Monday, February 14, 2011

the penguin theory

So I wonder…What's your fear?

Do you have one? Is there one thing you can't bear?

Is it sharks? You're underwater, deep below. Above you the glistening lid of the sea. And here it comes. Big ol' teeth, flat eyes, rushing towards you. Are you afraid?

What about falling? You're by an open door. A grinning man shouts in your ear. The wind rushes and rushes and rushes in. You're supposed to jump and fall, from this incredible, spine-shrinking height. Your whole life hangs on the pull of a cord. Are you afraid?

Or is it flight? Or open spaces? Or small ones? Or heights. Or the deep, hollow dark. Or mice. Or spiders, the fast-as-a-flash, long-legged and hairy kind?

What are you afraid of?

And I wonder…How does your fear feel?

For me, fear feels like a shiver. My whole body goes cold. It feels impossible to catch a breath. If I let it, it cripples me.

For my girl, fear brings a weeping, wide eyed, squeaking, whole-body panic. 

Ah, what could she be so afraid of?

It's maths.

Some time around the end of last year, 

I realised my girl's fear of maths had grown.

Grown so much bigger than

the thing she was afraid of. 

It had become debilitating.

She wasn't avoiding maths because she wasn't interested

or because it was too hard.

She was avoiding maths 
(and ALL maths games and anything to do with maths)

because it

had become something huge in her mind.

Maths carried 

the kind of fear that would start her 

crying if you even raised the subject,

panicking if she tried it, and

left her overcome in the face of it.

The kind of fear that

—if you fed it and nurtured it and gave it space to grow—

could overtake you and 

sweep you out from under your feet.

The kind of fear that could, without mercy, take you down.

And because I know how this fear feels and
 how it can swallow you whole
if you let it,

I can't bear to watch that happen to my girl.

Not when

with love,

I can help her face what she is so afraid of.


this year,

ever so gently, 

with love and kindness and care

(and in no rush whatsoever),

my girl and I are doing maths




And, just newly and this last week:

Story maths.

Because a friend of mine gave me such a gift the other day.

She told me she was telling the story of threes to her girls…

fairies carrying jewels in groups of threes 

to a secret place in fairy land.

My friend tells her beautiful girls maths stories. 

This is how they learn and love to learn.

So I tried it. 

I asked my daughter how she might buy a kitten

if a kitten was 10 dollars and she only had 6. 

She said, I'd go home and get more money!

I said, Do you know how much you'd need?

She said, without hesitating, Four dollars.

We talked about having a party. What if we had 8 cupcakes but 11 friends were coming? How many more would we need for everyone to have a delicious cupcake?

Three, of course.

We talked about eating oranges and feeding guests and buying animals.

We talked about numbers like they were our friends.

We even talked about the colour of numbers 

and she said her 5 was always, always red

(my five is always green).

And just yesterday, 

we talked about adding 9s.

We were doing some Mathsbuddy addition, and at some point the question was

9 plus 5. 

Oh! she said. I don't know that! 
Her eyes widened. Her eyebrows and voice went 


Well, I said, Imagine a little animal slides on over from the 5 
to help the 9 become a 10
(and I gestured with my hand,
an animal sliding along and straightening up beside the 9 like a soldier).

Oh! she said. A penguin! A penguin slides over!

Yes! I said. 
A penguin slides over to help the 9 become a 10, 
(and I gestured again with my hand)

and then all you need to do is add the rest of the penguins....

It's 14!

Yes! Yes it is!

That's easy!

Yep, it is! Now,
what about 9 plus 6? A penguin slides on over 

(and I gestured with my hand again)

and makes the 9 a ten. What have we got all up?



We were so pleased.

Then we checked out our Penguin Theory with a whole bunch of numbers. It worked every time. 


Then I asked, Hey, do you want to draw it, our Theory? 

Sure! she said.

So my girl drew our Penguin Theory. 

And it looked great.

And when she did some more Mathsbuddy addition later, 

9 plus Something

showed up 

and she knew the answer,

just like that.

Her theory stayed in her head AND it made sense.


not for a 



was my beautiful girl afraid.


  1. My nine year old has the developed the same sort of fear over spelling. We are still trying to navigate through the darkness to a safe place to learn.

    Congrats on finding the joy in math!

  2. See - this is learning at its best! Not only does she know how to get the sums, she learned that sometimes you have to go off the beaten path to find your way. And that you can! Wonderful! It must feel so great to have discovered this little gem together. And I love the drawings. :)

  3. Marilyn Burns has many math stories in picture book format. I love her books. She also has lessons that make math fun although I find them hard to translate from a classroom setting to an individual one.

    I am going to borrow your penguin theory to help my girls. Lilah still gets stuck on the 9s.

    This is a great post about meeting your children's needs, wherever they are, whatever they are. Lovely.

  4. How beautiful, Helena. Such a lovely gentle way of helping your girl visualise mathematical problems - and overcome her fear! I just love it :) Might have to borrow the penguin theory at some point too - I can imagine my big owlet liking that immensely.

    PS. My fear is heights. My feet ache and my knees tingle when I'm up high and I imagine myself flying over the edge of wherever I might be. Any ideas for a theory? :)

  5. Well done beautiful girl! (and mama too!) Its amazing what can be achieved while facing ones fears. Yes I was always afraid of sharks, so now I always swim right out the back at the beach and trust they will leave me alone, Spiders - they crawl all over me now, no worries, snakes = I held a couple of harmless types and was bombarded in dream land (thanks spirit world) by a gazillion of them until I stopped being afraid. Talk about scare tactics. No worries now. I walk bare foot in the bush. Heights, I am still working on. Climbed the trees at tree tops twice now but still have not been in a plane. LOL Thinking about that one though. All these fears stemmed from my mother and her panicky ways. I have had to out-learn them myself as I realised only in the past few years why I was actually afraid.

  6. I just smiled at this post, I read the beginning feeling very sad. I had panic attacks for years and know the 'fear' so well. But I love, adore, am in awe, of the way you are conquering your girls fear. A beautiful solution for a beautiful Mother and her beautiful child.

    I love your Penguin theory and will share it with my girl. I also put Zeus on the Loose in my Amazon cart for when I start back working. Looks like something we would love.

    My wish is for soaring for your girl...for finding love in numbers, for kicking fears in the butt and never looking back. Hugs my friend.

  7. This is so beautiful. It's wonderful you have found a way for your daughter to embrace math. I love the Penguin Theory. Do you mind if I link this to my sidebar? I'm sure it will help others to overcome their fears of math.

  8. I don't knw why math is such a big deal to so many of us-- even those of us who have never learned in a school setting that's it something to be feared and something terrible!
    Trev wasn't exactly afraid of it, but wasn't comfortable, certainly.
    I ditched making it an issue, and found comfort in a few experts opinions and lists of games (that post is here), and so now we just play games and he's coming along really well, and without our sitting down to address things.
    This post by David Albert really helps me keep it in perspective, too! :)

    I'm like you - "...afraid of this? No way, Dude. Easy peasy. Nothing to be afraid of.... See?" :)

  9. I said "without our addressing things", but I didn't mean that - we are addressing it, we're just doing so in an organic fasion. :)

  10. Thank you so much for these comments! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and your fears too. Thank you for the feedback and the connections (and the links!) —I so appreciate it all :)

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