There was a moment for all of us in school when we learned to love – or loathe – math. It could have been a test you aced, or a concept that just never clicked.

For me, it was my Grade 7 math teacher who made algebra seem like torture. That year changed the trajectory of what I would study in school. I found myself avoiding math classes beyond high school and university requirements and even chose not to pursue computer science because of the math requirements.

It was the exact opposite of what parents want for their children today. Now we’re surrounded by STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and yes – mathematics) programs that answer the “learn to code” rallying cry from schools and businesses. The goal of many of these is to help children of all ages and genders develop a love for science and math, regardless of skill level.

Planting that love of STEAM early is the goal of Alyssa Jamal and her Kitchener-based startup with a decidedly low-tech approach, Little Sheep Shop. Jamal is a University of Waterloo graduate with a lifelong passion for education and she wanted to find a way to make math part of growing up for her young family.

“I have three boys that I had back-to-back and I wanted to keep up with computer science and math because when they go to school, I want to go back to work,” said Jamal. 

Jamal had previously worked as a tutor, so teaching her children at home came naturally. During her time as a tutor, she came up with different methods to help her students understand core math concepts.

“I really wanted to have them understand it and not just memorize math concepts. I think that when they can really understand it, then they do a better job and they don’t feel so scared in the future.”

Over the last year, Jamal began reaching out to her network to see how people felt about math compared to other school subjects. The answers were overwhelmingly similar – everyone seemed to hate math. The research led Jamal to the idea of creating children’s toys that could introduce them to math in a fun way.

“I wanted to find a way to make it seem like this hard, scary thing doesn’t have to be this way,” she said.

Understanding math and science concepts through play have helped Jamal’s children make connections in the real world. “For example, we made this track with a ball the other day with the kids outside. My oldest said, ‘Hey, the momentum is helping the ball go down the tube.’ So that’s not something that’s scary to him. When he learns it in school, it won’t be so intimidating.”

Developing a love for math can help children discover coding. To help with that, Jamal created a coding board that teaches beginner programming with wooden instruction tiles and a peg person that children can use to simulate running a program. “It’s a toy, so it makes it more fun and not like this big, grown-up scary thing,” added Jamal.

Little Sheep Shop's coding board
(Photo courtesy Little Sheep Shop)

She’s also created toys such as a binomial cube to show the expansion of (a+b)^3.

“It’s a big math thing, but you can build it with blocks, and you can understand it with blocks,” Jamal said. “My two-year-old will play with it, just stack them and look at the shapes. But a high school student could use it to help understand how those concepts actually work.”

Since starting, Jamal has seen a growing demand for her products. “I just started making different toys when I had different ideas of how to show those things for the kids. Now I’m selling out every time I restock, which is really cool.”

As for those moments in school that can potentially derail a child’s love of math, Jamal said it’s never too late to find a way to learn that works for you.

“I had messaged a couple people back who said that they hated it and I asked if they thought that maybe it just wasn’t explained in a way that they understand,” she said. “Most of them said, no, they just think they’re not good at it. That’s not true. Everyone can be good at it.”

For parents confused by the new ways of doing math, Jamal includes instructions to help them understand how concepts are taught now.

“We have a multiplication board that has 100 little divots and comes with little balls. They can fill in rows and columns and it looks the same as a multiplication table,” she said. “Hopefully that gives parents the confidence to be able to teach how it works.”

The success of Little Sheep Shop isn’t only changing how Jamal teaches her children – it’s also changing her career.

“I’m hoping that I can build this enough that this can be like what I do,” said Jamal. “I’m hoping I can grow at that pace where, by the time my youngest is in school, this can become like my full-time job – right now it’s just naptime and bedtime.”