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Making Math Fun & Meaningful

When my daughter began home schooling, at age 9, she had been doing satisfactory work in her public school curriculum and scoring at or above the norm on standardized tests. Her teachers had conscientiously coached her and given her extra practice when she had difficulties. Therefore, I was surprised to discover that she seemed unconcerned when she put a digit in the wrong place or came up with a wildly improbable answer to a problem. She became extremely frustrated when asked to correct her own mistakes. She had learned to “do” math, through repeated practice and rote learning, did not understand what she was doing.

We are not alone. Many children, taught mathematics through worksheets and drill, are able to perform well on tests, but don’t really “get” what they are doing. Noted math educator Marilyn Burns, in About Teaching Mathematics : A K-8 Resource, noted that these problems are common. She urges educators to give children plenty of time to grasp crucial math concepts, when they are developmentally ready, through discussion, books, and play, before attempting the work on paper. Do only what you understand, and keep at it until you do understand. (Burns, 1992).

By gaining a thorough grasp of math concepts, through “living” activities, books, and conversations, a child can:

  • retain knowledge longer than he would if he learned math “by the book” alone.
  • gain a love for math, and a confidence in his abilities, without the dread and anxiety that comes from being forced to do work that is too difficult for him
  • be prepared for more advanced math concepts later on. If a child does not have a firm conceptual base, preferably with some enjoyment of and confidence in the subject, he may hit an impassable wall later.

Philosophically, I have a pretty good handle on this idea. In actual practice - well - my daughter still enjoys math about as much as she would like having both feet affixed to the floor with rusty nails. Trying to work around her resistance has been a long journey for me. I have had to unlearn most of what I "knew" about teaching math and try to be as creative as possible in discovering fresh approaches. My six-year-old James, enjoys math. His interest in the subject has not been destroyed yet, and I am sometimes terrified that I will do something to bungle that up.

We try to use dynamic hands-on learning instead of, or before, tackling curricula and workbooks. Marilyn Burns' ideas have helped me a great deal. Popular author Ruth Beechnik, who authored the article "Build Strong Arithmetic Thinking" shares this perspective. Her article explores developmentally appropriate ways to teach math to young children (preschool-second grade), ensuring that they start out with a thorough understanding of the subject. It also offers a "checklist," a sort of scope and sequence, for tracking a child's learning. This will reassure parents who teach without pre-packaged curricula that they are covering all essential skills. I believe parents who read this article will find it validating: "Hey, I already do that!"

I also enjoy teaching math through interesting children's literature, rather than textbooks and worksheets. One of our favorite writers is Greg Tang (The Grapes of Math). I will confess that the first time I perused these books, I didn't "get" it. I thought, "Why are these so popular? They're just counting books." It took a second look to see the many layers of experience these books provide in problem-solving, computation, creative thinking, and visual learning. Here, you will find an article by Greg Tang, titled "Taking the Worry Out of Math," in which he eloquently expresses part of his vision for math education. The article is followed by my brief reviews of Tang's books.

Next, mother and mathematician Julie Brennan offers some delightful and practical ideas on making any enjoyable children's picture book into a math lesson in THIS is a Math Book?. I find Julie's love of mathematics and "living books" for kids infectious and inspiring.

This is followed by Hands-On Math for Young Children: Exploring Numbers and Operations With Whole Numbers, the first in a series of articles offering examples of dynamic math activities for young kids (preschool - about grade 3).

Author David Albert's articles on teaching math helped me see how "living math" ideas can be extended beyond the early grades. Writing from an "unschooling" perspective, he advocates avoiding rote ways of learning math, which deaden a student's interest in the subject, and helping kids see the beauty and order in mathematics.

I hope you will find something here that you can use. Please e-mail us with comments and to share your own ideas on math learning.Good luck, and have fun!

-Stephanie Marshall Ward


  • Burns, Marilyn About Teaching Mathematics : A K-8 Resource. 1992. Sausalito, CA : Marilyn Burns Education Associates.

    Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1, page 8

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