How to improve mental math for 6-11 year-olds
Sending little ones off to first grade can be a harrowing experience for many parents. As students move on to 2nd then 3rd grade and so on, “What happened to my little baby?” seems to be a common refrain from parents. In this blog, we’ll explore exactly what’s happening inside the heads of six- to eleven-year-olds, and what a little mental math will do for cognitive development during this time.
With a greater sense of autonomy, comes greater abilities. Following their preschool years, children gain the ability to think more systematically about various topics, develop a sense of their inner selves and hone their problem-solving skills.
Changes you can expect in from ages 7-11
Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget describes four key stages of cognitive development. The second, termed “concrete operations” stage, covers ages 7 to 11. Here are his key takeaways:
- Less abstract, more tangible and definable thinking; more “how does it work?” questions and less awe at “magical” concepts that would wow a preschooler
- Ability to classify and sort items
- Recognition of cause-and-effect relationships that paves the way for skill in math and science
- Sense of conservation of physical properties; a ball of Play-Doh divided into 5 smaller balls still has the same amount
- Decentration – Understanding that others have different perspectives and feelings
- Improved memory thanks in part to more experiences to draw from
Building blocks: Math for elementary school students
During this time, the most marked changes happen in children’s brains. Information travels faster through their minds, and different parts of the brain work in coordination for the first time. Be prepared: This is when logic comes in. Make way for questions like, “I got my homework done in half the time, so I can play double the video games, right?”
Many of the changes that students ages 6-11 go through prepare them for mental math – and the benefits that come with it. The ability to think in concrete terms and identify new patterns between numbers, improved memory, and recognition of cause and effect all pave the way for success in math class and even education as a whole.
Mental math involves doing addition, subtraction, multiplication or division in your head by breaking down complex problems into simpler ones: 148 + 12 becomes 150+10, with +2 to get to 150 and -2 to get to 10 canceling out to arrive at 160. Or 148 + 12 becomes 48+12 = 60 + 100 = 160.
Mental math makes room for strategy and creativity. There’s one right answer, but many possible paths to it. Students weigh their options, find what’s most efficient and what makes the most sense to them. And if one way fails, they can always try a second. As they become more confident solving math problems, they also become better problem solvers in life.
How to improve mental math skills
Like most skills, the more you practice, the better you become. Here are some of our favorite ways to practice.
1. Make flashcards with common fractions
and their decimal and percent equivalents. For example, ½ = .5 = 50%. Print out a chart that goes up to 1/32, courtesy of Fact Monster.
2. Make math tangible with stories
One of our favorites is The Grapes of Math: Mind-Stretch Math Riddles, book that improves multiplication skills with riddles. Bonus: It helps with reading comprehension too.
3. Word problems that speak their language
If they like basketball, ask how many points Steph Curry scored if he had 23 in the first half and 14 in the second. Or ask what percentage of his points were three-pointers. The possibilities are endless.
4. Have “number talks”
Ideally in a group setting, map out all possible ways to solve a problem. By listing the ways students can break down a complicated problem in their heads, you’re giving them hope that if one attempt fails, all is not lost. This does wonders for their confidence as they learn to tackle challenges head-on. Plus, it helps them check their own work. If they get the same answer using two different strategies, odds are they’re right.
5. Encourage estimation
Most think math boils down to a correct answer or bust. But there’s value in getting close to the right answer; it gives students context and makes it less likely they’ll second-guess an answer. Take 12*11. If you know, 12*10 = 120, you’ll know anything below 120 is wrong.
6. Make math a game – literally!
Counting down the minutes until recess might be an elementary school student’s favorite math activity. But time flies when they’re having fun, right? Thanks to the advent of smartphones and tablets, parents have a secret weapon: Making learning a byproduct of fun. There are plenty of educational entertainment options out there.
Play online: Check out Really Good Stuff’s® list of 11 websites with free math games for kids.
Math games make learning accessible to differently abled students
Games put math problems in a new context that’s much more colorful than problems on a page. This can be especially useful for students with special needs or learning disabilities.
It’s true that most children enjoy games; this may ring even truer for students who are on the autism spectrum. Here’s why:
Chart by Learning Works for Kids
Putting math in a context students enjoy comes with great benefits. For instance, students on the autism spectrum often experience heightened panic when they make a mistake; but in games, mistakes are impossible to avoid. Players learn to correct course, not give up. The Asperger / Autism Network (AANE) notes: “Allowing individuals with autism to play video games helps them become more comfortable with the idea of not being perfect, which is a beneficial skill to carry over to the real world.”
But math’s not all. Educational entertainment also helps with:
- Social skills – Students learn to interact comfortably with players digitally instead of face-to-face. Sharing the same interest – the game that is – helps interaction flow smoothly.
- Motor skills – Games provide great hand-eye coordination practice for students who are likely to have greater difficulty with motor skills.
- Ability to adapt – The more challenges students overcome in the digital space, the more confidence they gain in the real world. Adjusting strategies to meet goals in the game helps students do the same in real life.
- Focus – Fast-paced games like The Mathstronaut train students to tune in fully to the game, helping them practice focus and critical thinking.
To learn more about how mental math skills set the tone for success in math and life, check out this blog. [Link to: future What is mental math & why it’s important]