Unschooling Maths: How Do Unschoolers Learn Math?

Are you new to unschooling or flirting with the idea of switching to unschooling and feeling a bit overwhelmed as you try to imagine learning math without 12 years of a formal, structured curriculum?

If so, I HEAR YOU. I was you. Sometimes, I still am you. For years I questioned what I was doing and if it was the right thing. After doubting and researching and living the unschooling life for several years now, I am here to tell you that it can happen. It does happen. And it is a beautiful thing.

Going Against the Grain

Living an unschooling lifestyle can be daunting. Sometimes it can feel like you are swimming upstream and that it would be easier to do what everyone else does. This is especially true when, as a new unschooler, you are trying to figure out exactly how unschoolers learn math.

I get it. I was there too. My teaching background and years of experience were a constant in my head as we began this homeschooling journey. Play was fine as a kindergartener but once we hit first grade, it would be time for the rubber to meet the road. We had serious business to do here.

I look back on those days now and see how truly WRONG I was.

The moments I spent in the laundry room crying because I could not figure this out. The echoes of my well-meaning colleagues who kept telling me “This is your wheel-house!” The pushback from my son. The threats I would wager of putting him into “real” school. Oh, how I wish I could turn back time…….

I would tell that frantic mama to breathe. It will all be okay, I promise. I would tell her to let go. Let go of that educational training. Let go of your school years. Release yourself from those expectations and focus on what matters. Connection. Relationship. Living life. The rest will follow. You will figure this out.

How to Unschool Math…the Wrong Way

If you have read my Unschooling: What is it? post, then you know that we weren’t always unschoolers. Having a teaching background, in the beginning, I viewed homeschooling as a school-at-home type of thing. In doing so, we did school, only at home. We had textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, a timer, and fresh crayons and pencils. I even had a student-sized desk. UGH.

We began learning math with workbooks, worksheets, and timed fact practices. In other words, pages and pages of mostly drill-and-kill type stuff. And that set off the downward spiral…

I have been described as a rather hard-headed or stubborn person so, I didn’t let this spiral slow me down!

I continued on this well-worn path for the next 3 years. Despite the tears (from both of us!), I carried on. I wanted so badly to continue to homeschool that I inadvertently neglected what mattered most, connection. And we got nowhere. Fast.

Instead of fostering a love of learning by homeschooling, I was single-handedly squashing it. What’s worse, I was causing my son to hate learning and even begin to see himself as not smart enough, particularly in math.

That’s when I knew things had to change.

How Unschoolers Learn Math the Right Way

My Google search engine went crazy as I searched everything I could about unschooling, particularly in math as this was one subject in which I felt I needed to follow a structured plan. But the more I read and listened to podcasts, the more I realized that what I needed most to do was deschool myself. I needed to rid myself of what teaching math looked like in the past. I also needed to erase the idea of what learning math looked like to my son.

As we deschooled and I backed off of my “structured plan”, something magical happened. We began to connect. And this connection became the catalyst for learning.

First, I threw out the worksheets and the workbooks. I boxed up the flashcards. I destroyed the timer. And that little student-sized desk…..well it was a gift from his great-granddad so we couldn’t get rid of it, but it became a fixture in the house that we didn’t even notice anymore.

Instead, we played games and baked together. We sliced sandwiches and pizzas into parts and talked about fractions and numbers in a non-mathy way. We examined money and talked about the digital time he saw on every appliance and piece of technology in our house.

In short, we let life lead us where we need to go. Over time, the math anxiety felt by each of us began to dissipate and our connection deepened.

From there, we just kept going. We allowed his interests to lead us down whatever path he chose.

Oddly enough, as his anxiety for math waned, he chose to follow a math curriculum. The key word here is “chose”. It was not forced upon him, but one he found and liked and actually asked if we could use. Will we use it the whole way through? I have no idea. Will we use it for as long as he is interested in it? You betcha. And not one second longer.

Practical Ideas: Unschooling Math in the Elementary and Middle School Years

You may be thinking, “That is all well and good, but I’d like a little something more specific.”

Again, I get it. I was right there with you and sometimes get sucked right back into that feeling. So I have created a more visual list for you.

Keep in mind though, no two unschoolers follow the same path. Everything is interest-led. Use what you can, and discard the rest.

How Do Unschoolers Learn Math?

Video games. Yep. I went there first. They get such a bad rep! Please do not write them off. They are filled with mathematics (among other things!).

Basic fluency skills, geometry, solving for an unknown (hello algebra!), reasoning, critical thinking, communication, teamwork…..all of it and so much more are in those games. And all of it gets applied in PLAY, which is the best way to acquire new skills.

Board games. I have always loved board games. Growing up I never realized just how much learning is in them! From counting to reading to strategizing and building number sense. They are so, so good!

Money. Do your children get money for holidays, birthdays, or chores? Have them count it. Take them to the bank to deposit it. Have them keep track of what they spend/ save. Teach them how to budget.

Cooking. Cooking with your children is a GOLDMINE of math skills! Learn fractions while measuring ingredients. Need to double a recipe? Welcome to multiplication! Learn about temperatures….in Fahrenheit and Celsius, if you like! Reading and following the directions of a recipe are also great skills. Not to mention adding in a bit of chemistry with baking and cooking your favorite treats!

If you haven’t already heard of it, I highly recommend Raddish. This is a monthly cooking kit designed for children and teens. The recipe cards are sturdy, colorful, and full of step-by-step instructions with visuals to follow along. Each kit also comes with a few kitchen tools for the young chef!

Raddish Recipes and Goodies

Legos. Need I say more? Constructing. Creative thinking. Problem-solving. Hand-eye coordination. Lego play oozes math!

Decorating. This may seem like an odd one, but hang in there with me! In decorating a room one can encounter all sorts of geometry. Patterns, symmetry, parallel and perpendicular lines, shapes, perimeter, and area to name just a few!

One year my son wanted LED lights for his room. We needed to know how long of a strand to buy. So we got out the tape measure and measured the PERIMETER of his room. This led to a discussion on the size of his room. Hmmm…AREA. So we took to figuring that out too.

Building. My son is just like his father. He is a hands-on learner who loves to build things. So when he asked for an L-shaped desk in his room, his dad and he got to measuring, cutting, and assembling a wooden desk.

Spending time in nature. The math possibilities here are endless. I’ll share with you one of my favorites from one time when my son and I were outdoors.

One day, he was working on trimming a few branches from a tree that he had wanted to climb. As he sawed away the branches and climbed the tree, he asked me how old the tree was. Well, I had no idea. I suggested that maybe there was a way that we could calculate it. This led to a Google search showing us how to do just that. First, it started with finding the CIRCUMFERENCE of the tree trunk. Then the DIAMETER. Then we needed to look through a list of tree growth factors for various species of trees. Plug the numbers in and viola! Geometry, algebra, and science all in one!

These are just a few ways to show how math can be woven into daily life. The possibilities are endless!

That’s a Wrap: How Unschoolers Learn Math

Math is everywhere and it most definitely does NOT need to be learned in isolation. Look for it in your everyday life. You will find what you need. And so will your learner.