Skip to main content

Transitioning to Living Math


How to Put Down the Textbook and Breathe Life into Your Math

Yes, it's hard. Very, very hard to set aside the workbook and orderly math progression through an outlined curriculum and shift to what seems to be a messy, random bunch of games and hands-on activities.

You love the concept of living math. You know that it's fun. You even know that your children would learn through it. But, there are still those nagging concerns -- What about gaps in their math learning? What about drill? What about memorization? What about standardized tests? When will I find time to prepare all these games and clean up after all these messy activities?

Here's my own journey from textbook prison to living math paradise. Okay, it's not quite so glamorous as that! But this is how I shifted my thinking and am (still) transitioning to a living math approach.

I'm not a math expert or even a math person. I think in words not numbers. I have trouble remembering which number bus takes me downtown, but I can easily remember the names of all the stops on the way. This is just one homeschoool mother's attempt to try to make some sense of math instruction and make it enjoyable along the way. Come peek into my journey.

What About You?

The Great Number Rumble

For the Living Math lesson 1, I couldn't find even one of the recommended books. So I got this one instead. It was a super introduction to living math. It got us thinking and made us go off on tangents.

Family Math

It all started with this book, recommended to my by a homeschooling mom who spoke at a homeschool conference I attended. I found a used copy and read over it. Like many resource books, it found a comfy spot on my bookshelf and was promptly forgotten.


Family Math Comes off the Shelf and I Search for More Information

Over our years of homeschooling, I've slowly incorporated more and more of Charlotte Mason styled learning. I'd already added in artist study, composer study, nature study, even poetry and Shakespeare. We were using living books for history and science. Math was the last holdout. I had read about a "living math" approach -- using living books and real life tasks instead of using textbooks and worksheets. I already understood what Charlotte Mason herself had written about math instruction. I liked the ideas in theory. But to actually use them? It seemed ridiculous.

My objections were as follows:

  • If I don't follow the book, I'll leave out important math ideas.
  • I'm not strong enough in math myself to guide our learning without a curriculum.
  • I love living books, but how can they teach math? I mean, math is numbers.
  • If Sprite does a lot of math games but never does any drill or any worksheets, how will she be able to perform on standardized tests in the future?

But as I read more and more and tears during math lessons became more and more frequent, I knew something had to change in our math instruction. I was reading blogs like Our Journey Westward, Lapaz Home Learning, and Let's Play Math. I liked what I saw in their approaches to math. I even read the long 25 page Lockhart's Lament.

Finally, I committed to having one day a week with math games. That was my first step. Nothing changed except for that one weekly game day. I would try to pick a game that went along with the topic we were studying in our Singapore math book. Family Math's games are set up by topic, so it's easy to find a game that fits what you're studying. Those days were grand successes in terms of attitude, learning, and motivation. It kept me searching for more answers about living math.

Here are some photos of those early games and activities.


We played some fraction games and made a huge number line from 1-20 with all the multiples of each number made from a gazillion tiny paper squares. We rolled dice and dealt cards. We both started to look forward to our weekly math game day.

I then began to get serious about planning more extensive changes. I could see that doing a game elicited excitement that a worksheet never could. If the arithmetic skills were the same, then why not do them in a fun way versus a dull one?

Scroll to Continue

We started playing math games and activities every day, using the Singapore Math textbook as a supplement, pulling it out every now and then but not daily.


I pored over and over the Living Math lesson plan information, hoping it would be the answer to my quest for a rich math curriculum, filled with games and living learning.

Her Cycle One Outline and booklists are available free, online. So although I've purchased the lesson plans ($20) for Cycle One, Unit 1 Intermediate Level, I'm not giving away any secrets here. Instead I'm sharing how we made it our own and implemented the ideas of living math.

Unit 1 covers Ancients and World Cultures in 8 lessons:

Lesson 1: Math is Everywhere!

Lesson 2: Ancient Roots of Mathematics in Africa and Mesopotamia

Lesson 3: Ancient Roots of Mathematics in Asia

Lesson 4: Ancient Roots of Mathematics in the Americas

Lesson 5: Thales and the Egyptians

Lesson 6: Pythagoras and the Early Greeks

Lesson 7: Archimedes Part 1

Lesson 8: Archimedes Part 2 and Eratosthenes

And the lessons continue as such through history in the subsequent units.

Julie's Living Math lessons are more math theory and math history than arithmetic. You travel through history chronologically, seeing how math was used and what math discoveries were made.

Once I bought the lesson plans, I realized that this wasn't what I was looking for. It was a good addition to what I wanted. But it was not the whole picture. There are one or two activity ideas for each lesson, but it's not thorough enough to be a complete math curriculum. You still have to have your own games, math activities, and arithmetic lessons.

The Living Math booklists are incredibly lengthy and a bit confusing since so many of the books are out of print. It took me weeks to pore over them and figure out which books were used in which lessons and which ones were vital and which ones were supplementary. There was quite a bit of guessing as well because aside from the input of two moms on the Living Math Yahoo group, I had only the information at Amazon to make my decisions. I finally decided on a group of books and placed my order! I chose books from the Living Math curriculum list plus some general math books to pique Sprite's interest.

I ordered and implemented the Living Math lesson plans, using many living books from the Living Math booklist.

