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Let’s Play Math

Let s Play Math

Let’s Play Math by veteran homeschooler (and maths blogger) Denise Gaskins is the maths book I’ve been looking for ever since we began homeschooling.

Three things set it apart from any other maths book I’ve come across:

1.  It’s incredibly readable.  I found myself going to bed an hour early every night to enjoy it, and had read it cover-to-cover within a few days.

2.  It’s chock full of suggested resources. These alone are more than worth the cover price. The Kindle version allows you to click straight through to the linked websites – brilliant.

3.  It’s comprehensive. Combined with all the linked resources, this book is going to transform how I teach my kids maths. No more dabbling in “real maths” but then running back to the workbooks when anxiety strikes (me) – with this approach I can teach my kids to think like mathematicians without worrying about leaving gaps.

Why Learn Maths?

Why do we teach our children maths? So they can become mathematically literate adults, able to calculate their taxes and mortgages? To pass exams which will allow them to get into college or the job market? Both good reasons.

The problem is, many of us are so anxious about failing to do these things that we deprive our children of perhaps the most important reason to learn maths of all: because maths is beautiful, and fun.

The “Aha!” Factor

Humans are hard-wired to enjoy puzzles. When we learn something new, we receive a hit of the feel-good hormone dopamine. When the new information comes as a surprise, we get a double dopamine hit. That’s why “Aha!” moments, like when we get the answer to lateral thinking puzzles, feel so good.

Let’s Play Math is about cultivating the “Aha!” factor in our children.

Living Maths  – Where to Start?

Anyone who surfs the educational ‘net knows that there are plenty of creative maths ideas out there. But this abundance of resources can be overwhelming. As Denise says, “It seems easier to shove a textbook across the table and say, ‘Work two pages'”, leaving someone else to make all the decisions.

Let’s Play Math cuts through the overwhelm.

Here are some of my favourite topics covered in the book:

Hands-On Maths

I use hands-on methods throughout our homeschool, but I’ve never felt very confident with maths manipulatives. (On the rare occasion I do manage to bring them in I get very excited and blog about it.)

Let’s Play Math has a section on buying manipulatives (ask questions like “is it strew-able?”, “is it worth the storage space?”) plus a section on homespun manipulatives, together with lots of ideas for using them.

let's play math review

Maths History

“I am sure that no subject loses more than mathematics by any attempt to dissociate it from its history”.

James Glaisher, quoted in Let’s Play Math

Mathematicians are people tooWhat is it about maths that has parents who use living books throughout our homeschools reaching for the textbooks?

History is full of men and women so fascinated by this subject that some of them overcame extremely oppressive circumstances to find a way to pursue their passions. When we share their stories we give our children a taste of the excitement of maths.

“What a shame it is that our children see only the dry remains of these people’s passion. Worksheet exercises are the bare, abstract skeletons of what once were living puzzles.”

Denise Gaskins

Let’s Play Math suggests devoting one maths lesson a week to maths history, and offers plenty of ideas on how to choose good living maths books. There’s even a whole chapter entitled “4,000 Years of Stumpers” – puzzles that have challenged mathematicians throughout the ages.

Story Problems

Denise suggests that we might measure homeschool maths success by whether or not our children fear story problems, and the book is full of tips and resources for using story problems effectively. One of my favourite is to take turns, adults included – getting the chance to challenge Mum always goes down well in this house! Taking turns makes maths into a game.

Older Children

My two are only 8 and 9 at the moment but after reading the chapter on the “Transition to ‘Higher’ Math” I believe we can use this approach throughout all our homeschool years, including those when my children might be taking exams.

The book suggests different approaches for the teen years depending on whether a child has had a good taste of the “Aha!” factor during the elementary years.  Once a teen is ready for textbooks:

“Don’t be fooled by your own experience of dry or tedious math classes: textbook mathematics is still math the mathematician’s way, as mental play.  But it is no longer the play of a child dabbling in the shallows… No, this is the play of the athlete, who works hard at training and enjoys seeing his muscles grow firm, who can’t wait to test himself against a new and challenging opponent.”

Denise Gaskins

Let’s Play Math as a Supplement

I intend to use Let’s Play Math as our maths “spine” but, like Project-Based Homeschooling, I think you can do as much or as little of it as fits with your individual homeschool style.  Read the book, feel inspired, and do whichever activities sound like fun to you.

Putting it into Practice

My favourite section of the book is “One Week of Real Mathematics”, which contains examples of what one week’s worth of math playtime might look like. I love having this starting point to show me what a balanced “maths diet” might look like.

My kids have a low tolerance for boredom and are very outspoken when something isn’t working for them, one consequence of which is that we threw out maths curriculum some time ago.  Since then we’ve read maths biographies, played with platonic solids, and enjoyed solving story problems – with the odd workbook thrown in here and there when I get the “Argh! I’m leaving gaps!” anxiety.

I feel like I’ve been ambling in the woods – enjoying the journey but a bit anxious about where we’re going to end up and whether we’re going to reach our “destination” “on time” (whatever that means!).

