The Creative Way To Help Your Kids Learn Math

Are you a parent, homeschooler, or teacher? Do your children struggle to learn math? Are you worried about them falling behind?

So many parents (and teachers, too!) feel like they are “not a math person,” yet they know how important math is for their children to learn. How can we teach something we don’t really understand ourselves?

Others feel comfortable with math themselves — and may even love it — yet still struggle to pass on their knowledge to their kids. How can we share the joy we see in numbers, shapes, and patterns with youngsters who think they hate math?

Rediscover the Liberal Art of Mathematics

Once upon a time, mathematics was considered a liberal art — an important part of any well-rounded education. Artists painted images of the angelic ladies Arithmetica and Geometria sharing their wisdom with human scholars.

Somehow, over the centuries, math lost its connection both to wisdom and to art.

Now, too often, the school math curriculum forces students on a relentless treadmill from kindergarten to calculus. Our test-driven culture rewards a fast memory and leads children to believe that “math” means cramming facts and procedures into their heads so they can perform on demand.

It’s no wonder many kids grow up thinking they’re no good at math.

The secret to helping students master mathematics is to step off this treadmill and rediscover the liberal art of mathematics.

Wouldn’t it be great if your children could see math as an expression of creative thinking? Imagine the freedom to no longer worry about speed and memory. Instead, they can dive headlong into the deeply refreshing waters of reasoning and problem-solving.

A New Vision for Math Education

The problem is, we’re all a product of our own schooling. Just as we are hoping to shape our children and their future through training them, we were shaped by our own childhoods.

And for most of us, our schooling gave us a totally wrong idea of what math is all about.

School and society teach us to view mathematics as a race. You run as fast as you can from one topic to the next. You must get the answer quickly. You need to follow instructions and score high on tests, and then you win.

Or if you don’t, you’re a loser.

Now let me give you a new vision of mathematics.

I want you to think of math as a nature walk. There’s a whole wide, wild world of interesting things — more ideas, more patterns, more concepts than you and your children would ever have time to study.

And everywhere you look, there’s something cool to discover.

Don’t Take My Word for It

In his book Measurement, math teacher Paul Lockhart compares doing math to a jungle safari:

“Mathematical reality is an infinite jungle full of enchanting mysteries, but the jungle does not give up its secrets easily. Be prepared to struggle, both intellectually and creatively.

    “The important thing is not to be afraid.

      So you try some crazy idea, and it doesn’t work. That puts you in some pretty good company! Archimedes, Gauss, you and I — we’re all groping our way through mathematical reality, trying to understand what is going on, making guesses, trying out ideas, mostly failing.

        “And then every once in a while, you succeed … And that feeling of unlocking an eternal mystery is what keeps you going back to the jungle to get scratched up all over again.”

          — Paul Lockhart, Measurement

          Your Children Are Not Behind

          If you explore this mathematical world with your children, you’re not behind. Wherever you are, you’re not behind, because there is no behind. There’s only “We’re going this direction,” or “Let’s move that way,” or “Hey, look what I found over here.”

          If your children are thinking and wondering and making sense of the math they find, they’re going to learn. They’re going to grow.

          The key to helping our children have success with math is to focus on teaching the real thing.

          • Real math is about making sense of ideas.
          • Real math is about creative reasoning.

          School math rewards children who follow directions, even though it’s tedious to memorize stuff that you really don’t understand. And to always follow someone else’s rules, that’s boring. But to figure out things for yourself can be exciting.

          When you embrace this adventure of learning math through playful exploration, you’ll be surprised how much fun thinking hard can be.

          It doesn’t matter whether your students are homeschooled or in a classroom, distance learning or in person.

          Everyone can enjoy the experience of playing around with math.

          Over the next few weeks, I’ll teach you one of the best ways I know to put real math into practice and help children experience math as a nature walk: math journaling.

          Coming Soon in This Series:

          This post is an excerpt from 312 Things To Do with a Math Journal, coming next month from Tabletop Academy Press. You can get the special pre-publication ebook edition at my publisher’s store, or preorder the ebook or paperback from your favorite online retailers. Read more about my playful math books here.

          CREDITS: Photos by Jessica Lewis (top), Natasha Hall, and Annie Spratt on

          2 thoughts on “The Creative Way To Help Your Kids Learn Math

            1. You have a lot of interesting patterns, but I find your site confusing. When you use scare-quotes around a phrase, you imply that you mean something other than how the words would normally be interpreted. But I don’t see an explanation of what you mean by all those quoted terms.

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