Teaching math
in your charlotte mason homescool

Meaningful Math

Math...the mere mention of the word used to be enough to make me cringe in horror at the thought of algebraic equations, products and decimals, pi and perimeter. My only concept of math came from the dull, though colorful math workbooks I used as a child. I still vividly recall the importance placed on memorizing the multiplication tables (to 12 my father insisted). As I sat copying each fact over and over I had no concept of what in the world "times" meant. Bad curriculum? No, I'm just one who must touch and feel in order to understand. I do not remember anything but breaking into a cold sweat when the phrase "word problem" appeared in my assigned lesson. And as soon as I had finished the obligatory year of high school business math I said goodbye to math forever. Even though my parents were careful to remind me that math was a necessity in everyday life, I had no intentions of ever figuring another equation again.

Soon though, I realized that the world was full of math problems, most of which were the dreaded word problems I had laboriously mucked my way through in junior high. As it happens, I suddenly realized Mom was right and I needed to really KNOW math for calculating to cost of a mortgage and the number of rolls of wallpaper I would need for an 8' x 10' room.

I dare say I'm not the only one who views math with a bit of scorn - it's a necessary evil. And the standard packaged curriculum for math did little to alter my viewpoint As I began teaching my own children, all of those fears and self-doubts came to the surface again. There has to be another way. I kept telling myself this, and yet as I struggled to find just the right curriculum for my 5 year old there seemed to be little else available. The programs I found that did use manipulatives still seemed artificial. I mean really - do you see yourself using base ten blocks ever again after understanding the concept of place value? Most of the curricula kept math a subject unto it's self. Even those that used real world problems felt fenced-off and inapplicable to real life.

Using real things to teach math was on my list of must-do's. I wanted to teach math in a concrete fashion - tangible and applicable. And since I have always been one to take the road less traveled, I set out to discover something different for my K-4 curricula. In my search I came upon many books with mathematical themes that take the abstract and turn it into something very practical - easily understandable and easily applied in my children's everyday lives. I am happy to announce that my search was successful - even to the point of replacing my cold sweats with the thrill of confidence at accurately completing the dreaded word problem. Unfortunately few if any of these could be found in the plethora of homeschool catalogs. Here are the books I used and am still using for my beginning math professors:

Books by Cindy Neuschwander : Sir Cumference and the First Round Table, Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi,  Sir Cumference and the Great Knight of Angleland, Sir Cumference and the Sword in the Cone. These are absolute gems. Even though "pi, angles and circumference" are later elementary concepts, I found my 4 and 5 year olds grasping the concepts rather easily.

My friend Jamie Craft recommended these to me: Fractals, Googols, and other Mathematical Tales and The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat both by Theoni Pappas. Again, they took basic mathematical concepts and turned them into easily remembered operations.

I have to admit also, that the old standard of counting real things was absolutely irreplaceable for teaching our 4 year old daughter the concept of "how many". She could count to 25 at 3 years old but didn't have a clue what she was doing. These are her favorites, both by Barbara Barbieri McGrath: The Cheerios Counting Book and The M&M's Counting Board Book. It helped of course, that she was allowed to munch on the manipulatives as soon as she was finished with her lesson for the day. Addition and subtraction were also easily understood when learned within the realm of, "If we take 4 M&M's and let your brother eat them, how many will be left?" You can be sure she knew the answer rather quickly.

We also had a lot of fun with this book: The Wing on a Flea: A book About Shapes by Ed Emberley. It was quite fun to cut out simple shapes and make them into our own fantastical insects.

 Learning fractions was a breeze when we used Reese's Pieces Count by Fives  and The Hershey's Fraction Book - both by Jerry Pallotta. One tip though - freeze the Hershey bar before you begin. It was just awful to have to continually lick our fingers while learning the similarities between fourths and eighths! ?

We also enjoyed Family Math by Jean Kerr Stankmark, heartily recommended by nearly all who have used it. Though not a textbook/workbook by any stretch of the imagination, it was very helpful in teaching multi-levels the basics in well thought out and fun way.

In the end, the kids know math as well as anyone else, but my underlying mission is being accomplished. My children are not afraid of math. They approach it the same way they do any other subject: some days kicking and screaming, other days whistling all the while. But that, friends, is another story altogether.


I have, perhaps, a unique perspective on teaching mathematics. Surprised?  :-) Workbooks and texts for the primary years are, in my opinion, a waste of time and money. The redundancy of "working" page after page of flat - non-tangible problesm is deadening. It lacks a hands-on application of the concept the child is learning. Counting lollipops PRINTED on a worksheet doesn't have the effect of counting REAL lollipops and then eating one after the lesson is complete!

If you have changed all the other subjects and are doing them the Charlotte Mason way, BRAVO! NOw it's time to put that same focus on learning mathematical reasoning.

To answer many many questions (and unbleieveing stares) of "How can you teach math without a workbook or textbook?" I have put together a small book on the subject. It will take your child from Pre-K through 3rd grade with ease.  Below is the table of contents:

Living Math
by Kelly Midkiff

What Is Living Math?
A basic answer to this question plus tips on choosing math books from your library. My philosophy on why math in the early years is best taught this way.

Practical Applications
 How to make your own math curriculum. How to take a living math book and teach a concept from it.

A Deck of Cards & A Bucket of Beans
Using manipulatives is imperative for the early years. Without them, you run the risk of your child learning math by rote memorization. It will be impossible to excel in more advanced mathematics without knowing how to take the abstract (an unknown equation) and finding the answer.

Teaching Math in the Early Years
You can teach basic mathematical concepts without any writing involved. Do it! Don't wait until your child can write legibly to begin teaching math. Simple activities for beginning math.

Living Math Books
Many living math books, divided into categories based on concept and difficulty.

Using real objects (that you already have around the house) and living math books you can teach you child every basic mathematic concept. Really. I've done it and it is fun and effective! 

When your child has mastered the conecpts within this little booklet it's time to move on bigger things. I prefer Saxon for 4th grade and up, and I use them my own way. When you must use a textbook use IT! Don't let it USE YOU!

Here's what we do for Math PreK-12. Please understand that we use these books and they work well for us. You might very well be happy with a different curriculum. By all means use what works best!

PreK - 3:  Living Math

4th - 5th:
Saxon 5/4

We take our time with this text, making sure we understand everything before moving on.

Saxon 7/6

7th: Saxon Algebra 1/2
8th: Saxon Algebra 1

For the high school years I will allow my child to pick the area of mathematics that interst him. A consumer math course will be required however to teach money management, loans, checking accounts, shopping and saving, etc.


Living Math
More information on purchasing Living Math.

We buy our Saxon materials at Amazon.com.
Check out their used products too!

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