Bite-Sized Pieces of Unschool Maths


So many people love the idea of unschooling and are even tempted to give it a go, but often there is one huge stumbling block… maths. Very few parents seem to be confident that their children will learn all the maths they need to know, without being prodded along by some kind of intentional instruction.

Many homeschoolers who decide to unschool make a compromise. They might say something like, “We unschool everything except maths. My children do a couple of workbook pages each day, and then I’m happy to let them explore their interests.”
So what does our family do when it comes to maths?

I really believe children will learn maths as they discover a need for it. They will learn a lot of basic maths just from their everyday life experiences. Higher maths can be learnt when children decide for themselves they want to learn it, or they realise there is a particular reason they should learn it.

But this doesn’t mean I never mention maths to my children.

I enrich my children’s environments by bringing art and music into our home. I read books to them about other cultures and times in history. We share literature, poetry and plays. I invite them to watch all kinds of documentaries with me. I take them on walks and outings. We explore museums and galleries. I strew science resources…

So why shouldn’t I enrich their environment with some interesting maths experiences?

This is how I go about it… I find something mathematical which I think my girls might possibly enjoy, then I say…

“Hey! Would you like to watch this video?”
“Anyone interested in listening to this?”
“I’ve found a new way to add up quickly. Do you want to see?”
“Shall we see if there’s an interesting maths Gizmo we can play about with?”
“I found some maths apps. Do you want to have a look?”
“We could do some paper folding together…”
“Shall we play this game?”

I never say, “Do you want to do some maths?” The answer would probably be “No thanks, Mum.”

My girls all love maths. They even consider themselves maths-magicians. It never used to be this way. We tried workbooks and online structured maths courses, and then when my daughters started saying, “I hate maths. I’m no good at it,” I backed off, and rethought my strategy.

These days I’m always on the look-out for mathematical resources I can tempt my girls with. I look for bite-sized pieces of maths, and they devour them enthusiastically. Most days I visit my mental list of maths resources and choose something to strew. Here are a few websites, apps and books I regularly dip into…

The Murderous Maths books
Explore Learning’s maths gizmos
Brainpop maths movies and games
The Key Stage Fun Squeebles maths apps
Websites with maths games such as CoolMath Games, Math Playground, Hooda Math, Kids Math Games

Bill Handley’s books
such as Speed Maths for Kids, Teaching Children Tables
Numberphile video website
Books and videos from Arvind Gupta’s website.

This last resource is overflowing with free resources. There are loads of free PDF books and lots of instructions for making toys from trash. Many of these toys teach mathematical concepts. (These sites are also wonderful resources for science!) There are also numerous instructional videos to watch.

I’m reading my emails. There’s one from Brainpop.

“Hey girls! Brainpop has a new game. It’s called The Carpenter’s Cut. Anyone want to play it with me?”

Gemma-Rose snuggles up beside me on the sofa and we’re soon working out what we have to do.

“We have to cut these planks of wood into different lengths.” There’s a list of different sized pieces we have to end up with.

Gemma-Rose starts ‘sawing’ and we finish level 1 without a problem. Level 2 and 3 are simple too. Then things get more difficult. Eventually, we find ourselves on a level where we are presented with 3 planks of wood, each 50 inches long (we translate that into cms). We need to cut these planks into a long list of smaller pieces. We fail on our first try. We cut all the planks and are left with a 2 cm piece and a 4 cm piece. We can’t glue them together to make the required 6 cm piece which is still on our list. We are going to have to start again, making our cuts in different places. Two attempts later we still haven’t solved the puzzle, and I have run out of time.

“I need to pick up Imogen from town,” I tell Gemma-Rose.

“I’ll keep working on this game while you’re gone,” she replies.

When I return home, Gemma-Rose greets me at the door. “I finished that level, Mum! I copied down all the cuts so you could see how I did it.” I am impressed.

Later, I grab my homeschool records book and write:


The Carpenter’s Cut game
Skills practised:
Problem solving skills
Measuring: length, centimetres

I am thinking about division…

Maybe tomorrow I could suggest a Brainpop movie about division. I’m sure there’s some suitable Gizmos too. I am about to suggest this but I stop. There needs to be a balance between building on a skill and killing interest dead, with an overload of information. I have discovered that bite-sized pieces of maths work much better than larger chunks. There’s plenty of time. We can watch that Brainpop movie (if Gemma-Rose wants to) later in the week. I have another idea…

“I found some instructions and a video which show us how to make a flexigon,” I say. “Perhaps tomorrow we can make flexigons together.” Flexigons? What are they? Both Sophie and Gemma-Rose look interested.

