Unschooling Question: What About Math and the Other Boring Stuff They Need?

This post was written back in 2008– since then we have become completely radical unschoolers and it has been an amazing journey.  Back then I never would have guessed the kids would become passionately interested in and teach themselves (yes, they have taken on ALL the boring stuff.:))

I run into this question often from friends, family members, forums, and even unschooling friends. Many are fearful enough that their children won’t naturally attempt to learn things they deem boring or important (often both) that they specifically purchase a curriculum for just that subject – regardless of whether the child has shown interest in it.

I know this question well because we also struggled with it, and it is why we were so slow to trust God on this whole unschooling thing.  Our conversations with God ran something like this:

Us: “God, we know you are leading us towards letting the kids follow their interests but are you sure you don’t want us to have SOME structure? ”

God: “Do you trust me?”

Us: “Well yes but we really think they need to learn how to do basic computation on paper and a bit of spelling, and well, there are a few more things we really feel they should know.”

God : “Do you trust me?”

Us: “Well yes, but what about the boring stuff? What about the stuff they hated doing when we did school the old-fashioned way?”

God: “Do you trust me?”

Us: “Well yeah, but, what about all those battles that happened because they hated the very things you are telling us to trust you about?”

God: “Do you TRUST me?”

Us: “Well, yeah, well, pretty much. Okay, well, yes, we trust you.”

God: “Then let go and let me lead them. Love me, love each other, show them your love for me, talk about me with them, talk to them about your interests, talk to them about their interests. I will take care of the rest.”

Us: “Um, okay, if you are sure.”

God: “Trust me.”

We are trusting Him and it has been amazing. While the kids still turn up their noses at the books and activities that we used for “school” they gather huge quantities of resources that they have not used before; text books, curriculum, activity books, how-to books, language courses, whatever (many things I think are desperately boring).  Not only are they taking them but they are using them.
While cleaning the area where we stored textbooks and workbooks the kids took ALL the educational books that they had not used for “school” to their own rooms for further study – included in the books the kids secured are a high school math curriculum set which Rachel found fascinating and wanted for her own with promises of discussion of it with Daddy, several atlases and dictionaries in English AND Polish, numerous workbooks (Issac has been doing them at bedtime to fall asleep), lots and lots of blank notebooks for writing stories and comics in, lots of science books (which Esther confiscated and which I am finding everywhere – a sure sign she is reading them and leaving them where she finished them), word searches and other activity books, and a slew of other things I have forgotten.
They are using those materials and others they have found around the house. Rachel finished the first draft of her book and is waiting for me to finish her website before she edits it (she has decided that now that she can write by hand with no backwards letters and spelling mostly right she should learn to type). Esther wrote a short story and has been making me comic books ever since. Then the kids each got a math kit (compass, ruler, etc.) from Target’s clearance back-to-school sale and started using them for drawing pictures and graphs and charts. This prompted Rachel to get several math books on charts and graphs out of the nonfiction section at the library. They started measuring everything in the house, including figuring out the area of the living room and hall so we could get laminate flooring. They have been adding, subtracting, multiplying measurements. Our household looks like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, only with learning.
After that came the Polish curriculum I found at the thrift shop. I spent a few months in Poland while in college and the kids love stories about that as well as about my grandmother’s Polish family. I figured maybe I would use it to touch up on what I do remember. Instead Rachel snatched it up and has been practicing ever since. She has also added the Rosetta Stone demo version of the Polish language lesson to her studies. Esther has joined her in this study and they run around the house naming things in Polish.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more going on than I can even keep track of.  Discussions have included: Scotland and Gaelic, square roots and cube roots, how mortgages work and the snowball effect, natural disasters and what causes them physically, how wind works, spelling and word order, reading big words and finding their meanings, adding and multiplying fractions (while baking), determining cloud direction, and a multitude of other things. All of it has been interest-led – the kids are running with this freedom to learn and explore, and are learning many things that I think are horribly dull and boring (but don’t tell them I said that).

The girls often stay up in the evening working at their table, writing, reading, drawing, or in this case, creating charts and graphs for the fun of it.

I think the problem, and the reason for the question in the first place, is found in ourselves and our perception of what is interesting or boring. Any child that has been public schooled OR trained to think of school in those terms, will think that way as well – except for the odd geekling like my husband was, who at age 10, despite hating school, spent hours and hours programming a friend’s TI because he wanted to, or like myself who at age 12 spent ALL my spare time reading and researching King Arthur or reading about whatever scientific thing I was currently interested in (though not what they were teaching in school).

School trains us to think that school things, including math and grammar, are boring. The thing is those subjects are only boring if you are not, at that moment, interested in them. When, for whatever reason, something piques your interest you are off and running. Sure, YOU may not want to learn about rocks and gems, but I was passionately fond of studying them – until I had a lesson on them in school which promptly struck that off my list of interesting things until I was graduated from college and got talking to some kids who found a cool rock and wanted to know.


So the question answers itself. Don’t think of it as boring or hard stuff, talk about these things when you run into them. Watch the kids’ cues. Give them openings and opportunities. If they show interest in something don’t get overly enthusiastic (that is one of those “school” things and will shut off that flow of imagination like nothing else); instead wait on them. 

If you are just starting to move away from the “school” model it may take a while for them to jump in and take over. Give them space. Give them time to think of things without “school” or educational hanging over their head. When you, as an adult, get interested in something you learn it because you want to, you don’t naturally think, ”I am learning something, this is educational” instead you think, “This is cool. I like this.”

Give your kids the same freedom. Pray for wisdom, a lot, and let God open up their minds to multiple interests. They may stick with something longer than you would expect or drop it in a matter of seconds. Give them the freedom to do that. (You would get nervous of showing interest in something if as soon as you did someone ran out and bought you EVERYTHING you needed to do it – you want to test the waters first, see if it is for you. Give your kids the same opportunity.)

Find your own interests and passions and run with them. The kids will learn to follow their passions from your example. And with freedom to explore, resources at their fingertips, and the imagination and brain power God has provided them, they WILL learn – you won’t be able to stop them – even with the “boring stuff.”

~ Heather

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