Unschool Maths: Why and How

A few years ago, we used to unschool everything except for maths. I guess some people would say that’s not really unschooling, but that never worried me. I’ve learnt to ignore other people’s opinions and do what I feel is right for us. We did eventually decide to unschool maths, but we did it for a much better reason than only to avoid criticism and be accepted. 

In this week’s podcast, I tell you the story of why and how we moved from traditionally taught maths to unschool maths. I share some of my own thoughts on unschool maths, before interviewing my daughter Sophie (13).

The other day I said, “I’m thinking about making a podcast about unschool maths, Sophie. Do you have anything to say about this topic?”

“Oh yes!” she replied. “You’re talking to the girl who hated maths and then turned around and now absolutely loves it. I have LOTS to say about unschool maths!”

Yes, as I found out, Sophie did have lots to say. I challenge anyone to listen to her speaking and not catch her enthusiasm for maths!

So will you listen to episode 23, Unschool Maths: Why and How? I hope so!

IMG_6472f CF14 Geometry by A Yee(CC BY 2.0)
Program Notes

Blog posts about unschool maths
But is this compromise killing my children’s inborn love of learning? Will Sophie’s dislike of maths, and her opinion that she is no good at maths, intensify? Should I throw caution to the wind and cut the last tie that is holding me to a conventional approach to education? Should I allow my children the freedom to learn maths in their own way in their own time?

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.

Charlotte (16) and I are talking about what she wants to learn about this year. “How about maths? Do you want to do the higher maths course?”

Charlotte screws up her face. “When am I ever going to need to know such things as trigonometry?”

“Well you never know,” I reply. “You could learn it just in case.”
I wonder if maths can be approached backwards? Could we offer the big picture, show children how fascinating and interesting maths is, and then wait for a child to wonder about the details? Maybe it’s a bit like writing… 

I have written a lot of other posts which can be found on my unschool maths page.

Maths Resources

Books by Bill Handley

Scott Flansburg, the Human Calculator

Numberphile videos: Youtube and website

Fibonacci sequence layout at it’s best! by Ginette(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The above photos show maths in action in nature. Top image :now, by John D. (CC BY 2.0)

Sophie tells me there’s a lot of maths involved in photography, especially if you use your camera in manual mode. I think she’s right!

If you’d like to listen to more of my podcasts you can find them on iTunes and Podbean.

You can find my videos on Youtube.

My children’s book, The Angels of Abbey Creek is on Amazon, as well as other places.

Follow Sue’s board unschool maths on Pinterest.

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    • Faith
    • February 13, 2015

    Sue, I just loved this podcast! Sophie is so mature! We do things a little differently in that I do try to cultivate that excitement about math when they are little, but we tighten up and get more methodical and schooly when they hit the pre-algebra age. I can't get around this because my husband feels very strongly that they should take high school math(s) and be ready to take the SAT which is the test to get into college. However, I have found that though there might be some complaining, the kids are not burnt out by doing math workbooks for so long, so they actually do enjoy learning the higher level math. Different kids have chosen to go to different levels. One stopped as soon as they could be considered as having covered the bare minimum necessary. But two of the others have chosen to go on and do advanced math. My current 13 yo really complains about math but I have noticed she is very proud of the fact that she knows some when it comes up in real life. She is interested in geometry and so is excited that next year we are just going to devote ourselves to that. Anyway, I loved your podcast and I think you are doing such a great service to explain unschooling in such a warm hearted and non-confrontational way. It truly is a wonderful way for kids to learn. More people need to know that!

    1. Reply


      Thank you so much for your feedback on my podcast. I appreciate it very much! Oh I do understand about doing things differently. Yes, sometimes we have no choice or kids are different… There's never one right way to do anything. I'm so glad you stopped by to share your family's math story. Perhaps you can write about your daughter's geometry adventures on your blog. I wonder what resources you're planning on using. I'd love to hear more!

      I'm thinking about chatting to Sophie again, this time discussing various maths resources we've used. I could do that for this week's podcast while we're in a maths mood. I must remember to pass on your words about Sophie. They'll make her smile! Actually you've made me smile too. Thank you!

  1. Reply

    I realize this is a "hindsight is 20-20", but as a former public school teacher who also homeschooled at the same time (seeing the public schools from the inside convinced me that I didn't want my children there! Eventually I left because my wings were being clipped at every turn, and I could no longer nod and smile and stick to their script.), I have found that if you start young and incorporate a little math into each day (or at least most days), then children will get at least the basics that will give them a good foundation.

    Like you, I grew up disliking math. My brain just didn't wrap around math like other people. I was much slower to pick it up, and I forgot what I learned very quickly. "They" say that if you don't learn something when you're young, you will not make those neuron connections in your brain. Well, I simply don't believe that. As an adult, I was taught by my husband different ways to approach learning math. He was so patient with me, and as a result, I learned math concepts I never was able to figure out when I was in high school.

    From there, he encouraged me to do a little math each day….not 20 problems in some workbook, but just a few…just enough to move the cobwebs. Slowly, over time, I found myself getting better and better at math, and understanding more and more. This gave me the idea to do the same with my own children.

    I started early, and would use several different approaches to learning a concept. I'd use visual, audio, and kinesthetic activities. We do a little each day (and by that, I mean usually under 20 problems in a wide variety of approaches including computer games) and progress forward as I notice them ready to move on. It is therefore never a drudgery, keeps progressing, and leaves them somewhere in the vicinity of their same-age public school peers. If we only do 3 problems a day, so be it!

    I don't introduce math for the sake of having it “just in case”, but rather to have a basic foundation (and at least familiarity) up to basic linear algebra, and as you mentioned, for the focus to be to have basic financial, consumer, and real-world math skills to help run a home, balance a check book, budget, etc. Then, if they decide to go on to further education, they'll likely pass an entrance math exam with those basic skills, or at the very least be in a good position to take a quick adult ed or online math course and feel ready at that point without requiring too much time, energy, or cramming as they'll have the basics under their belts already.

  2. Reply

    Me From Maine,

    My husband is a public school teacher too! Oh yes, it must be difficult having to teach as the schools dictate when there is a better, more effective and enjoyable way.

    It sounds like your husband has been a great help to you with maths. A good mentor or teacher can make all the difference. I also agree it's never too late to learn things. Unschooling is giving me a second chance to get a proper education! Maybe we are so successful at learning as adults because we are now choosing to learn, rather than being forced to. Of course, the way a topic is presented makes all the difference too.

    I've heard a lot of people question the value of the large number of maths problems which are required for most maths courses. With anything we find difficult, one small step at a time sounds more effective. Anything else can be overwhelming.

    I like your idea of approaching a concept using different approaches. I try to do that too!

    It's wonderful when we find something that really works for us, isn't it? And it's good to share our ideas in case they can help others. Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by to share your approach to maths. I enjoyed reading and thinking about your comment!

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