Mathematics anxiety is a widespread phenomenon that not a lot of people know about, but many experience. Funexpected wants to change that with their app that merges math with mobile gaming…
For the next generations, video games aren’t just entertainment—they’re also education. YPulse’s State of Gaming survey shows that 76% of 13-to-36-year-olds have learned something from video games, while 67% think it’s appropriate to use video games to teach K-12 students.
Research has found that playing video games, “even twitchy mainstream ones,” can help improve learning capabilities, and developers are getting creative to leverage those capabilities in the classroom. As just one example, Minecraft is being used in classrooms to enhance interest in history lessons, literature, and even math. According to TechCrunch, the global mobile learning market was valued at $10.93 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $179.21 billion by 2025.
Cue Funexpected, a startup that wanted to merge STEAM and mobile gaming into one app with the mission of helping kids (and parents) overcome math anxiety. The app features a variety of logic learning puzzles and includes 11 games where kids can tap, cut, slide, grab, and move objects to move the story forward, like feeding a monkey the correct amount of berries or catching the right type of fish and filling a pond with them. We spoke to Funexpected’s co-founder Natalia Pereldik to find out the inspiration behind Funexpected, the science behind math anxiety, the benefits of screen time learning, and more:
YPulse: How did Funexpected get started?
Natalia Pereldik: My co-founder [Alexandra Kazilo] and I are both moms and we have known each other for more than 20 years since we both went to the same mathematical school. We know that many consider math to be a very boring subject, but we view math as very diverse, flexible, and interesting. We wanted to share this attitude with our kids, so we wanted to support our idea with some apps because we like the format. When we started to browse apps, we saw a gap for beautiful applications with a wide curriculum. We started looking closely into this topic and found two points: Understanding math concepts are crucial for further abilities to learn and everyone is bound to use logical thinking, special skills, and numeracy, but on the other hand, many people struggle with math-related subjects with what is called “math anxiety.” It came as a complete surprise to us how many people are struggling with this. There’s research that shows people with math anxiety feel the same way about math as people who have a snake phobia dealing with snakes. After getting a sense of how widespread the issue of math anxiety is and how it affects people’s lives, we decided it would be great if we used our math backgrounds to create a product that can actually help people there, and that we should start with the kids.
YP: What demographic uses Funexpected?
NP: We have quite an international mix of parents. But if we are making a list of countries: the top three are China, United States, and Russia. Most of our parents are 25-to-44-year-olds and have children 3-to-7-years-old. Nearly half of them are dads. In fact, 55% of users are women and 45% are men.
YP: What is the science behind the game and how it improves how young users feel about math anxiety?
NP: The most powerful learning a child can experience is when math is taught visually. For example, training spatial skills enhances kids’ numerical abilities and patterning skills predict math knowledge. Math skills at an early age are closely correlated with learning in school. What we did is we took the most efficient educational strategies and math education research and combine these methods with working game mechanics so that our product feels and plays like a real game. We did not do this ourselves. What we tried to do is to collaborate with the researchers to get the source of the knowledge to the development. Coming back to math anxiety, I think the application can help in several layers. First of all, we are trying to present math concepts in a variety of ways so that every kid can find a format they can understand. Very often, it’s not the concept that is frightening, but the form of the task.
Kids can get their math anxiety from parents or teachers. If adults around the child are already “math anxious” then, inadvertently, the kid will have math anxiety. I think an app can help because parents don’t have to deal with the burden of having to talk about math especially if they’re anxious in the first place. What is more important is that the parent receives some support that their kid is doing good and is capable of understanding the different concepts. If a parent starts to believe in the kid, this is crucial. We do not want to work only with kids, but the whole family. Because in fact, at such an early age, parents’ beliefs are important and influence kids’ results.
YP: It’s been said that Gen Z is the most anxious generation – are kids today more susceptible to anxiety and math anxiety than previous generations?
NP: According to several different studies from the last several years, approximately 17% of the American population suffers from high levels of math anxiety, which is a lot. In a sample of adults in the U.K., approximately 30% of the study participants reported high math anxiety. The most extensive set of data was provided by PISA studies, in 2012, around 59% of the 15-to-16 year-old students reported they often worry math classes will be difficult for them and 33% reported that they get very tense when they have to complete math homework. For [young] kids, there was an investigation of U.K. school children, and it was found that in general, math was more difficult than other subjects that often contributed to math anxiety and led to a lack of confidence. If we think about it, this may be inadvertently parents enacting their kids with their math anxiety. Then if we know that the parents are more anxious than previous generations than I guess we know the kids are too, but I haven’t found the numbers for it that shows if it’s increasing. But still, the numbers are very big in adolescence and even if it’s not increasing, it should be solved.
YP: The next generation is using screens at a younger age than any before them. Do you find there are any fears that parents have about their kids using screens to learn?
NP: Parents definitely have fears about their kids using screens all the time and this is understandable. As a parent, I have the same fears too. But if you ask me about the ideal way to develop mathematical thinking my answer is that math should be learned with a parent who loves and understands the subject and embeds the subjects in everyday life in games and has enough time to do it. However, from our experience, this is a very rare case. Again, if adults are mathematically anxious or if they have so little time with their kids, especially if both parents are working. In this case, a phone or tablet can help. For us, we are introducing more formats in the app so parents can see what their kid is doing or what their interests are. There was a study using one of the applications that looked at families with math anxiety and the results showed that while the parents’ math anxiety didn’t change, the app improved their expectations of their kids’ math performances. So while I see and understand fears, I see many pluses too.
YP: Obviously Funexpected shows there is value to screen time – what are the benefits you’ve seen for kids as young as 3 spending time on screens?
NP: It’s really amazing to look at these young kids and how they interact with this app. Sometimes, it’s obvious that a lot of these concepts and ideas are totally new to a kid. So they’ll try to experiment, but if it’s too complex, they’ll drop it in the moment. But, periodically, they’ll try to tackle the same problem even if it takes a week or few weeks. Suddenly, in a month, something might click and they’re able to do it and gain a new level of understanding. I’ve seen this in my daughter, too. We saw the kids starting to become more comfortable with numbers and understand schemes. They are doing algorithms as young as three-years-old. So for them, this is like the foundation for the future of understanding more complex concepts, and while they might not be able to do it right then, their brains are already thinking about it in passing.
YP: What should brands know about Funexpected?
NP: When it comes to working with kids, it’s important to be transparent, especially when it comes to the privacy and data that you store or use. Parents should be able to understand what you collect, why you did it, how you use it, what you share or not, and whether they will be able delete it at any moment. Especially with privacy policies, this is an important and sensitive point now. Another point is what is going on in the games. Always remember that—we are making something for kids and we have to try to be careful.
Overall, technology has come into our lives and we should make the best of it especially the educational field–it is one that can benefit from technology. Digital formats can help a lot with the individualizing the approach to learners. Every student and kid can move at their own speed. Technology can help with skilling the best tutors and teachers, and make their education more affordable and available around the world. Digital projects can also push the research on math education forward. When you have a lot of data, you can better understand how to build the curriculum which parts of understanding are interconnected, are correlated, and how to cover the gaps in knowledge and things like that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.