Yes, Children Can Love Math!

First, a confession. I hated math when I was growing up. There are lots of reasons for this – boring math teachers, stultifying textbooks, and repetitive busywork would be among them. Not to mention that I enjoy subjects where the “right” answer can be any answer you can adequately defend, not one where the answers are set in stone.

I got through high school and college with the absolute minimum in math requirements. In fact, joyfully, I had enough math credits in high school that I didn’t even take math my senior year. I took three history classes, though!

A few years later, I took the Montessori training. The training changed everything I had previously thought about learning and education, but no more so than in the field of mathematics. The Montessori math materials, in all of their golden-beaded glory, turned me into a lover of math and math concepts.

Naturally, I’ve wanted my own children to love math and not hate it as I did. I’ve worked hard to keep a positive attitude towards math both as a teacher in a classroom and a homeschooling mom. It must be working, because my kids love math. Nothing we’ve done remotely resembles the stuffy, leaden math curriculum of my own youth.

The Beauty of Montessori Math Materials

What makes Montessori math so different? Much of the difference is because of the hands-on, concrete nature of the materials. Beautiful in their simplicity, they take the most complicated of math concepts and break them into easy-to-understand bits of information. (If you’re not familiar with Montessori math materials, please see the links at the bottom of this post for more info.)

In traditional education, we expect children to be able to mentally envision math operations long before they possess the neurological power to do so. No wonder they struggle to understand and end up frustrated and upset. Montessori materials also contain control of error and clarity of purpose – both characteristics that empower children rather than making them dependent on teachers or textbooks.

How Should Math Look in Montessori?

Mull over this quote from Susan Stephenson of The Michael Olaf Montessori Company as she talks about math in the primary (3-6) classroom:

“Many people misunderstand, at first, what it means to learn math at this age. They remember how they learned the multiplication tables for example—tedious and boring, hours of painful repetition that was certainly not the first choice of activities.

In the 3-6 class, children love to learn the quantities and symbols for numbers in the thousands. They often learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division with the decimal system and with fractions, simultaneously.

None of this work is required of the children, but it is offered, presented with manipulative materials to one child at a time – by the adult and sometimes another child. There are no teachers lecturing to a group of children who are required to sit still and listen. The children choose this work, and repeat each step with joy and enthusiasm until they are ready to move to the next step.”

Several things she mentions jump out at me. One of the most crucial is that the child chooses their own math activities rather than having the entire class do the same work at the same time. This freedom ensures that children will work as long as they need to on any given material, only moving on when they are thoroughly ready to do so.

Another point she makes is that children can work on several math materials simultaneously. This parallel work brings out the natural symmetry in mathematical operations – what child isn’t delighted to discover that subtraction is the opposite of addition, and that division and multiplication are flipped versions of each other?

If you fear math, or are afraid of some of the more complicated math materials, take a deep breath and see them in a new way. Practice them by yourself as needed, and as you prepare presentations for the children, let the Montessori math materials wash away the unpleasant memories you might have from your own schooling experience.

A Real-Life Example of Montessori Math in Action

Recently, a traditional homeschooling friend of mine was shocked that my just-turned-seven-year-old son had taught himself the multiplication tables. “How did he do that?” she asked incredulously. How did he do that, indeed! Well, he’s been using the Multiplication Bead Board since he was five. After he had done each number several times with that material, he started setting out 15-20 multiplication equations on his rug, putting out the answer tiles, and then checking his work with the Multiplication Finger Charts. He used both materials for about a year.

When he was ready to practice the multiplication facts without needing any concrete material, I put out the Multiplication Wheels and he worked on those on and off for another year. This past fall, he got out multiplication flash cards (on his own) and worked with them until he knew every answer with no mistakes. Not only does he really, truly understand multiplication (2 x 3 is two sets of three), but he did it all of his own volition. I never once told him to choose multiplication materials. I just made them available and helped when he needed me.

The verdict is in: let the child set the pace, and they will choose how and when to learn. The Montessori math materials are just tools, but they are powerful tools that can transform a child – and us right along with them.

Helpful Montessori Math Resources:

Math Materials from Alison’s Montessori
Shu-Chen Jenny Yen’s Online 3-6 Math Album
Montessori Teacher’s Collective Online 3-6 Math Album
Montessori Teacher’s Collective Online 6-9 Math Album
Math Activities, Operations, and Word Problems & Equations.

