it when you don't realise you're doing it. So much nicer than sitting them down to go through workbooks or in front of flashcards!

    Wife of bold: Animal figures? I aspire to animal figures. I managed a paddling pool and a very oddly-shaped and oversized man to sit in it once and a duck pond duck. Oh, fruit bowls with apples and bananas are easy, too. We have a good balance for homework here too - me = maths, computing and languages; Chris = science, literature, history... well, pretty much everything else.

    Emily: Smooth balls, eh? I didn't do maths A level - were only allowed to do three subjects at our school and so I had to drop two that I wanted to do - dropped maths and history. Though, watching my peers struggle through their maths A levels and all (yes, all) fail, I'm quite relieved I made that choice! Poor Renee, it can be horrible when someone else does something better than you at that age (hell, at any age). I'd forgotten spelling - I used to love spelling tests and made my mum give me them every day.

    Almost American: Oh, I love your llama counting - and you're differentiating too; I remember how difficult differentiating was, during my very brief stint of semi-teaching. It's amazing how fun that kind of thing can be, really.

    Geekymummy: Rosemary is hit and miss with subtraction. I remember the first time I saw her doing it - she had some toy sheep in a box and taking one out at a time, then counting how many were left. On her own. I immediately called my mum to ask if she'd been teaching her, but no. Wow! Natural subtraction. But that was ages ago and these days she can get it right one moment and just make wild guesses the next. I think you're right about keeping it relevant, at this age, certainly. For myself, I always preferred algebra and more abstract maths to the stuff about how many miles per gallon and how many people would it take to build a fence and so on. As soon as I turned it into x y z and a b c I was happy!

  10. My kids are counting with Play Dough now. Does Play Dough sell a counting setup of some kind? If they don't they should.

  11. The Mommy Daddy: Probably. They seem to do an awful lot.

  12. 'and love getting the balls as round and smooth as possible.'

    Sorry, you lost me to the silly at this point.

  13. Autonomous learning is great, I love it!

  14. SPD: Go wash your head out with soap and water!

    Clareybabble: Such fun, yes! Makes me want to be a child again, really, because I think you lose the ability to do it fully as you get older.

  15. My 12 year old came home with homework all about dreaming/planning a future career. I was rather going along the route of "what makes you happy? what can you see would be a really satisfying thing to do day after day?" The homework sheet was much more practical: it gave websites to look up average salaries, it asked for lists of pros and cons, it looked at training requirements, career prospects and the length of time it took to get up the career ladder.

    My heart initially sank, but then I saw that it was a good exercise, and I enjoyed going through it with him. Seemed very grown-up! And 12 isn't ALL that far off from your daughter's age, and counting playdough balls.