Homeschooling Tip #1: Start with Play

For children, learning always begins with play. This is how they wrap their minds around new ideas and make them their own.

“There should be no element of slavery in learning. Enforced exercise does no harm to the body, but enforced learning will not stay in the mind. So avoid compulsion, and let your children’s lessons take the form of play.”

—Plato, The Republic

If we want our children to learn math, our first job is to establish an attitude of playfulness.

This is especially important for anyone working with a discouraged child or a child who is afraid of math. The best way to help a discouraged child is to put away the workbook. Try something different, fun, and challenging.

Play Math Games

Free ebook of math games
Download my free ebook of math games at your favorite online store.
Games meet children each at their own level, helping them understand that hard mental effort can be fun.

  • My Favorite Math Games: All the free games here on my Let’s Play Math blog, sorted by age/grade levels.
  • Math for Love Games: Collected by the creator of Tiny Polka Dot and Prime Climb.
  • Games for Young Minds: Kent Haines’s posts teach not only how to play the games, but also how to help your children think about the math.
  • Acing Math: A huge collection of topical worksheet-replacement games to play with a deck of cards.
  • Math Hombre Games: The motherlode of math games for all ages. It’s easy to get lost on this page, so bookmark it and explore a bit at a time.
  • For older students: Games and Math at Math Munch blog.

Play Math Art

Download my free 42-page printable coloring book, with links to additional activities.
Math art lets children experiment with geometric shapes and symmetries. Through art, students can explore a wide range of mathematical structures and relationships.

Join the Conversation

The next post in this How to Homeschool Math series will be all about the joy of reading math.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you!

  • What are your most pressing questions about helping your children with math?
  • Or what tips would you share with other parents?

Please add your ideas in the Comments section below.

CREDITS: Photo (top) generously supplied via Unsplash.com by National Cancer Institute.

How to Homeschool Math

Far too many people find themselves suddenly, unexpectedly homeschooling their children. This prompts me to consider what advice I might offer after more than three decades of teaching kids at home.

Through my decades of homeschooling five kids, we lived by two rules:

Do math. Do reading.

As long as we hit those two topics each day, I knew the kids would be fine. Do some sort of mathematical game or activity. Read something from that big stack of books we collected at the library.

Conquer the basics of math and reading, then everything else will fall into place.

Continue reading How to Homeschool Math

Math with Young Children

The question came up again:

“What is the best curriculum for my children? They are four and six years old, and I’m afraid of letting them fall behind.”

I remember being a young parent, eager to start homeschooling. I used to get mad (without letting it show, like a true introvert) when people told me, “They are young. Just let them play.”

Now I see the wisdom in it.

The most important thing for your children right now, by far, is for them to enjoy learning. The joy of learning is a child’s natural state. As a parent, your primary job is to keep yourself from stomping it out.

But our parental fears can push us into joy-trampling before we realize it.

And our own experience of school makes it hard for us to see how much of our children’s play really is learning. We expect education to look like schoolwork, but natural learning looks nothing like that.

Natural Learning Looks like Conversation

“The lesson here is that children are brilliant. They build math out of their everyday experiences, and when you offer them opportunities they apply the math they know to make further sense of their worlds.”

—Christopher Danielson
Counting in downtown Saint Paul

Natural Learning Looks Listening to Your Children

It Looks Like Free Play

“The children who receive the least instruction from parents, volunteers, or me are the most likely to persist. These are the children who will spend 20 minutes or more exploring the possibilities. But when we tell kids to ‘make a pattern’, we are asking the children to fill that carton with our ideas, rather than allowing them to explore their own.”

—Christopher Danielson
Let the children play

Let children play with blocks or other math toys, or with anything they find around the house or outdoors.

Free play, without any direction or instruction from you.

And Playing Games Together

“If you play these games and your child learns only that hard mental effort can be fun, you will have taught something invaluable.”

Peggy Kaye
Games for Math

CREDITS: “Two children” photo (top) by Kevin Gent on Unsplash.

Play Math with Your Kids for Free

One of the most common questions I get from parents who want to help their children enjoy math is, “Where do we start?”

My favorite answer: “Play games!”

And in this time of pandemic crisis, it’s even more important for families to play together. So my publisher agreed to make my ebook Let’s Play Math Sampler: 10 Family-Favorite Games for Learning Math Through Play free for the duration.

