4 Ways Your Kids Can Learn Math in The Real World

When I first started this Unschooling Experiment, I had a hard time letting go of math. Math was something too foundational, too systematic, too essential to be left to chance.

I had chosen the Math in Focus curriculum, not only because it was the highly ranked Singapore math program, but because I was able to get it for free.  Double points for this card-carrying tiger mom.

Well, it didn’t last long. By the middle of September, I hadn’t just stopped teaching Singapore math.

I had stopped teaching math altogether.

It was after reading an article by Dr. Peter Gray titled Kids Learn Math Easily When They Control Their Own Learning. Gray, a proponent of self-directed learning, admonished:

“And so, dear parents, please stop worrying about your kids’ learning of math. If they are free to play, they are likely to play with math and learn to enjoy its patterns. If they live real lives that involve calculations, they will learn, in their own unique ways, precisely the calculations that they need to live those lives. If they choose to go to college, they can learn quickly–from a test preparation book, program, or tutorial–the specific math tricks necessary to do well enough on college admissions math. If they choose some career that involves math, they will eagerly find ways to learn the specific kinds of math that they need for that career. Your worry is only a hindrance.”

Your worry is only a hindrance.

I discussed the article with my husband, Jay, a former engineer and member of his high school math club. He reluctantly agreed that we could try unschooling math.

I couldn’t believe it.

No more meaningless busy work, irrelevant word problems, or multiplication drills in Chinese. We weren’t even going to require NoNo and K.K. to watch Khan Academy videos or play iPad math games.

We were going cold turkey.

The boys loved it.

I, on the other hand, went through a bit of withdrawal, shaky and nervous that we were making a grave mistake.

But in time, as I started to get “school math” out of my system, I began to relax. I began to notice how my kids were learning and using math every day—

Math that wasn’t just theoretical, but concrete.

Math that wasn’t simply for a test, but prompted by real life problems that needed to be solved.

Math that wasn’t forced upon them by a teacher or parent, but initiated by themselves.

They were naturally learning math in the real world.

Here are 4 ways your kids can too:

1. Money

Kids can learn so many math concepts just by handling money: counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, place values, percentages, etc.

  • They can add up all the cash they receive in red envelopes for Chinese New Year… right before handing it over to their parents for safekeeping.
  • They can become expert bargain hunters like their elders—finding the best value, calculating sale prices, totaling the bill, and making sure they never get overcharged.
  • As they get older, they can learn to budget, balance a checkbook, invest and earn interest, and whine about taxes.

In doing so, they realize that math actually affects their lives in significant ways.

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For Christmas, NoNo wanted to earn some money to buy presents, so we came up with the idea of selling cream puffs. Throughout the process, he had to use math to estimate the cost of ingredients, decide on a good price, calculate his gross earnings, and figure out his net profits. At the end of the day, he got to pocket ¥337. Not bad for a 9-year-old.

All of this required him to use a variety of math functions in real and meaningful ways.

(Okay, so he used a calculator for most of it, but let’s face it, that’s what most of us adults would have done anyway.)

2. Cooking

Cooking Chinese food is mostly about going with your gut. A dash of this. A splash of that. Just ask anyone who’s asked their Chinese mom for the recipe of a favorite childhood dish.

But in Western cooking where ingredients are precisely measured, math concepts—like measuring, converting, fractions, and proportions—are essential.

Never more so than in baking. And never more so than with notoriously temperamental choux pastry.

So when NoNo made his cream puffs, his knowledge of fractions and ratios had to be on point. If each recipe made 12 puffs and he needed to make 16, how would he need to adjust the recipe? How much butter would he need if the original recipe called for a ½ cup of butter?

This was not some hypothetical word problem. Failure to calculate correctly would have real-life implications, like deflated cream puffs, deflated spirits, and deflated profits.

3. Games

Learning math through play is not only fun, but effective. The internal motivation to win drives kids to  problem-solve, manipulate numbers, and discover patterns.

Games like Monopoly and The Game of Life teach money sense. Battleship teaches about graphing and coordinates. Settlers of Catan and Yahtzee introduce probability. Even word games like Scrabble require you to multiply and add like a boss.

For NoNo and K.K., Sushi Go has been their go-to game as of late. To total up their points after each round, they use:

  • addition (tallying up sushi rolls)
  • multiplication (a nigiri on top of wasabi multiplies the point value by 3)
  • patterns (each additional dumpling’s point value increases by 1)

They’re practicing math without even realizing it.

4. Music

I may have let math go, but I’m still holding out on piano.

And music actually requires a lot of math, from skills as simple as counting to concepts as advanced as the Fibonacci sequence.

You need math to recognize chords, intervals, and patterns in scales.

You need math to figure out what a time signature of ¾ means. You need a sound grasp of fractions to understand that one measure could be filled by a dotted half note, 3 quarter notes, or 6 eighth notes.

Kids like NoNo and K.K. are intuitively learning and interpreting math concepts as they read and play music.


I still have moments of doubts and freaking out. I still have to remind myself to breathe deeply and trust the unschooling process.

But I’m learning to recognize that living in the real world provides plenty of opportunities to learn everything we need to survive and thrive. Yes, even math.

In the meantime, I’ll try to not let my worry be a hindrance.



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