I knew the well-travelled road (maths curricula) wasn’t for us, but I lacked confidence in my ability to guide my children through uncharted territory. Let’s Play Math is the map and the guidebook I’ve been looking for. With it in my hand I can’t wait to take my children by the hand and head off to explore the wonderful world of maths.

hands-on maths
Popsicle-Stick Fractions

* I was not paid for this review.  I bought my own copy of the book and I’m writing to share this great resource with other parents.

project based homeschooling at navigatingbyjoy homeschooling blog

Project-Based Homeschooling

project based homeschooling at navigatingbyjoy homeschooling blog

Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert is a rare book that both inspired me to make changes in the way I homeschool and gave me the practical means to make them.

I’ve long enjoyed Lori’s  Camp Creek Blog (now Project-Based Homeschooing) and loved the idea of seeing my children happily immersed in projects of their own design, but I never took any action on it beyond occasionally prodding them with a “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a project? What would you like to do a project on?”  Strangely, my 7 and 8 year olds never ran with that approach.

Lori’s book has made it all much clearer and helped me see where I’ve been going wrong in the past.

How I Explained Project-Based Homeschooling to my 8 Year Old

I made these notes to help me explain Project-Based Homeschooling to my daughter Cordie (8 years old):

Who does what in a project? You lead the way and have all the ideas, I do what you ask to support you. This could mean buying materials, helping you find a book, helping you find something online, talking through ideas together, reading something aloud, helping you find software, planning a field trip etc. Or me just sitting next to you making notes as you talk to help you remember your ideas.
How long is a project? It can be as short or as long as you want it to be. From one day to a year! You get to decide when it’s done. Between projects you’ll be able to use our project time to explore our  materials or do whatever you want.
How do you choose a project topic? It can be on anything at all you’re interested in, and whatever particular aspect of that you want. For example, if you did electricity and magnetism, you might start finding out about it generally, then find one aspect or one person you want to find out more about, and you might go down that path for a while – whatever you want.
There are three main parts of a project: finding out about the subject, finding a way to share it with other people, and actually sharing it. Sharing it might mean by means of a picture (in paint, pencil, charcoal, watercolour pencil – whatever you like), a three-dimensional piece of art (in clay, wire, junk, pipe cleaners, wood, sand etc) or using photographs, video or computer software, or you might make a little book about it, or write a play and perform it with costumes or puppets… or any combination of different ways.  When you’re ready, we can share it with our family, invite friends over, take it to our homeschool group etc.
Working with other people: As well as sharing what you create with other people eg by inviting them over to see an exhibition of your project work, we can invite people to join us at other stages – for example, if we are doing a particular piece of art, or going on a field trip. Sharing and discussing ideas with friends and family often leads to new ideas!
When do we do project work? We will set special times in the week when I will be 100% available to you to support you doing project work – if you want to do it.  If you choose to spend project time reading, playing or anything else while you think about your project, that’s ok too.
What if you don’t know what topic to start with? You can take as much thinking time as you need. One way of using project time until you come up with a project idea is to explore our materials eg experiment with charcoal, paint or modelling materials.

3 Reasons I Love Project-Based Homeschooling

There are many reasons why I absolutely love the idea of project-based homeschooling.  Here are just three.

Children Own their Projects

I love that each child “owns” his project – he decides the subject, how to do it, how to share it, and when it’s complete. The adult’s role is to mentor and support in whatever way the child requests. This is going to be a learning experience for me – my natural way is to either take over, or leave them to it – but the practical point I learned from the book is to schedule blocks of time when I am able to give 100% of my attention to each child to support, facilitate and mentor them in their project.

Project Work is Authentic

When I was at school I used to cringe at assignments that asked me to “write a pretend newspaper article about …” or “design a poster pretending you are…”.  What the child writes or creates in this kind of project-work is different.  As Lori says in the book:

“In authentic project work, the representations aren’t pretend. They’re real.  …  Your child makes something genuine according to his own ideas and plans.  He  builds something because he wants or needs it.  He does real work for a real purpose.”

I’m all for pretend play and encouraging kids to use their imaginations.  But for kids to do their best work, to learn and to love the process, the ideas have to come from inside them, they can’t be contrived.

Children Learn Real-World Skills

As well as learning about the subject of their project, children doing project-based learning are acquiring life skills that will serve them in the real world.  They are learning where and how to find what they want to know, using real, twenty-first century resources.  They’re learning how to put together what they have learned in meaningful ways, and they’re learning how to present their ideas in ways that make a contribution to others.

You’re Learning Too

Beginning something new takes courage and commitment.   I love that Lori reminds us (homeschooling parents) to treat ourselves in the same loving way as we do our children.  She jokes of the attitude of school adminstrators she has met,

“Your kids should learn at their own pace, follow their interests, and you should trust that they’ll eventually learn everything they need to know.  You, on the other hand, should get with the program, right now, 100%, or else.” [my italics – that really made me laugh! I think I have a mini-school adminstrator on my shoulder.]

Instead, Lori reminds us,

“If your child deserves to learn at his own pace and have his own ideas, so do you.  Whatever you champion for your child, make sure you also give to yourself: the right to follow your own path, work at your own pace, follow your own interests, make mistakes, and try again.  Whatever you want for your children, you are far more likely to help them achieve it if you live it yourself.”

Ahhh, sigh of relief.  I don’t have to get it all 100% right immediately. I can risk beginning this!

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