Six Surprising, Fun Ways to Unschool Math in Real Life

While we have used math curriculum periodically (check out my list of math resources), I always try to unschool math in some way as well. Why? Isn’t the curriculum enough?

First, I generally don’t use a curriculum until the child is around age 10. Until that time, I focus mostly on math facts, money, and time. To do this, I use mostly games, songs, and math literature. I discuss some of the reasons for this in my post about how to teach math for K-6th. Over the years of homeschooling my four children, I have found that this works best. I tried using a curriculum in the early years with my now-grown oldest daughter and experienced the following:

  • She’d get all the problems correct on the worksheet, but when faced with a real life problem, didn’t know what to do.
  • Or, she could solve complex problems in her head, but didn’t know how to translate that into a math sentence.
  • The development of anxiety over math and a crippling math phobia that followed her into high school, making it difficult for her to learn higher level math.

Since math is a skill needed to solve everyday problems, I knew I needed to unschool math at least some of the time. Otherwise, she and her younger siblings might not understand how to apply what they learned. So, I came up with organized ways to do this with her (and all my children) so they would make the connection between what was taught in the workbook and how it is used in real life. After doing this for a little while, she begged me for “real math.”

carpenter measuring and cutting wood as one way to unschool math using real life

Six ways to unschool math using real life

Math Problem of the Day.

This is my family’s favorite way to do math. A few times a week, I create a real-life problem for my children to solve. It forces me to think about how I use math for more than just cooking or shopping. The problems that I give the children are ones that don’t come up every day and are associated with household projects, such as painting rooms, building a fence, tiling the kitchen, or creating a garden plot. The problems may also require the children to actually measure the room or garden plot.

However, I don’t give them problems that they can’t relate to, such as calculating mortgage interest or earnings on an annuity. But, they are always multi-step problems and they are permitted to work together to solve them. When I run out of ideas, I might use problems from a book such as 65 Short Mysteries You Solve with Math.

Number Scavenger Hunt

This game can be played with physical objects at a park, in your home, in a museum, or other setting. Or, it can be played as a paper and pencil game with books or magazines. It can also be adapted to practice a variety of math skills. To practice factors with physical objects, make a list of items to find in your house that are multiples of five or multiples of three or multiples of some other number. The kids can then go around the house finding those items. You can also mix it up so that they have to find one item that is a multiple of five, one item that is a multiple of seven, etc. As an incentive, maybe you decide to make cookies that are a multiple of one of three numbers that they draw from a hat.

Newspaper Statistics

This is a hunt for percentages hidden within newspaper and magazine articles. Their findings could also include advertisement claims. Ask your child to find them and when they do, show them to you. You can even use a timer to make it more fun. Talk about what they mean. Where did the percentages come from? Make a graph, if appropriate. See if you can find the answer to “percent of what?” Another fun tool for applied percentages and probability is Highlights magazine Mathmania puzzle books.

I’m going shopping

Yes, this is a bit of the usual “grocery store math.” Obviously, there’s a lot of math at the grocery store. Sales and tax teach about percentages. Calculating and/or comparing cost per unit/ounce offers many learning opportunities. Then, of course, there’s adding and subtracting. As a hands-on, unschool math lesson, give each of your children $5 and a grocery store challenge. Say something like, “Whoever can buy the family lunch and not go over $5 gets a special treat.” Or, you can give them a small list of items and see how they do with their money.

I’m Throwing a Party

This is a variation on the grocery store challenge above. But, instead of the $5 challenge, give your child a list of party items and the number of each that you need. Send them into the store to find out how much you would spend, including items on sale, and sales tax. For additional ideas and a more organized approach to using the grocery store to teach math concepts, Common Sense Press offers Grocery Cart Math.

I’m Catering a Party

This activity is a variation on the kitchen math theme. Instead of the usual fractions and measurements kitchen math, add in some other math concepts. Give your child some recipes that you would make for a party of 30-50 people. Ask him/her to do the necessary math for the fractions of cups of flour and sugar and such. Then, they submit the new recipes to you. For an added challenge, “disappear” one of the measuring cups, forcing your child to convert fractions. For some additional ways to have fun with math in the kitchen, check out Math Chef.

To unschool math is to find math everywhere

As I said earlier, math is a skill not a subject. While we must practice a skill in order to improve, we usually practice it within the context that we use it. As we help our children see math in everyday activities, we help them stretch their math muscle. We also help them see why they need to practice. Try some of these ideas and explore some of your own!

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