The Problem with Disguising Maths Practice as Fun

I once bought a book containing loads of ideas for making maths games. I was very excited at the thought of printing off some paper game boards, finding a pack of cards and saying to my children, “Hey, would you like to play a game with me?” I imagined them learning their times tables or common number additions while they were enjoying themselves. They wouldn’t even know they were ‘doing’ maths.

They wouldn’t even know they were ‘doing’ maths? To me that sounds a bit deceitful. Would I be tricking them into learning maths? This makes me feel uneasy. Maybe that’s why I never actually used the book. It sat on our bookshelf until Andy discovered it. “I could use this at school!” my school teacher husband said with enthusiasm. Yes, it’s the perfect book for schooling. But maybe not unschooling where I want our children to pursue knowledge out of either love or need or both. I don’t want to sneak it into them.

The other day my girls went junk mail catalogue shopping. I suggested the activity. They voluntarily decided to go ahead and do it. But part of me disapproves of my own idea, despite my girls enjoying themselves.

Catalogue shopping is real. Many of us love browsing through the bright glossy pages dreaming about what we’d like to buy. We might even circle a few things we’re going to get next time we go into town. We probably add up the cost of what we’re going to purchase, to make sure we can afford it.

But my girls weren’t really shopping. They were doing a maths exercise that had been disguised as fun. Gemma-Rose really enjoyed choosing gifts for the family using the junk mail catalogues. But I don’t really think she cared how much her purchases came to, even though she didn’t complain about having to add them up. Actually, she was very clever. She left most of the addition to Sophie who likes doing such things.

The junk mail catalogue shopping idea was a success. I’m not sorry I suggested it. So what’s the problem? The problem is I know I could easily get carried away with similar ideas. Like this one I tried yesterday…

“How about you both choose a new recipe from the Aldi cookbook,” I said to Sophie and Gemma-Rose. “You could make a list of ingredients and then go to the Aldi website and work out the cost of everything. You can tell me how much money you’ll need to make your dinners. Then we can go shopping, buy the ingredients and you can cook the meals.”

Well, the girls liked the idea of choosing a new recipe. Their eyes lit up at the thought of shopping and preparing a meal of their own. But did they like the idea of pricing the ingredients and working out the cost of each meal? They didn’t protest at first. Maybe they thought, “If I want to cook, I’m going to have to do the maths first.” They had to fulfil a condition before getting to the part they were really interested in. But after a while, I could see Gemma-Rose was getting frustrated by what was really a boring exercise. She knows I never work out the cost of all the ingredients in a recipe before I go shopping, so why should she? I came to the conclusion that giving her such exercises to do will eventually put her off maths. Maybe she will even come to hate it.

I remember trying to teach Gemma-Rose how to tell the time. That was a bit frustrating. I looked for fun activities to help her understand what time is all about. I thought she’d enjoy all the games that taught this skill. But she didn’t. She ended up doing a lot of groaning and complaining. In the end, I bought her a clock and fixed it to her bedroom wall. I invited her to watch a few Brainpop videos with me. I then stepped back and forgot all about time. That was a year and a half or so ago. The other day I said, “Gemma-Rose can you tell the time?” She rolled her eyes and said, “Of course I can!” I didn’t need to find a fun way of teaching her about time. She learnt about it herself when she realised she wanted to use her clock.

I think back to those time learning games. Games aren’t the same as adding up columns of numbers. They should be a lot more fun. So why didn’t Gemma-Rose enjoy them? Maybe it was all to do with the type of game I presented her with. We can use maths to play a game or we can play a game to learn maths. There’s a subtle difference. Both might improve our maths skills but the second kind of game is really a maths exercise in disguise. And kids are very clever. It doesn’t take them long to discover our trickery. They know we don’t really trust them to learn what they need to know when they need it. We want them to learn NOW. The sooner they have those maths facts memorised, the better. Our child might start to feel pressured.

Now, I don’t think we should stand back, afraid to tempt our kids with some maths experiences. There are many wonderful ways of strewing maths. Maths is interesting. It can be fun purely for its own sake. 

“Would you like to watch this video? It’s called The Knight’s Tour. I’m not sure exactly what it’s about but I found it on the Numberphile website and it could be interesting.”

“I discovered a new way to add a long list of numbers without getting into a muddle. Do you want to see?’

“I found another video of The Human Calculator!”

“Do you want to play Sudoku? I found a generator online.”

“This Murderous Maths book is very funny. How about we have a look at it together?”

We can include our children in all our own real life maths experiences:

“Do you want to help me sort out these bills?”