When you’re stuck at home and getting bored, it’s a great time to play math with your kids.

Math games meet children each at their own level. The child who sits at the head of the class can solidify skills. The child who lags behind grade level can build fluency and gain confidence.

And both will learn something even more important: that hard mental effort can be fun.

The Let’s Play Math Sampler contains short excerpts from my most popular books, including a preview of two games from my work-in-progress Prealgebra & Geometry Games.

Don’t miss it: Download your copy today.

Free Online Preview

Shop Now

Ebook available FREE at most bookstores:
Amazon-logo google-play-badge Barnes-Noble-logo kobo-logo apple-books-badge Scribd_logo and other online retailers.

Or you can order the paperback by special request at your favorite local bookshop.

Update 1: Has your favorite store refused to adjust its price? (I’m looking at you, Amazon!) Try this link, and the good folks at BookFunnel will help you load the ebook file to your reading device (phone, Kindle, etc.): https://bookhip.com/SAATAW.

Update 2: I’ve added a downloadable PDF file to the BookFunnel link, for those who prefer a printable format.

Reader Reviews

“Denise Gaskins is that sound voice of reason that comes into my head when I get agitated teaching. This isn’t performance — this is play. My kids aren’t on trial, they are learning to learn.”

—Sonya Post

“By exploring math in a playful way, your kids will be happy to learn and will discover an enjoyment of math in the process. You might even have fun, too! ”

—Olisia Yeend

NOTE: In many locations, you can get the rest of my playful math books free if you request them on your library app or through your local librarian.

Playing Math with A.A. Milne

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn’t any
Other stair
Quite like
It.
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
So this is the stair
Where
I always
Stop.

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head:
“It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!”

—A.A. Milne
When We Were Very Young (affiliate link, see details)

The Stair-Counting Game

Play on any set of stairs where you won’t get in other people’s way. Start at the halfway step.

  • Roll one 6-sided die. Go up that number of steps.
  • Roll again. This time, go down that number of steps.
  • Keep rolling the die, alternating movements up and down.

Will you ever escape the stairs?

Fill the Stairs Game

Each player draws 11 stair steps (counting the top and bottom floors) on a piece of paper. Write zero on your middle step.

Remove the face cards and jokers from a deck of playing cards. Mix the remaining cards face down in a fishing pond.

  • On your turn, choose one card. Red cards are negative numbers, and black cards are positive.
  • Write the number from your card on one of your stair steps.
  • Then mix your card back into the pond.
  • The first player to fill their stairs with numbers in order wins the game.

The numbers have to grow as you go up the stairs and get smaller going down. But you can skip numbers. For instance, you could put +2 on the stair above zero, if you like. Or you could write −4 two steps below zero, leaving only one blank in between.

If you draw a card that will not fit on your stairs, you lose that turn. Mix the card back into the pond without writing anything.

If you make a mistake — like putting +9 too close to the middle, so there’s no way to fill the higher stairs — you can use a turn to erase one number on your stairs. You don’t get to choose a new card on the same turn as erasing a number.

Fill the Stairs Variations

Help young students understand negative numbers. A stairway makes an excellent number line visual.

Download the place value version (no negative numbers) of the stairway game from Math for Love.

Or discover variations for all grade levels at Math Hombre blog. I especially like John’s Decimal Point Pickle game. And the exponential version looks like a fun challenge.

Your Turn

Do you play stairway math? Please tell us your games and variations in the comment section below.

Or share other ideas for playing math with children. I love to hear new ways to play!

Mathematics: An Acrostic

What Is Your Child’s Experience of Math?

If your children made an acrostic for the word “Mathematics,” what would they include?

Would they think of adjectives like artistic, mysterious, or sublime?

Or would they focus on words like answers, maddening, and stress?

I love taking a playful approach to mathematics. Puzzles, games and art projects lay down a foundation of wonder and enjoyment. This creates a strong, positive base to support our kids through the inevitable difficulties of learning an abstract subject like math.

There are many rich math resources these days! So different from back when I started homeschooling. If you need ideas to help you transform your child’s experience of math, check out my Free Math on the Internet pages.

Internet Math Resources

In fact, I have a huge folder of even more bookmarks and links that I hope to add to my resource pages, whenever I find the time…

Does your family have a favorite way to play with math?

CREDITS: Water background photo by Ishan via Unsplash.