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Maths, just for fun

It’s 10pm on a Tuesday night and we're in the sitting room quietly doing maths by candlelight. We look like some austere homeschooling family of bygone days. Far from it. This just one of those lovely moments that happen when you stop expecting anything in particular to happen.

When I talk about unschooling as creating a space in which things can naturally arise, this quiet Tuesday evening is a good example. We got here in a typically roundabout way. We went out to walk a friend’s dog after dinner, and arrived home feeling exhausted, so E thought we should make the room dark and cosy, and watch a film. This plan went quickly wrong as not everyone wanted to sit in candlelight. So there was some frustration, and each went off their own way. An hour later, we're all back together again and there's agreement to at least see how the room feels in candlelight. In fact it feels cosy and inviting, but no one wants to watch a film any more. I go to make us a warm drink while D gets out his phone to do some of the online maths course he's started. He's decided to spend some time on maths so he can be a savvier businessperson. He is also getting interested in physics, and knows that moving forward in that will require more maths knowledge. So he has a couple of things motivating him.

C has always enjoyed doing mental arithmetic and is inspired by her brother, so she gets out a notepad and asks me to write down some sums for her. She charges through the sums without any problem. In her eight years of living she has had enough interaction with numbers to know the basics and feel confident with them. She can work out how to manage her pocket money, play Monopoly, run a pretend shop, work out how many days are left until particular events, and know if things are being shared equally between her and her brothers. And, like all good Minecraft builders she is well practised at multiplying by eight. She likes to convert hours into minutes, and has been measuring her toy dogs to find the correct size collars for them. At some point, a year or so ago, she asked what the symbols meant. I explained each one and that was that. Sometimes at bedtime, she asks me to give her sums to do in her head.

She finishes her sums and asks me to put a tick by the ones that are right and a cross by the ones that are wrong. She would also like me to draw her a gold star if I think her work is worth it. I ask how I would measure that, and she says it’s up to me. I'm surprised to discover how alien it feels to be asked to give my approval for her work. One of the sums is a bit harder, but she gets that one right. I ask her how she worked it out and she explains her methodology. It's unconventional and creative, and it works just fine. I draw her a big gold star for getting nearly all of them correct, for effort, for creativity, for being her...

D, meanwhile, is working hard on the course and is happy with his progress. Every now and again he tries to help C, but she tells him she doesn't need help. He asks me about algebra, which I happened to enjoy at school, so I enthuse about that to him. I think back to some years ago. Maths was the one thing I clung onto for a little while before understanding that the clinging on had everything to do with me and not a lot to do with my children. Every day, I would ask D to do a couple of pages of a Key Stage something exercise book. It was fairly tedious, but the thing D particularly disliked was that he was supposed to follow a specific method. He wanted to do it all in his head or at least find new ways of doing it.

Thankfully, here we are, many moons later. I've no doubt that D is 'behind' his schooled peers, but like his sister, he has acquired all the maths he needs so far with little instruction beyond the odd question to me or his dad. In his case, besides Monopoly and pocket money, he also does a lot of price comparison for his gaming, and he reads a lot about investing and business. He has figured out percentages and profit margins without classes, worksheets or homework. Yesterday he asked for some help with a particular calculation involving percentages because he is working out the margins for a business idea. Whenever he finds a real world problem he doesn't know how to solve, he looks for the solution. He is happy now to learn the methodology, but he also needs to understand the logic behind it. I'm thankful that I didn't pursue those textbooks at an age when he wasn't interested, and had no desire or need for that knowledge. It would likely have killed the joy and satisfaction he is getting out of discovering it for himself now that it has meaning for him. Worst of all, he could have ended up like so many schooled people, who are convinced that they are bad at maths.

Of course, at some point, D may well look to getting some instruction in maths if that is what is useful to him. They are all good at knowing when they want to push beyond what they are learning each day through life and their interests. This reaching beyond happens naturally when they find something interesting, meaningful or useful that they want to delve into. And when this process is allowed to happen, without coercion or fear of failure, they are happy to challenge themselves, and the learning is fun and gratifying.

Maths is often painted as some kind of necessary evil that children must endure. "But, what about maths?", people would say when they heard that our children weren't at school. They could see that they might be motivated to learn lots of things, and that much would be acquired naturally. But, unless maths were force fed to them, they would have neither the ability nor the motivation to learn. And, despite not going to school, our children still hear from many sources (particularly schooled friends, children's books and children's TV) that maths is hard and boring. So, I think they are pleasantly surprised when they realise that what they are doing is maths, and that it isn't really that awful at all. And it's fun to see that for them there is nothing odd about spending a Tuesday night in August quietly enjoying some maths, when that's what you want to do.

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