And our children will come across maths experiences all by themselves:

“I just did the ‘measure ingredients for baking’ challenge for the Baker’s badge on DIY.”

Children will ponder and ask questions. Sophie might even have wondered, without any prompting from me, how much money she’d need to buy her junk mail catalogue gifts.

Yes, there are so many wonderful ways to enrich our children’s world with maths. And they will either be fascinated by maths or they will see a need for it, or perhaps both. We don’t need to trick them into learning it. 

These are just a few things I’ve been pondering after I published my junk mail catalogue post. My words, “Would they think my question was a boring maths exercise in disguise?” really bothered me afterwards. If I am being honest, I think that’s exactly what I did present to my children.

So how are my children going to learn the maths skills they will need? If I observe and listen to my children, I should be able to find out…

“The best way to learn maths is to use it with your interests,” says Sophie. “But I don’t mind adding up numbers for no particular reason because I find numbers interesting.”

“I don’t,” says Gemma-Rose. “Adding up lots of numbers is boring. You write it all on a piece of paper which is filed away and never seen again. What’s the point?”

“It helps you to learn maths. What if you need to add up something?” I ask.

Gemma-Rose grins. “I’ll get someone else to do it for me!”

“She can add up really,” says Sophie. “I’ve seen her do it. She adds up her money all the time. She just doesn’t want to do it for no reason.”

“But some activities are useful. They help you learn maths. You practise what you need to know,” I say.

But Gemma-Rose is not convinced. “I’ll just pick maths up as I go along,” she says.

You know, if I resist the temptation to pressure her, I believe she will.

Image: Gemma-Rose with the biscuits she baked for the DIY baker’s challenge.

Follow Sue’s board unschool maths on Pinterest.


Related Posts

Previous Post Next Post


  1. Reply


    You make so many good points! Yes, I do agree that higher maths needs focused study in order to learn it properly. I have tried to find ways of making this level of maths relevant by looking for everyday examples, and have failed. The so-called everyday examples would never occur in most people's lives. All my older children have learnt a certain amount of higher maths by using workbooks or online structured courses. There came a point with most of them, when they questioned the relevance of what they were doing, and as they had no interest in it, they gave up their study. Imogen though did the whole of the advanced maths course mainly because she thought she'd need it. She ended up choosing an arts degree rather than a science one, so higher maths wasn't needed after all. The sad thing is she's forgotten much of what's she learnt. You said, "Someone who has the ability to learn is able to learn whatever they're interested in, when that specific topic becomes relevant to them." Yes! Imogen proved she had the ability to learn higher maths. Like you said, I'm sure the others will be able to learn it too if the need arises.

    Maybe Sophie will want to do higher maths. She loves numbers. I guess at this stage I don't want to put her off the subject. I just want to nurture that fascination she has with maths, without her getting bogged down in boring practice exercises. I remember how she said she hated maths a couple of years ago. I'm so glad she's changed her mind!

    • Hwee
    • February 14, 2014

    This is a difficult one, Sue. I think most of maths at the elementary school level can be learned naturally, as with your example of telling time. Even basic algebra can be learned this way. However, the higher level and more technical kind of maths, eg statistics, will probably need focused study to get good at. When it comes to that, then we go back to the question of whether everyone needs to know technical maths at a high level, as you've described in your earlier maths post last week.

    There's certainly no merit in learning something that one finds irrelevant and has very little interest in. I think having the ability to learn, rather than a bag of specific knowledge, is more important. Someone who has the ability to learn is able to learn whatever they're interested in, when that specific topic becomes relevant to them. 🙂

  2. Reply

    Sue, I love the way your stories make me think about schooling differently. I confess I don't think I will ever be able to unschool (I would love to though) but your lovely advice and ideas definitely have helped me "loosen up" and look at different ways to "school" in our house, so thank you.

    1. Reply


      You are always so kind. Thank you!

      I rather expected, after homeschooling for 22 years, I'd have it all worked out by now. But new ideas keep occurring to me. I suppose that's what makes homeschooling (and life) so interesting! We're always learning.

      Lisa, we are all different with different children, so I can understand why you don't feel able to unschool. But one thing I've learnt from blogging is that we can listen to each other and chat and exchange ideas regardless of those differences. You aren't unschoolers but you still read my blog and I enjoy yours very much. I really like that. I love sharing with you!