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11 Responses to “Yes, Children Can Love Math!”

  • Anonymous said at October 15th, 2007 at 8:02 pm :

    Wow, this is a cool post. I too have bad memories of boring math classes growing up. I’m interested in learning more. And, if you don’t mind a question, what other math activities was your son doing at the time? If any? Thx.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 15th, 2007 at 8:06 pm :

    Good question. He was doing many different things, actually. Some were more peripheral, like Roman Numerals and money work. And, he was also learning and practicing addition and subtraction at the same time.

    I also like to use a wide variety of math activities, like board games, books about math, CDs with math songs, DVDs, and computer games like Math Blaster.

  • Meredith said at October 16th, 2007 at 8:37 am :

    What a perfect post at a perfect time!!! My children LOVE Montessori math where they were always just SO-SO with our other Math options! YOu have so many great resource for everyone here, thank you for taking the time to post this, it’s wonderful!

  • Lori Bourne said at October 16th, 2007 at 11:37 am :

    Thank you, Meredith! I think it’s neat to see the materials in action – then it really becomes more than just theory or speculation.

    Also, the materials can be used on so many different levels depending on the age/ability of the child.

    I’ve always said that I wish I had the Binomial and Trinomial Cubes when I took algebra – what a difference that would have made!

  • jenmack said at October 17th, 2007 at 7:42 pm :

    I needed to read this right now. I pulled out the binomial cube because my kids were begging to start working with it. I was amazed at all of those great “connections” that just happened with my 7yo – particularly in his recognition of certain patterns. My 10 yo is really loving the tangible representatives of the equation. I have been discerning where to go from here with them both. Your post was a wonderful inspiration. As always, you have enlightened me.

  • Angel said at October 18th, 2007 at 1:17 pm :

    This is a thought-provoking post, Lori, as I am hoping to avoid turning my 4 yo into a math hater and trying to remediate a little math difficulty in his 8 yo sister. Can I ask — did your son request presentations of the material or did you initiate it? And if you initiated presentations, was there any resistance you had to work past? My kids are all more or less “strong-willed” and deciding when to push and when to let it go can b difficult!

  • Lori Bourne said at October 18th, 2007 at 1:33 pm :

    Great question, Angel! There were times when I initiated the presentation, but usually if I put something new on the shelf, he would ask me to do it so I didn’t have to volunteer.

    But, after, presenting, I let him be the judge of whether to do the work or not. Sometimes a few weeks would go by without any math work. I never made him feel like it had to be done.

    Now, if I had put math work out and he never, ever chose it, I would have had to tell him to do it at some point. But I would have done that in a non-threatening, low pressure, “hey just wait until you see this because it’s sooooo cool” sort of way.

  • Amber said at May 7th, 2008 at 2:13 pm :

    I love your blog! It is so nice to find a Montessorian that is homeschooling. I will be homeschooling my two children, ages 5 and 7, in the fall. They have both been in Children’s House since 2 and a half and I am having trouble deciding what to do for math. Should I just invest the money in the Montessori math materials and the manual from NAMC? I will be using the NAMC manuals for Language and the Great Lessons but language materials are cheaper and or easier to make so that decision was easier. Of course the teachers at their current school won’t/can’t give me an opinion on this because they think trying to homeschool this way isn’t possible. Any insight on this would be so helpful. I am blessed to have found your website, I was on the brink of giving up the idea of Montessori at home before I found you!

  • Lori Bourne said at May 7th, 2008 at 2:38 pm :

    Hi, Amber! I love when parents find me, because I think it’s great when Montessori & homeschooling collide! Good for you 🙂

    I would recommend using a math album, although the online math albums I link to in this post are great. Go with what you can afford, make as many things by hand as possible, improvise, and most of all, don’t worry. Buy things a few at a time so that you don’t overdo your budget.

    Take a look at the Montessori Basics post Essentials of an Elementary Classroom to see which math materials I think are the most important.

  • Amber said at June 10th, 2008 at 12:38 pm :

    Thank you so much for your response. I will waffle no more about math and start making bead bars! Your latest math post was very helpful as well. I just LOVE your website. I am taking the summer to figure out what I am going to stock my shelves with to start our homeschooling adventure and your website will be my number one resource. Thanks again! Amber

  • Lori Bourne said at June 11th, 2008 at 2:04 pm :

    You are so welcome! Best of luck to you.