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Algebra by the Unschooling Six-Year-Old

Algebra for the Six-Year-Old
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 recent examples.

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 life learning, or homeschooling in general, don’t understand the huge amounts of time we spend when the “educational windows” or “learning opportunities” present themselves.

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 need $58.”

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 a child is life learning, we 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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