Why Kids Don’t Need School to Learn Math

August 15, 2016


Let’s be honest for a minute. How many of you had a good experience with math when you went to school?

I know I didn’t, and it’s really unfortunate because I think I could have loved math.

I used play all sorts of counting games as a kid: counting my steps, counting coins, doing it in groups of 2, 4, and so on. These were just things I did because I enjoyed playing with numbers. At the time I never thought about it as ‘doing math’. Math was what we did in school: worksheets and finger tricks to learn my times tables.

I loved playing with numbers, I didn’t like math.

I did alright in high school math, I memorized how to solve equations. But I really did not enjoy a single math class. It was as though all the interesting parts of it were sucked out and instead we were taught HOW to solve math problems, never the WHY.

I ‘did math’ but I did not learn math, and I know my experience is not unique.

As a fairly new unschooling parent, the question about math niggles in the back of my mind regularly:

(How will my kids learn math if we don’t teach it to them?)

I know that we naturally use math in our daily lives and that my kids will learn ‘daily life math’ through many potential avenues: grocery shopping, budgeting, telling time, traveling, building, cooking, etc.

To become truly comfortable with the idea of unschooling math, the first thing I needed to really think about is how math is literally EVERYWHERE in life, it is not a separate entity – it is a part of how we relate to the world on a daily basis.

You don’t need to sit down and learn long division to learn how to divide. You don’t need to teach your child numbers. You don’t need worksheets to learn to count. Rote memorization of times tables is not the only way to learn about multiplication.

I really sat with this ‘math is life’ way of thinking for a long time, and as I spent time with it I grew comfortable with the idea that my young kids would ‘learn math’ as we explore the world together.

The other day my nearly 5 year old was counting her M&Ms. She divided them into colour piles, counted how many of each colour and then split them into two equal piles to share with her brother. Math. She’s loved counting every since she was two but I haven’t heard her do it much in a long while. Now she is counting all the time again, and not only counting but adding and dividing and sorting, and of course eating M&Ms.

Learning is not linear.

“….children do not learn in a straight upward line but in a stair-step pattern. They leap forward, then plateau for a while, then leap forward again. Their learning is an underground river, you can’t see it, can’t even feel it at times. Then suddenly they soar. You can’t control it; you can’t take credit for it. It’s theirs. You have to be there, providing warmth and stability, providing tools and resources, answering questions, telling stories, having meaningful adult conversations and doing meaningful adult work in their presence. But when they soar, it’s on their own wings.”

-Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers

Once I was comfortable with the idea of math being in everything we do, I was getting stuck with higher-level math. Calculus, trigonometry, physics, and even algebra.

What if my kids show interest and aptitude in careers and interests that need higher level math? I took calculus and algebra in high school but I remember next to nothing. I didn’t use it beyond my high school courses so I promptly forgot almost all of it. I’m far from an expert. I worried that their choices would be hindered by not introducing them to higher level math skills..

And then I realized something.

The math doesn’t have to come first. If they show interest and decide to follow a career or interest path that is going to involve higher-level math skills, they can learn it then.

Not only that but if we push math on our kids, they will not absorb it in the same way as when they choose to learn it. And worse still, they may grow to hate math and may shy away from math-related interests and careers because the negative relationship has already been established.

So let them lead. They don’t need to learn calculus to become interested in physics, engineering or medicine.

If one of them is a budding engineer or physicist or architect then unschooling has taught me that they will WANT to learn the base skills they need to further their chosen path.

And when you want to learn something, you seek it out.

And when you seek it out you learn it much faster and easier than if you are trapped in a classroom being taught something you do not find interesting or is not being presented well. Let’s remember that being taught is not the same as learning.

In On the Wildness of Children, Carol Black writes:

“In many rural land-based societies, learning is not coerced; children are expected to voluntarily observe, absorb, practice, and master the knowledge and skills they will need as adults –– and they do.  In these societies –– which exist on every inhabited continent –– even very young children are free to choose their own actions, to play, to explore, to participate, to take on meaningful responsibility. “Learning” is not conceived as a special activity at all, but as a natural by-product of being alive in the world.” 

(When you have time read both of her articles, and everything she writes.)

There are many, many resources for those who are seeking out learning more specific math skills. My job as their parent in this unschooling journey will be to help present them with options of how to learn what they want to know. Books, computer games, apps, courses, workbooks, friends doing the same thing, the list goes on.

The difference is we do not need to force these resources on our kids. We need to let them lead the way and then show them the door to open, if they need help finding it.

My kids are young and far from deciding that they want to spend time practicing their calculus skills but a quick search led me to resources like these:

Dr. Math
Khan Academy

The list of resources is really endless and ever-growing.

Today, the best thing I can do for my kids is rid myself of my anxiety around math so that they never even sense it. I can stop thinking about it as a ‘thing’ and start thinking about it as life.

Numbers are fun.

While kids are young, just focus on letting math be a part of your daily life. Here are just a few ideas:

-Count things with your fingers and let them see.
-Let them help grocery shop.
-Let them create a budget.
-Talk about shapes of things in the world.
-Draw pictures.
-Play board games and card games.
-Plan trips and read maps together.
-Cook together.
-Create your own recipes.
-Skip rocks together.
-Play & watch sports together.
-Watch documentaries about ancient civilizations.
-Have rulers and measuring tapes, compasses and calculators available.
-Learn card tricks together.
-Play video games.
-Read books (any books, not just books about math) & play rhyming games.
-Do science experiments.
-Ask them if they want to divide the M&Ms to share with each other.

On the flipside, don’t talk about math being scary. Work on yourself and your personal relationship with math. And please, please, please don’t make your kids ‘do math’. Trust that the math is there and the learning is happening in everything you do.

Have you sat down and done long division as an adult? Don’t you just divide most small numbers in your head, estimate when appropriate and use a calculator if the number is too big or you need to double check your accuracy? This is just one of the real life ways we use math. Think about your life in terms of how you use math on a daily basis, it will help you renegotiate your relationship with it.

Trusting in our kids and in ourselves is one cornerstone of unschooling. Supporting our kids’ interests and passions is another.

Math is no different than reading and language, it is part of what makes us human. We cannot live without it. Math has been a part of natural learning environments since the most primitive times. There is no reason to be afraid. Just go out there and live.


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1 Comment

  • Reply I teach at a university and I unschool my kids - Pocketful of PebblesPocketful of Pebbles August 21, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    […] I don’t want them to be afraid of math. Unschooling parents are often asked, how will you teach your children math? The fact that this question pops up so frequently shows that many people believe math to be arcane […]

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