  3. Reply

    This was timely. My 14 year old was pretty upset with me yesterday. He is feeling "less than" his age group and stated that unschooling is not good. He wants me to push him to do his school work. He is below level in math. Otherwise, he is a mental giant. The information that he has stored from the constant searching is astounding. People are amazed, and so am I, at what he knows. I tried to tell him that he wants me to trust him and treat him like a man with everything else (movies, video games, books, chores). What makes him think I should be in charge of his education? A little later, when it was time to do something that was optional that he had requested my help with, I had to nag him and used it as an example of what I did not want regarding schooling. I have agreed, with his approval, to rent a basic college math text. We'll see. I'm still trying to figure it out. As soon as I feel confident, something makes me anxious about it all.

    1. Reply


      It sounds like your son is doing a fantastic job learning despite his concern about maths. His constant searching and your description of him being a mental giant make me think he loves learning.

      Maths is a difficult area. It's easy to see what level other kids his age are expected to be doing by looking at school text books and workbooks. But all children are different and will achieve different things at different ages. I don't suppose this helps though when your son feels this is a problem. Is he comparing himself to a friend or relative? Maybe his strengths lie in areas other than maths.Or maybe he will catch up rapidly when the time is right.

      I wonder how your son will get on with the math text. Some of my older children used a structured maths course for a time. Most of them dropped out after a while. One continued to the end and felt some satisfaction at completing the course, though she doesn't feel she gained much useful knowledge.

      I have just had another thought. You said your son wants you to push him to do his schoolwork. Maybe you can work together. I used to think unschooling meant a child should go off and learn by themselves and be totally self motivated. Now I think it is more like a partnership. I help my children go where they want to go. Sometimes they steam ahead without much interaction with me. Sometimes they want me at their sides. It is good to share and learn together. Maybe your son just wants to work more closely with you, at least for the moment.

      Homeschooling can be difficult at times. I am still trying to figure it out too! Every time I think I've got it all worked out another thought occurs to me. I guess that's what keeps everything interesting!

    2. Reply

      Thank you so much Sue. You are always so generous with your replies. I feel so much better now. After 24 years of parenting, I have an aversion to force. It just feels unnatural to me now. Either that or I'm just tired of fighting or finding "clever" ways to get them to do things, you know?

    3. Reply


      You have hit the nail on the head! 'I'm just tired of fighting or finding "clever" ways to get them to do things.' Yes, we shouldn't have to push kids along like this. Either they have to be self motivated or maybe what we want them to do isn't that important after all. I have an aversion to force too. I've been thinking about control, how everyone to some extent tries to control others. We really have no right to do this. It's always so good to chat with you. Thank you so much for returning and continuing the conversation!

  4. Reply

    People always talk about maths as though we're all going to grow up to be Mathematicians and very few of us actually are! We've moved right away from maths (for the time being, it was all getting a bit too boring and frustrating) and I'll be interested to see if anyone does pick it up on their own out of interest.
    Thanks for another excellent and informative post 🙂

    1. Reply


      I read a lot of comments the other day which all said the same thing: if we don't insist our children learn the higher levels of maths then they might not discover they like it. Society will miss out on future engineers etc. It seems to me that future engineers will naturally want to learn more maths regardless of whether the subject is mandatory. I was also thinking we could apply the same argument to such subjects as art and music. If higher maths is mandatory, shouldn't advanced art and music be as well? But sadly these areas are not valued as much as maths and also the sciences.

      Oh there is nothing more frustrating than persisting with something kids are just not interested in. I agree with stepping back from it and doing something else. They might return to it at a later time. You'll have to let us know if any of your children do pick up maths on their own!

    • Amy
    • February 19, 2014

    Force goes both ways…we (moms, generally) feel forced to make our kids learn math, against our own inclination to just let it happen naturally. And then we force our kids to do math, or resort to trickery, which they usually see through anyway. My daughter, almost 17, has done very little math. I encourage her (or tell her) to do some every once in a while, when I think of it. Now that she's in a beauty school program, though, she is looking at her math book (Life of Fred) more often…there's a business class within the beauty school, as that is a part of being a beautician…they are almost always independent businesses, at least in this country. I've told her to look at Khan Academy (she is reluctant to…the things she's seen on there have been boring to her). Hey, if you come across anything cool-fun-good along those lines – business maths – send it along! I'll tell Anne about it, and I will also send a link to her teacher.

    1. Reply


      Oh yes, there's a lot of pressure on us mothers to insist our children learn maths. I often dream about a life where there is no such thing as outside expectations. What if they were no homeschooling registration regulations to fulfil, or university entrance requirements? We could just let our children be who they are, and life would be simpler and I'm sure more productive.

      Sounds like Anne has finally found a need for some maths. Right at this moment, I can't think of any maths course that would be suitable for Anne but if I do come across anything, I'll let you know!

Join in the conversation!

%d bloggers like this: