Jane Firth<br/>Jane's Games Jane Firth
Jane's Games

Jane's Games brings together many years of experience and ideas from: teaching teachers in Tanzania using minimal resources; Montessori nurseries in England and Hong Kong; primary school and special schools in England and Hong Kong; workshops for parents on their children's literacy and numeracy.

Where did your personal inspiration, entrepreneurial/leadership purpose come from – what shaped your views? 

My role with Kent Adult Education Service (KAES) is to provide workshops for parents on how they can help their children with literacy and numeracy, which can also improve their own literacy and numeracy skills. This experience of working with adults proved invaluable when I went to Tanzania to work with teachers. Alongside these roles, I have also been involved in helping children in England who have been left behind.

Jane FirthIn Tanzania, it quickly became apparent that I needed to find a radically different approach to teaching maths to the one in use, but without spending money. I cannot go into Tanzanian schools with a lot of western resources because that is and instant “turn off” for the teachers: “we cannot get that so we cannot do it.” I have to use local, free materials: cardboard, sticks, empty plastic bottles.

The first trip focused entirely on “Pre-Primary” – the Tanzanian equivalent of Reception. This is regarded as unimportant in Tanzania and so the teachers in Pre-primary are often not trained and are simply childminding. If they are trained, they are trying to teach the pre-primary syllabus using methods more suited to much older children.

The upside down view of education carries right through the system: the top end of primary is regarded as more important than the bottom end and secondary as more important than primary.

What’s the purpose of your organisation?

The whole thrust of my work in Tanzania is that laying good foundations in mathematics in the early years is essential for all later maths. All maths builds on what has gone before: without an understanding of number bonds and place value, anything beyond that would have to be learned by rote because the understanding is lacking.

I always begin a seminar by asking the participants, “If you are going to build a house, where do you start?”  A child’s education is not solely the responsibility of his current teacher. 

As with building a house, each new layer of understanding should build on one that has gone before.

I gradually discovered that the reasons for gaps in children’s mathematical understanding in Tanzania are the same as those of my “left behind” children.

  1. A thorough knowledge of number bonds to 10 is essential for future learning. Teaching them to larger numbers before they have understood numbers up to ten is counterproductive even if the syllabus says that that is what the teacher should be doing!

  2. All children need a through grounding in the concrete (real objects) with any new mathematical concept. If they do not have that, they cannot succeed. Some children need to work with the concrete for longer than others: all children are climbing their own staircase of learning, and not necessarily at the same speed as other members of their class. Place value is a good example of this. Once children understand how the numbers 10-20 work (11 is 10 + 1, 12 is 10 + 2 etc) the rest is easy.

“All children can be successful with mathematics, provided that they have opportunities to explore mathematical ideas in ways that make personal sense to them and opportunities to develop mathematical concepts and understanding.”

(p6 Children Thinking Mathematically: PSRN Essential Knowledge for Early  Years Practitioners, Department for Children Schools and Families, DCSF 2009).

  1. It is necessary to foster enjoyment of maths. Maths is fun! Children in Tanzania have been completely switched off the subject by the time they are 8 years old because by then the syllabus for Standard II is working to 999, but in my experience, Standard II children generally do not know their number bonds to 10. The “I can’t do maths” mindset then stays with them for the rest of their school career.

Children who are rushed through the early stages in the UK (and they do start school very young here) can end up with the same attitude. We have resources galore, but if a child does not get the time and attention he needs to understand the concept, then the result is the same.

Jane's Games


How Jane’s Games came about

Working with parents, I would always explain that the parents’ role is different from the teacher’s. The parents should be spending quality time having fun, not teaching their children maths. For the same reason, I would discourage purchasing the abundant workbooks that we have in this country because they probably have enough pages of sums at school.

I started using the games that I had designed for teachers in Tanzania with the parents who came to my workshops. I was frequently asked for copies, and urged to publish them.

It was a long process because I wanted to build in differentiation (tailoring the game to the level of the child; many of them can be played more than one way or at more than one level) and to make child-friendly games that I felt were not well covered by what was already in existence. In addition, I wanted to include tried and tested teaching strategies for each game. My experience both in the UK and Tanzania means that I know the strategies that work and how to teach them. This is not knowledge that parents buying maths games, electronic or otherwise, necessarily have. It is also not knowledge that schools have time to teach parents, which is why my role with adult education exists at all. 

My criteria for the maths games were that they should be:

  • Fun
  • Quick
  • Inexpensive
  • Simple to play

In addition they needed:

  • Not to look like maths (there are no +, —, x, ÷ or = signs in any of the games)
  • To provide practice in basic maths skills
  • To provide opportunities to talk about maths

This last point is an important one. There are plenty of computer games that cover the same concepts as the mine, but a computer does not talk back. Being able to talk about and explain what a child is learning reinforces it. Also when a parents works with their own children, they are able to assess where on the staircase their children are and therefore to tailor the games appropriately.  Many computer “games” that I have come across are thinly disguised pages of sums anyway and are necessarily NOT concrete.

Packing was a huge hurdle. We are used to buying one game in a nice box that stacks neatly on a shelf. I wanted to put multiple games in one package but without making them expensive by adding a custom-made box. Eventually, this was solved by using business card boxes for the small sets (Phonics, and Fraction Dominoes) and by using robust transparent popper wallets for the larger sets (Early Maths and Money). In fact these are guaranteed by the manufacturer.

How many puzzles have we had to throw away because we lost a piece when the box broke? The simple packaging not only kept the cost down, but meant that users in places like Singapore where there is not space to store multiple cardboard boxes were able to use them. They are also ideal for travelling. The cost works out at around £1 per game and that does not include the ones with multiple variations. In the UK we expect games in nice boxes to be £10 +.

My passion is education. Without it no-one can succeed, whether in the UK or in Tanzania. There is strong evidence that the more a parent is involved in their child’s education, the more likely they are to succeed.

“Parents are children’s first and most enduring educators and their influence cannot be overestimated.”

(p69, Independent review of mathematics teaching in early years settings and primary schools, Final report, June 2008, Sir Peter Williams)

This applies whether in an affluent western country or a developing one: “Those who have the responsibilities to work with the young have a power which is second to none in relation to the future of society. The power is shared by two groups - parents and teachers.” Julius Nyerere (first president of Tanzania).

Too many parents are not aware of the importance of their influence on all aspects of their child’s development. Playing simple games with them is not just a mathematical activity: it is spending quality time together, talking together, learning together, co-operating, developing concentration, following rules, empathy (working out what your opponent will do) and learning about winning and losing.

What have been your critical lessons learnt along your entrepreneurial journey?

Patience, persistence and dogged determination.

What are the characteristics that in your experience entrepreneurs require now and in the future? 

To be more passionate about what you are doing than about making money.

To care about your consumers and what they are gaining from the product.

What would be your 5 top tips for purposeful entrepreneurs?

  1. Have a passion for what you do

  2. Have a vision of what you want to achieve

  3. Have an understanding and supportive spouse

  4. Seek advice from people who have done related things

  5. Learn how to use modern technology and media


Jane Firth

Jane's Games




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