Math – Unschooling Style

Unschooling is a free-flowing experience. It takes trust on several levels, but in one way it means to truly believe the idea that learning and life are not separate. It is knowing that your children will learn “the basics”, through living a life with many resources and unwavering parental support, love and involvement.

Last night the kids really wanted to go out to dinner to Friendly’s. It is their favorite place to go for dinner and they always get the same thing. I shared with them that we only had half of the spending money of what it normally costs us to eat out there. I offered a few options to make it possible. I jumped online and found a coupon. It was “buy one adult dinner and get a kid’s meal free”. Cool! There is one meal free! I also thought that Joe and I could share a meal. I asked the girls if they minded giving Orion one quarter of their meals each.

I showed the girls what I meant by one quarter by drawing graphs and explaining how much of their meal they would be sharing with Orion. Tiff then drew a graph herself and exclaimed that Orion would have half of a meal if they each shared a quarter of theirs and half was perfect for for him! The graphs were helpful tools to her in that moment and I was there to share useful information with her. Unschooled kids do learn math, but in a way that isn’t linear. It is in bits and pieces when needed. My kids have learned math when they have actually needed it in their lives. These bits and pieces are like drops in a puddle that slowly grow to form a very broad and balanced education throughout the childhood years. We are here as parents offering tools and resources and our kids are receptive and truly desire the support and information that we share with them.

It turned out that buying only three meals (with a fourth meal being the free kids meal) was plenty for our family of six. We were able to meet the needs of everyone in the family through discussion and figuring a way out together to make it work. When money is an issue most people tend to think in an either/or mentality when they think they can’t afford something. I’ve learned that by shifting to possibility, options are created.

When a child uses math as a tool to understand the world around them, it is learned easily and precisely. When learned in context with their own real life experiences, it goes from being something that is “hard” to learn, to a cool way to figure something out. My children never have to memorize the “times tables”. They do however understand and use multiplication and fractions as a tool to get more of what they want in life. Internal motivation is the key to true learning.

Memorization is not learning. In fact it takes up the precious space of thoughts and desire of the person being forced to memorize. Think of the unique, rich tapestry of the uncontrolled mind! This to me is a level of freedom and respect that all humans deserve, but rarely get to experience.

A traditional education is like handing a child a paint by numbers project, while standing over their shoulder commenting on their work. It feels safe, and you think you know how it will turn out. An Unschooling life is like handing a child a blank canvas while you both create together with the sound of beautiful music in the background. It feels connected, peaceful, creative, unique and it is perfectly individualized. With Unschooling, true human potential thrives.



  1. Hi Dayna. I love the example you’ve given.

    My older children (ages 7 and 5.5yrs) can ‘do math’ in their heads just by thinking and figuring out what they need. Sometimes I hear from people “Oh, you must do a lot of math lessons.” I just smile and say nothing because I can’t explain how natural it is for children to just learn to count, add and subtract. Math happens naturally, especially if no one ever tells children that it is ‘hard’.

  2. Dayna, It’s really hard to fathom not learning math from a textbook until you have actually jumped in and seen the process happen. Working with numbers is such a huge part of everyday life. Each of my kids started telling me math facts completely out of nowhere at around age 7 or so. I never quizzed them or prompted them. They would just blurt it out. Until then I was a little tentative about not having a math book in the house. It was having those moments where the kids showed ME how the process worked that made me relax about it. I do have to mention that a big influence on their math skills has been video games. Earning points and calculating how many more they need to get in order to “spend” them in the game not only had them constantly practicing adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing but doing it to the thousands, millions and sometimes trillions. I know the big question people often have is “What about SATs?” My kids elect to do the standardized tests every year for reporting and do fantastic! Oh and I have to mention that, just as Patti says above, they do it all in their heads! I gave them scratch paper and they looked at me like I was crazy! On a side note – I love your paint by numbers analogy. So true!

    • Robin, I love how you shared about the video games – it so true! I love that Unschooled kids find their own ways to work with numbers too. Most kids who are “educated” about math learn one way to do things and are never able to play with numbers organically. It is such a gift to give children the freedom to learn math naturally. It opens up so many more doors for them!
      Thanks so much for visiting my website and for your comment!

    • have you ever thought of keeping a math book around to answer questions you don’t know? Or do you have good luck finding the answers and information for your kids online/in library books? I know there’s some math concepts I “know” but would be hard pressed to explain.

  3. At times it was scary and embarrassing to travel the radical unschooling math ‘approach’ and to continue to have faith that my daughter truly did know the best way to educate herself. She wanted NOTHING to do with math and always said, “If and when I want to learn math, I’ll learn fast.”

    When she was 15 1/2, and not even 3rd gr math level, she had a conversation with a fellow fencer who mentioned a book. Math Doesn’t Suck. I picked it up for her from the library and set it on the kitchen table. She glanced through it a bit, disappeared with it and paper and pencil, doing little else for 3 days and came back totally jazzed about it and ready for the next book. Ditto with that one. (Note how quickly she covered so much ground.) She now LOVES math. Advanced, even.

    She decided that she wanted to take the state HS equivalency test and, of course, passed easily, considering it a joke.

    I just LOVE happy endings 🙂

  4. I am a teacher, and this sounds like what I’d call the “teachable moment.” While I do have a curriculum I have to follow, thanks to the state, I also try and find time to follow students’ interests and needs. Your kids had both interest and need in this situation, and thus they learned the concept quickly. When need and interest intersect for my students, I absolutely love it because you can see the kids light up. I love project-based learning for the same reason; they learn information as they need it to address their project (usually of their choosing) rather than being drilled. I’m doing my best to bring some of the unschooling methods to school itself.

  5. Love it! This is one of the reasons I miss homeschooling my kids – and hopefully we’ll be in a position to return to it someday. 🙂

  6. Ann – thank you for sharing about Math Doesn’t Suck book. Going to purchase now.

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