Recess from Seatwork, Natural Learning in Mathematics

One of the things that fuels my passion for unschooling and my desire to spread the word about this option (what to some is an unheard-of idea), are the memories seared into my brain of children I love struggling with numbers on paper. It can be downright painful sometimes. No one likes to see a child struggle like that (cringe).

Cross this series of memories with one of a day when the three-year-old of my unschooling neighbor family began counting for me, and you might see the lightbulb that went off in my head (replace cringe with glowing smile). The story of Nikolai the natural numbers whiz, son of Boba founders Elizabeth and Robert Antunovic, illustrates for me the joy present in learning in an un-regimented life. And it is a simple one:

Nikolai, at age three, became interested in where everyone in the building lived. He knew he lived in apartment 4. He said to me one day, “Heduh, we wiv in numbo fow. You wiv in numbo six, wiiiiight?” I affirmed, and he then began to count all the doors, stopping a few times to correct himself. “1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6!” He related this understanding to me again as he counted our little row of apartment mailboxes.

You see, Nikolai loved his neighbors and loved knowing all sorts of things about us (still does), including the numbers associated with where we lived (back then, in a cluster of apartments in North Boulder, Colorado), so counting our homes respectively was just a natural extension of this, no seatwork required. No one ever sat Nikolai down to teach him his numbers. No one had to. Numbers are just part of his life, and just part of the landscape of natural learning that every child, curious to the core, adventures to know more about.

I’ve seen other great examples in older children as well, be it through learning to knit or helping with cooking, playing a game of Scrabble or doing a little grocery shopping, and not to mention saving up for that special toy they’ve been wanting. The world of numbers and math is alive and real for children, even those who are never made to write out multiplication tables - maybe even especially so.

While unschooling is not a choice every parent chooses to make, and not a philosophy embraced by the majority of modern society, I think the ideas expressed inherently in this way of life can serve to foster wonder, curiosity and natural learning in every child – especially in math – be their sweet heads schooled in a structured format or simply learning as life unfolds.

In service of freedom-inspired learning for all, here are a few good resources to help embrace a natural learning environment in the sometimes frustrating world of math:

Unschoolers and Mathematics – A collection of articles and thoughts from homeschooling and unschooling parents about numbers and math in everyday life curating by unschooling advocate Sandra Dodd.

Learning Through Play – A personal look from Jan Hunt of The Natural Child Project at her son’s experience and pursuit of mathematics throughout childhood, including brief notes on Harold Jacobs’ book Mathematics: A Human Endeavor.

Zen & The Art of Unschooling Math – A great article by Rachel Gathercole about the wonders of seeing her children discover, learn and build upon their mathematical understanding while never having a single math lesson (“How were they learning all this math, and why?”).

Enjoy, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the philosophy of unschooling or other child-centered learning options you may (or may not) embrace, and how we help foster confidence in our little ones as they learn more about the world around and within!