Toys and Games- How Children Learn

phonemic awareness girlLearning disabilities, as most of us know have an effect on a child’s brain in the way they receive, process, store, respond to and communicate information, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.(This means children with learning disabilities can have a hard time in areas such as coordination, motor skills, memory, information processing, speech and language development, reading and writing and math skills. While some learning disabilities may not be identified until middle grades, young children often exhibit early warning signs. If learning disabilities are addressed in the early stages, lifelong disabilities can become much more manageable. It is well documented that children learn best through play, and because of the holiday season, toys have been in my mind lately. I believe educational toys can provide opportunities for children to develop the tools they need to become successful learners despite their disabilities.

Every child is unique and it would be unfair to group a child into a category based on their specific L.D. Alone, however certain L.D categories share characteristics that can be worked on use of educational toys and play.

Dyslexia and Dysgraphia for instance affect reading, writing, spelling and composition. Items like Foam letters that a child can stick to the wall while taking a bath or magnetic ones for the fridge are perfect for early learners. Children ages 3 to 5 will learn letter recognition, spelling. also letter tracing stencils help children learn fine motor skills associated with letters and writing as well and can also be a great learning tool. Older children may benefit from family games such as ne of my childhood favorites: Scrabble Jr. Or a simple game of hangman to promote memory and letter sounds to try and figure out the missing letters. Obviously the game of toy you choose must reflect the child’s capabilities, it is essential they are optimally challenged but do not become too frustrated. this is after all supposed to be an enjoyable experience, one that will hold their attention and be rewarding in itself for it to be successful. It is important that a patient adult guides the child throughout these games and offers support and reassurance to minimize frustration.

Dyscalculia on the other hand affects grasping mathematical concepts like computation, time and money. Plastic or real money is a great tool to use for games like ” playing store” where the child wishes to buy or sell an item and the adult requires the exact change. (a fun way to make this interesting is to use real coins and allow the child to keep the profits if he or she is correct) using different denominations is also a great variation. Simple dice games (including many common board games) can be used to teach basic addition and introduce learners to odds, probability, logic and critical thinking.

People with Dyspraxia have difficulty with fine-motor skills, including coordination and manual dexterity. Toys that require assemblage can provide great learning tools with the reward of a finished toy at the end. Those toys with screws, can be put together with a manual screwdriver, learners will use their fine-motor skill to piece together these movable puzzles. To increase use of manual dexterity, let children use their fingers to turn the screws instead of the drill or screwdriver. Adult discretion is obviously implied in these activities, safety and reasonable level of challenge should be the first thing considered when choosing the appropriate activity.
I also want to add that encouragement and praise for good effort weather or not the child is fully ‘successful’ is important. The whole idea is that toys and games can make learning and practicing skills that need extra effort become fun and enjoyable for them that they motivate the learner to do them on their free time as a fun thing to do. Either way the learner is being exposed to the process and some degree of improvement is always a good possibility.

Does anyone have a favorite Game or Toy that has helped them or someone they know develop a skill?
How much does the level of enjoyment an activity provides, affect how long you stick with it?


When the Math Doesn’t Add Up: Math Anxiety and Learning Disabilities

Parents: Does your child struggle with math?  Completely shut down and become paralyzed when working on math homework?  Do they tell you that their mind goes blank and that they cannot remember anything? Teachers: Do you have a student that avoids math class and tends to flee by repeatedly asking to get a drink of water, or to go to the bathroom during that time?  ImageDoes your student exhibit helplessness and disorganization while math problem solving?  All of these behaviours are typical of math anxiety. Mark H. Ashcraft, Ph.D. defines math anxiety as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance”.  Some students that suffer from math anxiety may also have Dyscalculia.  Dyscalculia is defined by as: “a term used to describe a specific learning disability in mathematics. Individuals with dyscalculia have significant problems with numbers: learning about them and understanding how they work”.

Some common signs of Dyscalculia include:

  1. Understanding the one-to-one correspondence between number symbols and objects (4 cookies, 4 cars)
  2. Counting and calculating rapidly
  3. Learning/memorizing basic math facts (addition, subtraction)
  4. Learning counting strategies (such as by 2, by 10, by 100, etc.)
  5. Learning multiplication tables, formulas, and rules
  6. Making comparisons such as more than/less than
  7. Telling time
  8. Understanding spatial directions (such as left and right)
A more comprehensive list can be found on the website: Click here

Individuals that have math anxiety may not necessarily have Dyscalculia, however, individuals with Dyscalculia usually tend to have some form of math anxiety.  Two researchers Michael Eysenck and Manuel Calvo found that “the intrusive thoughts and worry characteristics of high anxiety are thought to compete with ongoing cognitive tasks for the limited processing resources for working memory.

ImageWhat this means is that students with math anxiety have negative thoughts and anxieties competing with working memory that is needed for solving mathematical problems.   If a student already suffers from poor working memory (which many students with learning disabilities do) being successful in math poses a challenge.  Interestingly, this study showed that students with severe learning disabilities suffered from poor working memory and that poor working memory contributed to a slow acquisition of mathematical skills even when the student had high intelligence.

 What can help my child/student with math anxiety?

ImageOne of the most beneficial things a parent or a teacher can do for a student with math anxiety is to reassure them they have do the ability to do math.  I have heard students say that they don’t have a math brain or that they are terrible at math!  This bias towards math ability contributes directly to math anxiety.  There is a wonderful book written by John Mighton called “The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child”.  In his book, John explains that all of us have a natural ability to do math.  Somewhere along the way in school, that ability gets distorted into an inability that can lead to math anxiety.  The philosophy behind The Myth of Ability is that when mathematical tasks are broken down and concepts described clearly, all students regardless of skill can understand them.  John is also the founder of JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) program that we are currently using in our ABC123 Tutoring Program with great success.


Initially, JUMP was started as a tutoring program but has since then been implemented as a main teaching tool in hundreds of Canadian schools.  This program has helped many students to overcome their fear of math and thus improve their math ability.   I have seen improvements in my student’s math ability and more importantly improvements in their confidence and their perceptions of their own math ability.   Concepts are easily broken down in ways that students understand them.  With this understanding comes the confidence many students lack.  The books are easy to follow and align with Ontario’s math curriculum.  I have been using the program with my own son for the last two years with great success.   Using the teacher guides has enhanced my teaching of math as well.

The struggle that some students face in mathematics may be attributed to a combination of issues or one specific underlying concern.  What is important to understand is that math anxiety can have a negative affect on learning mathematics.  Helping students overcome their fears and anxiety is the first step to helping them be successful.  Celebrate the successes, no matter how small.  Each positive step will build confidence in your student and help them face math with a more positive outlook.  Breaking down math problems into easy to understand steps and using concrete tools such as manipulatives and pictures can help a student have a better understanding of mathematical concepts.  We are all capable of achieving success in math and as parents and educators we can help build that confidence in our kids!