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Unschooling Math


It’s a word that can sometimes strike fear in the hearts of new unschooling parents.

Here are some more collected thoughts on unschooling math that I’ve had saved for a while. Most are from the old forums at

A reply from Joyce Fetteroll answering this post:

**what I’m curious about is whether or not there’s actually a curriculum out there that gives the abstract math concept then gives activities that ground the information.**

It’s not the way most kids learn. Most people go from the specific to the general. Like with English, kids learn how to turn a verb into past tense (turn to turned) just by encountering numerous examples of it. And it’s a lot easier to understand even what a verb is after you’ve heard thousands of them than if the concept is new.

(Though some kids — kids who get a lot out of phonics for example — do often like to know the rules so they can make sense of the examples. It’s a matter of learning style.)

Getting the abstract first is the way many adults learn. (Or maybe it’s the way adults are familiar with from school, so maybe it isn’t natural for most adults either.) Adults seem to want to know beforehand where something technical is going so they can organize it in their heads. But kids seem to care less where it’s headed as long as the journey is enjoyable.

The most unsatisfying thing about learning math naturally is that it takes only a small fraction of the time that it takes using schoolish methods. If we can learn to speak math, that is walk through problems out loud as you’re solving them in your head, then kids can get a feel for how numbers work as they got a feel for how English worked. Like talk through how you’re figuring out “How long until my birthday?” But do it in a way that’s useful to yourself, not as a lesson for him to understand. Just make that process that normally goes on invisibly available to him.

***and then in the same thread, a reply by Anne Ohman***

Those of us who were schooled math can develop an intimidation of it…we were labeled right from the start – good at reading, bad at math, or something like that. I was labeled good at science and math – and yet, while I was good at math, I had no idea how to apply it to the real world. Now you’ve labeled yourself and it’s a detriment to unschooling. Start all over again. We, as unschoolers, know that when you need or desire information, then you’re not *bad* at getting it. You just get it. So lose the label you created for yourself (or that school created for you) and KNOW and TRUST that you can handle ANY math that comes up in your life. Because it’s the truth.

Just start looking. Start seeing. Math. It’s everywhere. Use it. Talk it. Think it out loud. When you get gas, get back in the car and vocalize how much it was per gallon times how many gallons you got. When your kids weigh produce at the grocery store, talk about how much something is per pound and how much it weighs. When you cut a pizza into 8 pieces, talk about how many you each get. When you bake, double the recipe, or 1 1/2 X the recipe…and then, out loud, talk about the conversions you’re making to the ingredient list.

I love it when it’s in unexpected places. My children have no fear or intimidation of figuring out math problems because they have a reason to find an answer. They need or desire an answer in their real lives, so they GET that answer. When my son and I went shopping before Christmas, he was walking around the store, calculating the sales prices of numerous items just for the fun of it.

You don’t have to be quick. You just have to be aware. And you’ll need that awareness for unschooling anyway…so just start! Begin today to see the world through new eyes…focus on living joyfully, on following your heart and your passions…be curious and aware and ask questions. Unschooling is not just for your children…it’s for you, too.

Just remember not to *teach* any of these things. Just talk about them. If you’re turning them off, they won’t listen. If you’ve schooled math with them already, they might be turned off of it already. So it’s a process, finding the balance that brings it into your lives as a normal, natural, wonderful part of it…just like any learning is when you unschool.

Does he go grocery shopping with you? Does he weigh produce and figure out its cost, based on the price per pound? Does he comparative shop…prices/sizes/nutritional value? Does he have a bank account? Does he spend/save money he receives? Does he bake with you? Does he build anything? Does he play games? Does he figure out how many cinnamon rolls you each get for breakfast? Does he pump gas into your car, and do you discuss how many gallons you get for the amount of money you spent on the gas, and how much gas your car eats up for every mile you drive?

**Later on, someone posted these ideas**

Early math (counting, number recognition, basic adding and subtracting) happens by itself in a typical family environment: reading, playing board games, playing cards, using dice, sharing out carrot sticks, slicing pizza, and so on. Even seemingly unrelated activities (such as lego or blocks) can contribute to a child’s growing familiarity with the world of numbers and how they work.

