Why I Ditched Math | Gentle Math Strategies for Young Learners

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I recently shared about the gentle reading strategies we use in our homeschool, but I have been researching and studying about math learning as well.  Over the past few years I have been captivated with the idea of children learning through play. As I have watched all the things a child picks up with no formal instruction, only an enriching environment, I have been amazed.

What started me on this line of thinking in mathematics was an article from Psychology Today arguing that we should stop teaching math to our youngest learners.  This concept seemed crazy to me, but the more I read about the experiment in which teachers replaced formal math instruction with open discussion and communication, the more I was captivated.  In the long run, these students did at least as well in mathematics, usually better than children who had formal training during those early years.

When we think about math we think of number sentences and drills, but for a young child, this is totally abstracted from the idea of figuring out how they need to divide the stones they found so that everyone has an equal amount. The numbers on the page are simply symbols they need to manipulate, and it’s difficult to make the correlation to real-world problems.  In this way, math loses it’s meaning.

Legislators and educators have tried to combat this by creating the “new math” we see in the common core. While I applaud the goals here, I still think that working solely with numbers, especially for young children, only causes confusion and frustration.  Not only that, but it fails to give children the opportunity to figure it out on their own. By observing and making mathematical connections that aren’t fed to them, children develop a mathematical base that can’t be developed any other way.  It’s kind of like explaining to a nine-month-old how to walk.  Babies don’t have the language understanding to comprehend the complexities of walking. Even if they did, trying to grasp the idea of muscle movement and joint manipulation would simply cause frustration and make walking seem intimidating and impossible. It’s only by experimenting with standing and taking steps, falling and trying again that a baby learns to walk.  Over time, they can learn how to better strengthen their muscles and maybe even become a marathon runner. The same is true for math education.

So, what are we to do? I am a big proponent of play-based learning (much more on that later as I have a stack of books on the topic I’m currently working my way through). I believe it applies to math as well. Rather than loading our children with worksheets and drills, it’s best to focus on conversation and reasoining. Let me know if you are interested, and I’m happy to share with you lots activities and ways to provide a mathematically engaging environment for your child through play – mostly open-ended, natural play.

This is a little video of how I am “doing” math with my five-year-old.  He loves finding ways to use math and gets excited about solving problems.  We haven’t done any number drills, but I’m often shocked to see how well he solves real world problems (even algebraic ones). I frequently ask him to tell me how he reached his conclusion, and he is able to articulate it to me.  Keep in mind, I love my child and while every mother believes their child is a genius, based on my observations of children between the ages of 5-8, I really don’t think he has any special math abilities. When I have put a traditional math worksheet in front of him, his reaction is much the same as students that would be classified as struggling with math.

How about your kids? How do you notice them using math every day? What are some of your favorite games or activities that involve math? I would love to hear about it!

For more information on delayed mathematics, check out this article series by Denise Gaskins. (Her whole website is actually really neat, and I look forward to exploring it more as I JUST found it while researching for this blog post.)

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