Algebra for the
By Tracy Aitken
My youngest child, Kerry, is six years old. He is
bright-eyed, curious, and so animated that neighbors say he should be a
cartoon. Kerry is also a thinker. He often thinks out loud, so I can
hear just how he makes his conclusions. They are fascinating, especially
when he uses creative description, for lack of knowing the “right”
words. For example, when I was trying on dresses at the store recently,
he was ready with an opinion on each one. One particular dress had
intricate pleating and embroidery on the bodice. When I went to the
mirror outside of the dressing room to get a good look, he said
emphatically and loudly, of course, “Oh, Mom. I like your breasts in
this dress!” Although the salesman looked a little shocked, I figured
this comment to be the most flattering I’d heard in a while, and I
bought the dress.
Math, however, is Kerry’s forte; he just doesn’t
know it. His way with numbers, much like his way with words, shows a
deep understanding of concepts. He also has a unique creative use of
that understanding to get past his lack of mathematical vocabulary. I
have dubbed him “King of Six-Year-Old Algebra.” Here are a couple of
We have a Wal-Mart rule in our house, which
actually applies to all stores we visit. It goes like this: You may look
at the toys as much as you want. Only once in a while will it be “extra
money for toys” day. You may ask before we get into the store if it is
one of those rare days; however, once it is determined that we are not
buying toys today, if I hear even one word about buying toys, you will
not be allowed to look at the toys again until your next birthday.
It is a rare toy day, and Kerry is considering his
options. Usually, toys on these days are limited to $5 and under.
However, Kerry has his eye on a large Star Wars Lego set, priced at
$19.95. I say, “Sorry, that’s too much. I don’t want to spend $20.”
Kerry-Logic kicks in.
“It’s only 19 dollars and 95, Mom, not $20.” “Yes,
I know, but $19.95 is only five cents from $20, so I’m rounding up.”
“That’s okay, I know you have to add tax.” “Yes, and tax is more than
five cents.” “How much is tax?” “It’s seven percent.” “Percent? Like,
for each cent you have to pay seven? Seven whats?” “Seven cents for
every dollar.” “So, it’s per dollar, not per cent?” “Yes, in this case.
You know what? This is a paper-math thing, and I don’t have paper with
me. Why don’t I explain it to you better when we get home.” “Oh, this is
math?” “Yes. Usually, if you are working with numbers, it’s math.” “Oh.”
Silence for a moment as he mentally digests.
“Okay, so, until you can show me per dollars at
home, we’ll just round up five cents to $20?” “Yes, it’s easier. And $20
is too much for a toy today.”
May I pause here and note that my trip to Wal-Mart
has become a bit longer than I originally thought it would be? People
who don’t understand unschooling, or homeschooling in general, don’t
understand the huge amounts of time we spend when the “educational
windows” or “learning opportunities” present themselves.
“I can’t explain the mental
hoops one must jump through to keep up with Six-Year-Old
Back to our deliberations. Kerry states, “Mom, I
need this. I have one at home, but it’s not enough.” “Why not? Did you
lose pieces?” “No. See, this is my army, and Kaine [big brother, 13] is
the Federation. He has a bigger army because he’s been collecting
longer. I need four of these to beat him, and I only have one. Really, I
My turn to mentally digest. Where did $58 come
from? I do some quick mental handstands. Did he just jump from needing
four, having one, thereby needing three more, and multiplying that by –
what? Not $20, not $19….wait, this is too much at once from a
six-year-old, isn’t it?
“$58, Kerry? Why $58?”
“Because, Mom,” he explains, “I have $2 at home.”
Ah. Not only has he made the jumps in the previous
paragraph, but he has also subtracted his piggy bank contents! I bought
him the toy. But only one.
A few days after the above experience, Kerry again
demonstrates his mathematical capabilities.
It is one of those days where our family is
overbooked, and getting everyone to where they need to be when they need
to be there is looking difficult. Jeff and I are working it out as the
boys get ready for their individual events.
“If you take Kevin to Pfieffer for his computer
class, I can take Kaine to his youth group meeting…but he has to be back
by two o'clock for choir.”
“I can’t do that, because I have to be at work at
three, and Kevin’s class gets out too late for me to get to him, bring
him back home, and then to work on time.”
“Then I’ll take Kevin, you take Kaine, and I can
make my choir rehearsal at three.…”
“Wait, I forgot I have a dental appointment at one.
And if we do that, Kerry will be left at home by himself.…”
As we are going back and forth, Kerry comes to me
and says, “Mom.” I say, “Wait, Daddy and I have to figure something
out.” Daddy and I continue to talk, “What if? No. Try this. Oh, then we
can’t. Can we not? We have to, we already paid for it.” All the while,
Kerry is saying, “Mom. Mom. Mom.” And I’m saying, “Wait. One moment.
Don’t interrupt.” and finally, “What do you want, Kerry?” in that
Exasperated Mother Voice.
“If you keep me all day with you, and Dad does
everything with Kaine, then it works.”
By golly, he’s right! And that’s exactly what we
do. “Kerry, you are so good at math!” I say.
You know how he answers? “No, math is numbers.
There were no numbers. It must be English I am good at.”
I’m so happy that when one unschools, one needn’t
put things into neat little boxes and title them. I obviously get my
maths and language arts mixed up. But when I am queried as to, “How do
they learn math if you don’t teach them?,” I can happily report, “They
just do.” Because I certainly can’t explain the mental hoops one must
jump through in order to keep up with Six-Year-Old Algebra.
Tracy Aitken and her husband Jeff unschool
their three boys in Spencer, North Carolina.
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