Money is as excellent route to math competency:

- adding and subtracting,

- decimal places,

- counting by twos, fives, tens, twenty-fives,

- basic understanding of fractions (quarters, tenths, fifths, hundredths),

- estimating,

- percentages (20% off sales, 5% interest rates, 10% tips, 50% = half), and

- real-life earning, saving, spending, decision-making.

Ready to go beyond the basics? Try doubling a recipe with your child. Or building a ramp. Or fencing a garden. Or returning all the cans and bottles to the recycling depot and letting the kids split the money between themselves. Or guessing gas prices for a full tank. Or exchanging your money to another country’s currency. Or following a sewing pattern. Or rearranging the furniture, after mapping out the room’s options on graph paper. Or playing Monopoly, with your child as the banker. Or calculating how old your dog is in dog years. Or turning the family’s chequebook over to your child, to handle and balance for a few months (with supervision of course). Or opening a bank account. Or figuring out how many months old you are—or how many weeks, how many days, and so on. Or weighing and calculating purchases in the bulk food department. (Go on, live a little. Give your children $2 each to spend however they want in bulk candy. You’ll be amazed at their motivation and ingenuity—and their math skills!)

Books such as Eating Fractions, The Greatest Guessing Game: A Book About Dividing, and 2 x 2 = Boo! A Set of Spooky Multiplication Stories can add to a child’s math vocabulary—just check out the library’s children’s section on math.

Games of logic develop important math-related skills: Master Mind, chess, backgammon, kalah. I like to keep rulers, measuring tape, measuring cups, calculators, and a kitchen scale handy for impromptu problem-solving. And don’t forget good, old-fashioned conversation! Be willing to discuss ordinary family financial transactions: mortgage rates, car payments, rent increases, grocery budgets, retirement savings, and salaries. Your children will grow up knowing all they need to know about math in the real world, confident and well-equipped to explore, in more depth, any areas of math that interest them. Your options, and theirs, are endless!

**from another source**

Someone asks: My question is-what about math? My state requires that we cover algebra and geometry and I don’t know either topic. I can’t see him playing with algebra and geometry of his own free will.>>>

A member answers: Algebra is figuring out an unknown element in a problem. We do it allthe time. When our checkbook doesn’t balance by 52¢ there is an unknown element that is causing it to be off. That is algebra. Algebra is figuring out how many servings of brownies you will get if you have 5 batches. There is nothing mysterious about algebra. What makes algebra mysterious are textbooks trying to make people think in algebraic ways through a serious of ever increasing problems which make no sense to the majority of people who are having to do them in order to pass some class.

Geometry is the math of shapes. Most of it is totally irrelevant when dealing with real life. How often do *most* people have to figure out what the volume is of a cone? The only cone that most people deal with on a regular bases seems to be an ice cream cone and the only reason that one needs to worry about the volume is when it is full and you have a nice scoop on the top to start with. I would presume that

many of us took geometry in high school or college. How many of us remember how to figure out the volume of a cone? We deal with shapes, though, on an almost daily basis. Putting boxes on shelves, cans in cupboards, soup in bowls, cutting out art projects, drawing, doodling, decorating, moving furniture etc. We see volume in those same boxes and cans. When we cook we use geometry. Measurements, volume, placement of cookies on baking stones, having the right size pot for mac and cheese. Geometry is not a static activity. Geometry most makes sense when it is used in context.

Don’t force math on him. Instead find a way to translate what he is doing into the requirements of your state. It takes practice to see those things and put them down to satisfy requirements because we don’t think in terms of, “Oh, I’m doing algebra” or “I think I should use geometry to figure this problem out.”


I’m sharing these posts here for myself as much as anyone else. Looking at math from a different angle, has really helped me enjoy math and realise it’s not the scary monster that school makes it out to be.

Here are a bunch of math links that I have saved over the last year or so. I hope you find something you enjoy.


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One Response to “Unschooling Math”

  1. Paul Hakel says:

    All math is, is logic. Many schools fully lack a philosophy of math component which would be helpful. They also lack teaching logic and argumentation, which is essential for proofs and thinking critically. Metamathematics asserts that “2+2=4″ is either true or false, which is NOT outright know, despite the way it is taught; our math is confusingly taught because our schools are being crippled by tradition. They are not committed to the virtues of progress, and quite frankly cannot possibly supply a demand for mass education – it is thoroughly unsustainable and unable to meet the goals of each person.

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