Today we learnt about division. Tomorrow we will have a geometry adventure. Who knows what maths we will explore after that.

Not sure about letting go of maths? You could try sparking an interest in maths by enriching your children’s mathematical environment. Strew bite-sized pieces of unschool maths. Your children might end up learning a whole lot. They could turn into maths-magicians.

And if they don’t, I still believe children will learn all the maths they need to know, even without our intervention.
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    • Eva
    • September 16, 2013

    Great ideas, do you also know Living Math?

    1. Reply


      Thank you for the Living Math link. I'm looking forward to exploring this website! I also looked at your own maths posts. You have some great ideas and use interesting resources!

      • Eva
      • September 19, 2013

      You are welcome. Math is not my favorite subject, but I do try to make it more interesting, at least for the lower grades.

    2. Reply


      Maybe your kids will enjoy maths more than you, because of the interesting way you present it.

      God bless!

      • Eva
      • September 23, 2013

      Maybe, I do think that they all are much better at math than I ever was.

    • Vicky
    • September 16, 2013

    You're a natural homeschooler, Sue! You have such an energy and enthusiasm for learning. No wonder the girls are doing so well.


    1. Reply


      Enthusiasm is catching. I'm sure you've noticed this with your own children. I do get excited about learning! Perhaps that's important. If we aren't visibly enjoying what we're sharing, then how can we expect our children to be enthusiastic? I wonder if that's true. What do you think?

      It's so good to see you on my blog again. I missed you! Thank you for visiting.

    • Wendy
    • September 17, 2013

    What a great list, Sue, thanks very much! Some of my kids and I follow Math U See to help us with the upper level math (Mxyl and I are learning Pre Calculus and we find him very clear and helpful), but some prefer a less structured approach and we all love to use all these resources. Vi Hart is big for us, too!

    I used to hate math, but now I find it very beautiful – much to my surprise!

    1. Reply


      I haven't seen Math U See though I know there are lots of people who like it.

      Vi Hart? I forgot about her. The girls enjoyed her videos very much! I think they are on the Kahn Academy site as well as Youtube and other places.

      I agree about maths being beautiful. It's the language of creation! I am continually amazed how everything is put together mathematically. It seems such a shame that we can miss the beauty of maths just because it has been presented to us in the wrong way.

  1. Thank you for taking the time to list all those resources. We now do maths in a very similar way, especially the mixing it up part. (Which fortunately suits my novelty-craving, slightly scattered mind!)

    Up until now I have still called it "maths" though – in exactly the way you mention ("do you want to do some maths?") – even when I have a specific, fun activity in mind. I'm changing that!

    Isn't it funny how these little changes can make a big difference? Thank you once again, Sue!

    1. Reply


      I'm glad you understood the mixing up part! So many people approach maths in a linear fashion, moving in an orderly manner from one concept to another. I prefer a multi-directional mixed up approach. We sample a bit here and a bit there, and then return to the same concept from another direction which reinforces it. It's more of an adventure that way! And I think it's an effective way to learn, despite it sounding the opposite!

      I am discovering that words are very important. How we use them definitely makes a difference, I agree! I rather like the idea that maths is just a part of life so why separate it out by using the word 'maths'? Also the word 'maths' can close off a child's mind if they have decided they hate maths.

      I love sharing maths ideas with you, Lucinda. Thanks for your comment!

  2. PS I keep meaning to say, I love the new look of your blog, and especially Felicity's new photo!

    1. Reply


      Thank you! I love adjusting the look of my blog. I usually do it when I can't think of anything to write!

  3. Reply

    Hi Sue

    I've been writing a bit about maths on my blog too. You are so right about the "stumbling block"! I'm glad to read how much trust you have in how they learn maths on the way.
    I will certainly have a closer look at the list you shared.

    Two more sites I can recommend:

    My kids love doing maths if they're are allowed to do it online 🙂

    1. Reply


      The girls used to have a subscription to Mangahigh. I forgot to mention that. Thanks for reminding me! The games are good. We used to dip into the site in a very unschooly way. I must go and have another look and see what's new.

      I haven't seen the BBC site but I'm going to follow your link. Thank you!

      I will come and read your maths posts. Isn't it good to share resources and ideas? Thanks for stopping by!

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