Thinking about Maths Creatively

It seems to me there are three main ways of learning maths: the workbook way, the real life maths way and the messing-about-with-numbers way.

Sophie once learnt maths the workbook way. She wasn’t actually using paper books. She was using an online structured maths course. The course looked attractive, even exciting. There were flashing and colourful interactive activities, cute avatars to change each day, virtual rewards and points to collect… But really, online maths courses are just a dressed up version of workbooks. A child works through them in an orderly fashion, working out endless problems in the hope that the concepts will seep into their memories never to be forgotten.
Sophie enjoyed her online course for a short while and then the avatars and clever interactive activities lost their appeal. They were novelties hiding rote learning. Sophie reluctantly signed into her account each day, until one day she announced, “I hate maths. I’m no good at it.”

It was time to rethink maths, and this is when we tried the second method of learning maths: real life maths. I thought… children need to see a use for all the maths they learn. I went searching for real life maths experiences. Sophie baked and counted her money. She drew geometric patterns for fun. She calculated the distance she ran each day. From time to time, I strewed interesting maths resources and books under her nose. I tempted her with computer games and other activities which at first glance didn’t look like maths. I found maths in the most unexpected places like computer science courses. We viewed videos and tried out gizmos. And all this has worked very well. Sophie started to say, “I like maths!” She began to take an interest in anything mathematical.

Sophie is still very interested in real life maths but just recently, I have realised she is also learning maths a third way.

It all started when I bought Sophie Bill Handley’s book, Teach Your Children Tables. Sophie learnt to do such things as work out her times tables without memorising them, and to multiple big numbers in her head. It was all very impressive. It gave her confidence. She was having fun. One day she said, “I think I’m turning into Syke Penderwick!” and she grinned, liking this idea very much.

Bill Handley approaches maths in a totally different way to traditional maths learning. Using his methods, a child can solve a problem quickly, and accurately, with better understanding, and at the same time have fun. I must admit I thought, “Why learn a totally new way of doing things when the old way works too?” But I am getting older and new thinking isn’t as easy for me, as it is for Sophie. Even if these new ways of solving problems are never adopted, there is real value in trying them out because they encourage thinking skills and creativity. Not everything has to automatically be done the same way.

A couple of days ago, I noticed an old Mega Math workbook sitting in the dust on the top of one of our bookshelves. I bought it years ago at a secondhand store, and no one has ever used it. I showed the book to Sophie and her eyes lit up. It is written by Scott Flansburg who is known as the Human Calculator. We found a Youtube video of Scott showing off his mental maths skills and Sophie was impressed.

“Would you like to be a human calculator?” I asked. Sophie nodded her head emphatically.

Is there really any call for superfast mental skills? Does it matter if a child can manipulate numbers quickly or not? Is it just a gimmick?

I have been thinking about this, and conclude the value is not so much in impressing others with superior maths handling skills. The real value is loving numbers so much that you just can’t help thinking about them, experimenting with them, seeing what you can actually do with them… being as creative with numbers as some people are with words or a basket full of fabric or a sportsman trying to shoot goals.

Imagine… adding up the cost of all the food items as they are placed in a shopping basket, or seeing a random street number or telephone number and working out all its factors, or counting the number of waves breaking on the shore in a ten minute period and calculating the number that will wash up on the shore in a 24 hour period, or trying to beat a record of adding as many numbers as possible in 60 seconds… doing such calculations purely out of enjoyment, doing them instinctively because you are curious and love manipulating numbers. When this stage is reached, a child is learning maths not because it’s expected, and not because he can see a need for it. He is being creative with numbers for their own sake. He just loves messing about with numbers.

Maybe it’s like English. You can learn the rules from a book or learn how English works by using the language in real life situations. Or you can love manipulating and experimenting with words so much, you will write just for pure love. You will enter that delightful creative world as often as possible and not really want to return when other things beckon. As a writer, I can relate to all of this. I just never imagined such creativity could be applied to maths. I always assumed maths was very black and white. And now I am beginning to see it is very colourful indeed.

So Sophie is learning maths the real life way. (She has at times seen the value of a bit of old fashioned memory work too.) But her real love is playing with numbers. She likes working out puzzles, attempting to add up long lists of numbers without resorting to paper, thinking about numbers at odd moments for no reason other than enjoyment. Yes, I think she is turning into Skye Penderwick.

Yesterday Sophie said to me, “I don’t suppose there’s many jobs in the world for mathematicians.”

“Of course there is,” I replied. “A lot of people haven’t discovered how interesting maths is. A lot of people are looking for other people to do their maths and their thinking for them.”

“Do you think I could be a mathematician?”

“Of course!”

A short while ago, I would never have imagined Sophie wanting to become a mathematician. Now it is a real possibility. And all because she spent time, not with workbooks or even real life problems, but because she started messing about with numbers. 

These days Sophie no longer says, “I hate maths!” She is enjoying it. She is confident. And she is good at it. 

Well, that’s another problem out of the way. Now onto the next one…


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    • Amy R
    • February 18, 2013

    Oh! What a delightful story! And it brought STRAIGHT to my mind "messing about with boats"…is that from Swallows and Amazons? Or The Wind in the Willows?

    You might enjoy No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman. He simply delighted in numbers (and a lot of things), too.

    1. Reply


      I do enjoy swapping comments with you here on this blog. Thank you for stopping by!

      "messing about with boats"… I would say Wind in the Willows but I could be wrong. I often am!

      Thank you for the book recommendation. I can't wait to look it up! It sounds perfect.

      God bless!

    • Ruth
    • February 21, 2013

    Well done Sue, and Sophie. I can hardly believe what I am hearing about maths and wanting to do it for fun, so away with the maths text books and onto the fun stuff. I am going to give it a role and have fun, thank you Sue, you really inspire me. I am going to be adventurous and follow in your foot steps! I can't get over how your daughter likes playing with maths.

    I found this blog while I was on your other one seeing if your other had a followers botton, but it does not, sadly because I would really love to read it more often and be a follower.

    God bless you and your family,

    1. Reply


      Thank you for visiting this blog! It's lovely of you to want to follow my other blog. I explained how to do this in a comment on your own blog. If you have any problems let me know.

      It wasn't that long ago that Sophie used to say she hated maths, so I am really pleased she has had such a great turn around. We all have so much fun writing. I hadn't considered maths can be viewed in the same way.

      I hope you will share your unschooling adventures, and any great resources you discover. I'd always love to hear about more fun ways to learn maths.

      God bless!

      • Ruth
      • February 24, 2013


      That is so kind of you! Thank you so much, your words always make me be inspired. I am planning on going out onto the computer and finding some more things to do with my kids for unschooling. I will write them all down when I have finished so that you too can use them, not that you don't have enough of your own, you have heaps!

      May God bless you and your house,

    2. Reply


      I love browsing websites for new ideas and resources. I don't think we can ever have too many ideas so please share any you find. We all learn from each other. Nobody has all the answers.

      I am glad you feel inspired. I hope your unschooling adventure continues to bring you joy. Please feel welcome to stop and chat whenever you feel like it. I always love talking unschooling!

      May God bless you too!

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