Just for Fun Math Books

I personally like the Brown Paper School books better than the Penrose books. Although they come highly recommended, the Penrose books still feel a bit "school-ish" to me. Quite the opposite, the Brown Paper School books are written to kids with that sort of "try to trick the grown-ups with this math problem" kind of witty humor. Penrose is simply not as engaging.

The Brown Paper School books are also recommended on the MA Dept. of Education math literature lists.

The Objections Faced & Goal Setting

Through this investigation process, I've come to grips with my former fears about the living math approach.

  • If I don't follow the book, I'll leave out important math ideas.

    This is a common fear with homeschooling. Gaps are inevitable whether your child is educated at home or in a traditional setting. Get over it and move on with learning. Actually, there are many online guides that you can use to periodically check that you're covering it all. One example is the Math Curriculum Focal Points, published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics


I'm not strong enough in math myself to guide our learning without a curriculum.That's all the more reason to make math fun and engaging -- both for me and for my daughter. My natural tendency is to avoid math. But by being more proactive in designing our curriculum, I'm becoming more interested in math. That excitement rubs off on my daughter! And again, I can still use my Singapore math texts as a guide for the skills to cover. The HOW to cover them is up to me.

I love living books, but how can they teach math? I mean, math is numbers.WRONG. Numbers are one aspect of math. But logical thinking, problem solving, and mathematical reasoning are all parts of math education.

If Sprite does a lot of math games but never does any drill or any worksheets, how will she be able to perform on standardized tests in the future?Taking a living math approach doesn't mean that she never does any drill and never fills in a workbook page. Those things simply become supplements to the real-life activities instead of being the core.

So in revamping our math, I decided on some goals and outlined some facets that would need to be covered to reach those goals.

Math Learning Goals

-an appreciation for (even a love of!) math (that means no fear of math)

-the ability to think mathematically and problem solve

-a basic understanding of math in history

-fluency in number operations

I would've been nice to start my journey with these goals, but to be honest, I had to plunge into this living math journey and flounder around a bit to discover what my goals are.

How to implement them? Well, it seems to be a three-faceted approach.

Math Facets

1. a chronological study of the developments in math history, including biographies of famous mathematicians

2. math experiences -- games, activities, puzzles

3. arithmetic -- drill, practice, skills


I am working the plan! We aren't really spending much more time on math than we used to before the big shift, but the time is so much more productive.

I'm using the outlines from Living Math for the history (facet #1) plus some overlap into the activities (facet #2). (Julie's curriculum does include some activities.) You can read my full review of Living Math curriculum at The Curriculum Choice.

And I'll keep using Singapore math for the arithmetic (facet #3). But for the experiences and games, I'll have to be the most creative -- searching for goodies online, using my Family Math book, and trying to incorporate math into our daily lives as much as possible. It's not cut and dry. The three areas overlap into each other quite a bit. And that's a wonderful, holistic perspective of math!

There is no open and go curriculum that covers all that I want our study of math to cover. So I'm picking and choosing, making it up as I go.

This is how I tackle the arithmetic and games aspect. I pull out my Singapore math textbook and look at the overall units -- measurement, time, or fractions, for example. Then instead of starting with the textbook explanations and workbook exercises, I search for games, puzzles, activities, or living books to introduce and practice the concepts and skills in a fun and living way. I'm also trying to incorporate more math notebooking into our studies. So I'm using graphic organizers and notebooking pages plus writing prompts about math. After experiencing the math concepts in various ways, then we move to the workbook as a review or wrap up. By that time, Sprite has confidence and proficiency in the skill and performs very fluently.

Other Moms Who are Transitioning to Living Math

Three Math History Spines

The following three books plus Number Stories of Long Ago by David Eugene Smith are serving as the spines of the math history element of our living math. These books are used extensively in the Living Math lesson plans.

You can see the other books I bought here at this Amazon list.

Joy of Mathematics

Mathematicians Are People, Too - Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians

For lesson plans to go along with many of the chapters in Mathematicians Are People, Too visit Ohio Resource Center.

Math Talk - Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices

I really like it when subjects intersect, so I love the idea math poetry.


mariettamom on May 17, 2014:

Thank you for sharing your journey into living math! My daughter struggles with math. We have been using textbooks and she gets more behind every year. I think it's a combination of things like fear, confusion and boredom. When I do some more online research I am going to select a living math book for 8th grade. Have you ever looked at the Life of Fred books for math?

anonymous on July 20, 2013:

Thank you for taking the time to chronicle your experiences! This is precisely what I needed! The sad thing is that I taught public school and led family math nights to encourage living math in the home. But now as a busy homeschooling mama, the workbook gets pulled out more and more. Sigh... I'm excited this year though. The times, they are a-changing!

cookie37061 on May 02, 2013:

Wow great advice and great lens! Impressive and informational! Thanks so much!

anonymous on April 26, 2012:

just found this article, and simply loved it. Thank you for sharing. I am just about to embark on homeschooling and looking for ideas for Living Math!

Shannon from Florida on August 04, 2011:

I featured your wonderful living math lenses on my math curriculum lens:

Shannon from Florida on August 03, 2011:

Great lens!

anonymous on July 28, 2011:

Wow, thank you so much for sharing this. Really insightful. I have had lots of frustrations this past year trying to find our way through this (mostly just urging my kids to get their drills done...agh! NOT how I want our math experience to be!).... Wonderful ideas.

anonymous on June 16, 2011: