New approach to math gives kids 'hands-on' experience with numbers

August 08, 2019

By Allen M. Quinn

Education experts have noticed that a growing number of children are struggling with number fluency—the ability to reason with and to apply simple numerical concepts.

At Simon Fraser University, mathematics education professor Nathalie Sinclair and internationally renowned software designer Nicholas Jackiw, involved in the Tangible Mathematics Project, have developed a potential solution—mathematical learning software that gives children more interactive and intuitive ways to understand and approach mathematics.

TouchCounts (for children ages 3-8) and the latest app, TouchTimes (for children ages 6-11), are free apps that let children use their fingers, body and hand gestures in a literal “hands-on” approach to counting and performing arithmetic on a touchscreen. Unlike repetitive gaming formats that encourage learning through level-and reward-driven digital experiences, these apps focus on exploring mathematics through self-guided inquiry, problem-posing and problem-solving, but in a more physical way.

TouchCounts, first launched in 2014, teaches younger children aged 3-8 how to count, add and subtract. The app has been downloaded more than 250,000 times and has been translated into numerous languages. The latest version, TouchCounts 2.0, was released in July 2019.

TouchTimes, a new app released in July 2019, delves deeper into mathematics for children aged 6-11, using complementary approaches to multiplication to ensure success in upper elementary mathematics.

“We wanted to create mathematical experiences that use and develop young learners’ natural “embodied cognition” — the motor skills enable their understanding and promote their engagement,” says Sinclair. “This approach builds on decades of research showing how important body movement, especially gestures, are to mathematics learning.”

Sinclair says children’s struggles with math are largely due to an inappropriate school focus on memorization and computation, which diminish children’s interest in the subject and can often even cause anxiety that lasts throughout their schooling.

“Rather than focus on numeric computation and procedural repetition, our learning tools try to endow children’s mathematical ideas with the representational power of their fingers, and to personalize and make tangible their early experiences with number and operation,” says Sinclair. “Fingers are our best tools for learning numbers and we are simply extending their power with these apps.”

Sinclair hopes children using these apps will develop confidence and competence in handling arithmetic operations, and will find delight in exploring mathematical ideas that have previously been beyond their reach.

Learn more about the Tangible Mathematics Project and download the free TouchCounts and TouchTimes apps.