Learning Maths Naturally

By Sue Wight

Our family follow a natural learning style of home education and feel quite comfortable that the children are learning all the time but, like many home educators, we have the occasional doubts about maths. Recently these doubts led me to persuade one of my sons, Matthew, to do some maths on paper. As a small child he loved maths, in fact his favourite TV show was Mathica’s Mathshop but the nine months he spent in school turned him right off the topic and left him with an enduring impression that “maths is boring”. He has refused to look at any maths book (except to ridicule them) since he has been home educating, and after waiting five years, my husband was asking for some reassurance that Matthew was not “falling behind” his grade level.

Amongst the home educating community our family are not alone in our concern about children picking up maths skills without a structured curriculum, or rather a concern that they will not pick up those skills at all.  Even many unschoolers say, “We unschool everything but maths.” Many children, like Matthew, proclaim to hate maths, or avoid it until they are coerced into it by parents conscientiously trying to ensure they have a good grounding in the basics.

There are, however, many ways in which a parent can nurture their child’s early and natural interest in maths. An early start in maths education can be made by using mathematical terms when speaking to babies and toddlers. Now before you think I am recommending inflicting addition flashcards on a baby, what I mean is just to include maths in your everyday chatter to your child right from birth. “Daddy will be home soon…. now let’s get you into your red pyjamas and we’ll do up the buttons, one, two, three, four.” Naturally the numbers will wash over the baby but so, too, will the fact that Daddy will be home soon. As he grows older he will gradually understand more of what you say including the maths.

We know from the home education literature that conversation is a very effective learning method and should not underestimate it with very young children. Their early and, when you think of it, astounding acquisition of language skills is entirely due to conversation – a conversation which is at first very one-sided. At birth they understand no language at all but quickly become aware that adults are communicating with them and that the sounds the adults make, together with their expressions and movements all mean something. They very soon interpret much of the body language and facial expressions but also have an inbuilt desire to crack the code to spoken communication to increase their understanding and enable them to respond. Within two years they pass the point of understanding most of what is said to them and begin to talk.

There is no reason why some early mathematical concepts cannot be picked up at the same time as their language acquisition proceeds. The mathematical concepts I am speaking of here are not Pythagorean theory. I mean the basic mathematical concepts of full, empty, close to, far away, small, big, lots, not many, more than, less than, on top of, underneath, heavy, light, long, short and so on. You may think that these are not really mathematical concepts, but they are the building blocks of later learning.

When my son started school I was quite shocked to find whole maths sessions devoted to teaching and testing such concepts with the use of blocks and other toys. “Can you put the red block on top of the blue one?” It seemed to me then, and I still believe now, that children can acquire that kind of knowledge easily and naturally at home with people who converse with them. And what they can pick up through conversation need not stop there.

“We have three letters today.”

“We will need an extra two plates today because Granma and Grandad are coming.”

“Would you like triangle sandwiches or squares?”

“Can you pass me three pegs please?”

“What an interesting pattern on these tiles.”

“There are ten lollies, let’s see if we can share them out fairly between the two of you.”

“Would you like your apple in quarters or eighths?”

And so on… maths is just an everyday part of life. It crops up in conversation – at home, in the playground, whilst out walking, in the supermarket, at the library. Include maths in your child’s conversational life and they will easily learn its language. To continue your child’s mathematical learning, include mathematical stories in your regular reading matter. There are many different kinds of counting books; find one or more that appeal to your child but don’t stop there.

Look for picture books with mathematical themes such as Counting on Frank by Rod Clement (estimating), One Hundred Hungry Ants by Elinor Pinczes (grouping), One Grain of Rice by Demi (doubling), the Sir Cumference series by Cindy Newschwander (geometry), Mr Archimedes Bath by Pamela Allen (volume), and The Librarian Who Measured the Earth (measurement) by Kathryn Lasky. The Numberlies series by Colin and Jackie Hawkins is also good fun. Your librarian will no doubt be able to point out many more. Remember to keep the reading of these books entertaining and never to force them. If your child doesn’t like them, find something else to read.  Allow them to enjoy the story if it appeals and they will take in some of the mathematical concept involved. A discussion might follow, but again don’t force it any more than you would a discussion about Red Riding Hood. Allow it to happen naturally and companionably. In the meantime, as your child grows, more mathematical concepts and terms will become clear to them. Encourage this by continuing to make maths a part of your daily conversation:

“We need to double this recipe”

“Tea is one hour away”

“That brand costs twenty cents more than this one”

“There are fifty kilometres to go”

“Do you think five kilograms of apples will be enough?”

and so on…

Have mathematical tools on hand for anyone in the family to use as they wish – rulers, tape measures, a protractor, a compass etc.  Demonstrate how to use these by using them yourself whenever required and explaining how to use them when requested. Simple addition, subtraction, division and multiplication will occur naturally during their play and they will become more proficient over time. Encourage this by providing play money and collecting things like bank deposit and withdrawal forms and receipt books for imaginative play. Games like Dominoes, Lotto, Trouble etc. will also provide some maths practice. In fact, even many very basic board games will provide elementary number recognition and counting to six or twelve.

At the same time, children who have not learnt to think of maths as something boring imposed upon them are more likely to enjoy using some maths sticker books and workbooks. They may now appreciate reading Jon Scieszka’s Maths Curse.  They can investigate maths further in everyday life (cooking, carpentry, shopping, handling money etc). Board games can continue to provide mathematical benefit as well as fun – Monopoly and PayDay are good value with money handling, addition, subtraction and percentages. Look at your collection of games and you may be surprised at how mathematical they are. Lego is mathematical – “Can you pass me the blue four x eight piece?” Even Scrabble has a mathematical side to it – scoring. Maths can also continue to form part of their normal reading. They may enjoy reading Odo Hirsch’s Hazel Green series, Ray Galvin’s Fibonacci’s Cows, The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Childcraft’s Mathemagic and the Murderous Maths series by Kjartan Poskitt.

Show your children your household budget and where your earnings go. If you are the treasurer of a club, allow them to see what your job involves and suggest they help out. If you own your own business they may like to help with the accounts and may soon become as proficient with Quickbooks, Excel spreadsheets or MYOB than you are. If you are undertaking any kind of do-it-yourself project allow them to see the calculations about the amount of supplies required or to help you work it out. You can continue to talk about maths concepts as they arise – the chances of winning a raffle, the chances of winning Tattslotto, the relative costs of what they wish to spend their money on, banking, bills, savings, interest and dividends, budgeting for your next holiday, dressmaking measurements, how much mulch to order and so on.

So, after a life of learning maths naturally (with the exception of those nine months in school), how did eleven-year-old Matthew do with his paper maths? I gave him some Year 8 maths and he zipped through it with ease. In the end I can’t help agreeing with the message of Maths Curse, which is that everything in life can be thought of mathematically and that one can have a lot of fun along the way. By providing a maths rich environment we can effectively allow and assist our children to learn maths naturally.

From Otherways magazine issue 105 August 2005

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