Back in kindergarten, Sophia Chai Yue was already one step ahead of her peers just getting to grips with addition and subtraction. She found all of it "very easy" and quickly moved on to learning the multiplication table.
Now a Primary 5 pupil at Queenstown Primary, the gold medallist at two Math Olympiads this year is one of a few hundred young whizzes in the subject here.
They are the ones who breeze through difficult logic questions such as "When is Cheryl's birthday", which went viral a few weeks ago.
Raffles Girls' School Secondary 3 student Anna Ying, 15, will tell you that this was "not one of the more challenging questions in the paper".
The riddle was drawn from the annual Singapore & Asian Schools Math Olympiads, held on April 8 and involving more than 30,000 participants from 15 countries doing different papers for students from Primary 2 to Secondary 4.
The results were revealed last Tuesday. In Singapore, there were three perfect scorers and 410 gold winners, who formed the top 8 per cent of their cohort.
While most of the parents interviewed by SundayLife! believe their children were born with mathematical smarts, the fact is that several specialised Math Olympiad training schools have sprung up, coaching bright students to score well at these examinations. Two of the gold recipients SundayLife! interviewed attend such classes, including Sophia.
Her mother Kao Chai Yen, 46, a senior manager, says her daughter has a natural ability in the subject. She and her husband, a 46-year-old stem-cell researcher, do not spend much time coaching her in mathematics or other subjects as they are busy with work.
Madam Kao says: "We also want her to spend time on other things she likes, such as reading and sports such as badminton."
Other children are "late bloomers".
Take, for example, Winston Yang, a Primary 5 pupil who won gold at two Math Olympiads this year.
His parents had not realised he had an aptitude for the subject until a year ago.
His housewife mother Joan Yang, 49, said Winston was born with an enlarged ureter (the tube linking the bladder to the kidneys), which often got blocked and made him prone to urinary tract infections. He underwent two operations before he was four and his condition has since stabilised.
Hence, unlike what she did with her two older daughters, Mrs Yang did not push him too much academically or enrol him in any enrichment classes, even though his kindergarten teacher told her he was
"slower than his peers".
"I was more focused on his health," she says.
So she was surprised when Winston managed to get into the gifted education programme in primary school, just like his two sisters did.
Last year, his fascination with mathematics suddenly grew after he took part in a Math Olympiad. His father is a 54-year-old self-employed investor.
Besides registering him at a private centre to undergo weekly Math Olympiad training, Mrs Yang leaves him alone most of the time.
She adds that her son is well-rounded and has diverse interests, ranging from science to reading to playing computer games, chess and violin. "Mathematics is not an all-consuming passion for Winston," she says.
Other parents take a more intensive, hands-on approach to hothousing their children.
China-born Singaporean software engineer Zhang Qijie, 45, for example, used to spend about four to five hours every weekend afternoon coaching his daughter Shitong in mathematics. She was one of three perfect scorers at this year's Singapore & Asian Schools Math Olympiads.
Mr Zhang, who counts mathematics and physics as his strongest subjects in school, would print online mathematics competition papers for his daughter to do.
Shitong, 13, now a Secondary 1 student at Raffles Girls' School, recalls: "I did not really look forward to doing the papers as I found the questions difficult. But now, I realised how precious those lessons were.
"Learning mathematics is like learning a language. At first, it seems hard. But once you build up a good foundation, things become easier."
When she is not doodling or reading fantasy books, she spends her time solving Math Olympiad puzzles.
Dr Yang Chien-Hui, a senior lecturer at SIM University who specialises in early childhood education, says pushing a child to excel in mathematics can be beneficial if, firstly, the child is good at the subject and is having fun with it; and secondly, if the parent's focus is on the child's learning attitude and mindset of overcoming challenges rather than on the performance itself.
She says: "We need to be cautious if mathematics is the child's weak area. Parents then need to focus on making the learning fun and relevant without putting too much pressure on their child's learning outcome."
In fact, making the learning of mathematics fun is what Mr Davwinder Singh Sheena, 46, and Ms Rajinder Kaur Sidhu, 41, have been doing for their two children - Kieret, 10, a Primary 4 pupil at CHIJ (Katong) Primary, and Pavan, a Primary 5 pupil at St Stephen's School. Both were gold recipients at the recent Math Olympiad.
Ms Rajinder, a media executive, owns a mathematics dictionary and her children like to flip through it and ask her about unfamiliar terms.
They also play games such as adding up the numbers on car licence plates and see who does it faster.
She also ensures that her children do not just live in a world of numbers and symbols. She says: "They are pretty well-rounded. They love sports. Pavan plays all sorts of ball games, from football and cricket to pool and bowling. Kieret is in her school's track and field team. "
This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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