A Charlotte Mason Approach to Math

October 9, 2014
Written by:
Guest Author

Although Charlotte Mason never used the term living math, she did speak of living books and living learning, so the term living math is certainly in line with the spirit of CM.

Simply put, living math is real math used in daily life to solve actual problems or to play games. It is math that moves beyond worksheets and textbooks into the context of solving relevant problems — how can we double this recipe, how many of these shapes can I stack on the balance scale to keep both sides level, how much money will I have to save each week to be able to buy my brother a birthday gift?

Think about preschool math. It’s all play: counting, stacking, sorting, and balancing are fun activities that develop mathematical reasoning. At around second grade, we homeschool parents ruin the fun by insisting math happen on paper, pencil in orderly rows of abstract symbols (Arabic numerals).

Charlotte Mason warned educators against moving too quickly from the concrete to the abstract when teaching math. Letting children use counters and physical objects to visualize and understand math concepts is critical. Their need for this concrete approach does not abruptly end in second grade but continues any time a new concept is studied. Even algebra can be taught with physical objects to make the rules comprehensible. Living math is about making math real and understandable, not following math rules without any understanding of why they work.

By using math in daily life, especially in games and during playtime, not only will your child avoid the math dread so many of us adults have, but he will also end up proficient in math skills. Math will come alive and become a living discipline.

One of your primary jobs as a homeschool math teacher is to stock your homeschool cabinet with a variety of math manipulatives. You can think of them as educational tools, but don’t call them that. To a child, these are toys, and that’s the attitude you want to foster.

  • dominoes
  • scales, tape measures, and rulers
  • hundreds chart
  • timers, clocks, and stopwatches
  • abacus
  • pattern blocks
  • sorting buttons, counting bears, or beans
  • board games — any games that require moving pieces after a roll or spin, Monopoly, Battleship
  • card games — UNO, SkipBo, War, Rummy
  • math bingo
  • tangrams and other shape blocks or number rods
  • dice

Don’t treat your math toys like fine china, pulling them out only a few days each school year. Make sure little hands can reach the math toys and enjoy them at any time so that you blur the boundaries between academic math and play. As you build up your collection, you might want to create some of your own tools from free, online printables.

The Basics of a Charlotte Mason Approach to Math

You can read exactly what Miss Mason thought about math at Charlotte Mason on Math. Here is an outline of her key points.

  • use manipulatives, then mental math (visualizing the objects), then written numbers
  • use engaging word problems that provide a challenge for the child — not too hard and not too easy
  • do not neglect teaching the underlying math concepts in favor of mere computation skills
  • tell a child if the problem was solved correctly or not; it’s either right or wrong
  • don’t overteach or get between the child and the subject

Moving to a Living Math Approach

I recognized that math wasn’t working for my daughter when she was in fourth grade. The tears, frustration, and cries of “I’m not good at math!” were clear indicators that we had to pivot before the damage was irreversible. I liked the idea of living math in theory, but to actually use the approach seemed risky. So I ventured on a slow transition into a living approach instead of a cold-turkey transformation.

My first step was a small one — one day each week our math lessons consisted solely of games. On the other days, we continued as normal with our math textbook and workbook. I usually chose a game to complement with the topic we were studying in our math book, using the suggestions from Family Math by Jean Kerr Stenmark. Our math game days were happy times when my daughter was motivated to engage with math concepts under the guise of fun.

It was amazing how the same math problems that elicited tears on a workbook page were fun and comprehensible when experienced through walking a huge number line on the living room floor, rolling dice, dealing with playing cards, and handling tiny paper squares. I could see that making and playing a game generated excitement that a worksheet never could. And equally as important, the math concepts were sticking when the learning method was tangible.

My daughter’s changed attitude made me bold to go further towards a living approach. We started playing math games and activities every day, using our maths textbook as a rarely used supplement or reference. I invested in the lesson plans from LivingMath.net and a whole collection of living math books.

When my transition was complete, our living math approach was three-pronged:

  1. a chronological study of the developments in math history, including biographies of famous mathematicians (from LivingMath.net)
  2. math experiences — games, activities, puzzles (taken mostly from Family Math by Jean Kerr Stenmark)
  3. arithmetic — drill, practice, skills (from our textbook)

For the math experiences and arithmetic parts, I used our textbook as a guide for topics. But instead of starting with the textbook explanations and workbook exercises, I found games, puzzles, activities, or living books to introduce and practice the concepts in a fun and living way. We enjoyed tangrams, fractions, and charts/graphs in this new living way.

Sometimes we incorporated math journaling into a lesson with the help of graphic organizers, notebooking pages, writing prompts, and math poetry. After experiencing the math concepts in these living ways, then we moved to the workbook as a review or wrap-up. By that time, my daughter typically had the confidence and proficiency in the skill to ace the written work.

Living Math Feels Scary at First

These were my main four fears about living math and the answers I discovered for each as I morphed into fully trusting the approach.

1. If I don’t follow a math textbook, I’ll leave out important math concepts.

This is a common fear with homeschooling. Gaps are inevitable whether your child is educated at home or in a traditional setting. Get over it and move on with learning. Actually, there are many online guides that you can use to periodically check that you’re covering it all. One example is the Math Curriculum Focal Points, published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

2. I’m not strong enough in math myself to guide our learning without a curriculum written by an expert.

That’s all the more reason to make math fun and engaging — both for me and for my daughter. My natural tendency is to avoid math. But by being more proactive in designing our curriculum, I’m becoming more interested in math. That excitement rubs off on my daughter! And again, I can still use my Singapore math texts as a guide for the skills to cover. The HOW to cover them is up to me.

3. I love living books, but how can words teach numbers?

Numbers are one aspect of math. But logical thinking, problem-solving, and mathematical reasoning are all parts of math education.

4. If my daughter does a lot of math games but never does any drill or any worksheets, how will she be able to perform on standardized tests in the future?

Taking a living math approach doesn’t mean that she never does any drill and never fills in a workbook page. Those things simply become supplements to the real-life activities instead of being the core.