Math the Laundry Way

When my 6th child was three a relative came to visit and had a little conniption fit┬ábecause our three year old didn’t know her colors yet, and somebody else’s younger grandchild did. This would have upset and worried me with my firstborn, but by my sixth child I’d learned a thing or two, so I wasn’t worried about it. I told my relation that when this child was ready, she’d know her colors.

I had learned that little children really are sponges for knowledge, and they are gathering information and knowledge all the time. After all, it’s not like we all walk around here in isolation, never speaking. We mention these things as part of daily life (I like the blue shirt better, those red flowers are pretty, orange starbursts are my favorites,this toast is burnt black as midnight, has anybody seen the other green/red/blue/purple/yellow/white/black/white/brown/pink/orange/chartreuse

Sure enough, about six months later, my little girl knew all her colors without any particular effort on my part- and she knew lots of other things, too, because while that other mother was expending a lot of time and focused attention getting her much younger child to learn that one thing ahead of everyone else, my child was picking up all kinds of knowledge as naturally as a bird pecks up crumbs. By the time the children were five years old, if you had to guess, you would not guess that it was _my_ child who learnt her colors last.

We have had the same experience with counting (my children learn to count from playing hide ‘n seek with their siblings), the alphabet (reading aloud alphabet books, and taking our time), and sizes- big, biggest, small, smallest, middle sized- these concepts we generally learn from the Story of the Three Bears or from choosing which piece of cake we want.

With our smallest children we are, in other words, big fans of natural learning around here. Years ago when we were preparing to adopt The Cherub, I wasn’t sure if we should home school her or not, since she has so many special needs. Chief among them is a severe developmental disability. I visited her classroom. I looked at catalogs for special needs materials. I read books on teaching the retarded. I noticed that over and over, the materials used were expensive representations of things found at home. For teaching matching skills there would be flash cards with photographs of socks, shoes, utensils, and clothing. I thought it would be best to just use real socks and shoes. For teaching counting there were impossibly colored plastic bears, and I thought we could do the same thing with naturally colored seashells or raisins. Since so many of the materials for the disabled were imitations of things found in a home, I decided a home just might be the best place for our young Cherub to be. The same principles apply to other younglings.

Laundry is a great time for working on the skills of sorting by color, size, or style and of matching up pairs of like things. Do you know how many pairs of socks a family of nine goes through in a week? Boy, do we get to do some matching!

Laundry is also a good opportunity to hone some thinking skills. As you fold or sort, you can be asking your young child questions such as “who wears this?
Do we wear this when it’s hot or cold? Does this go on your hand or your

When you want to teach shapes you can use the laundry again if you use cloth napkins, washclothes, and towels. Fold them into squares, rectangles and triangles. Lunches and snacks are also good places to learn shapes- slice bananas into circles, cut an apple sideways to look at the star, eat a spherical cherry tomato. You can also learn shapes from neighborhood street signs.

Lunch and laundry folding are great opportunities to learn basic fractions (fold it in half, fold it in half again, cut it into thirds, divide that sandwich in fourths) and cooperation. You can also count socks, sing “this is the way we wash the clothes…”, sing “One little, two little, three little undies” to the tune of Ten Little Indians, and develop habits of order all just by doing laundry together.

All chores are _great_ opportunities for bonding. I’ve always found that working together on a project is a wonderful way to foster a spirit of cooperation and togetherness.

Make the chores and daily routines part of your rhythm as a family. Don’t isolate the children from real life by creating institutionalized preschools at home. God put them in a family, use the life and routine of your family. We have to eat. But we don’t have to eat the same way every day. Sometimes we have picnics outside (to a small child a sandwich on a tablecloth in the grass is a grand picnic). We’ve even had picnics in the living room on the floor (popcorn, cheese and fruit is a
great nutritious, easy, living room picnic). Sometimes we have candle-light dinners,
with a fancy table setting and our macaroni and cheese or black bean sloppy
joes, or a fancier meal of chicken and artichoke crepes.

Finish up doing the dishes with some water play in the sink. Give your child a
ride on the vacuum cleaner while you vacuum. Play marching games while picking
up the toys. Talk about things you care about while doing the dishes, cutting up the vegetables for a salad, or making the beds. Weed the garden together, and talk while you’re doing it.

See, I am _really_ into natural rather than artificial learning for small children. I am much more impressed by a small child who can match socks and fold pillowcases than by a small child who can quote his numbers by rote- the first child knows what
she’s doing. It has meaning for her. She’s proudly making a contribution to her family. She’s building brain connections that matter. I’m not worried about counting, she’ll pick it up with out trouble.

The second child has a skill that he understands little, and it’s useful for
impressing others, but for all the meaning it has to him in his real life, he
might just as well memorize license plates or commercials. They’d be equally
useless to him *at that age*.

Years ago I tried teaching my small people some rote facts that did not have much meaning for them. I did this because I had read about it in a description of one educational approach. According to what I read, children find rote memorization so easy that this is a good time to feed them lots of lists to memorize and they can figure out what it’s all about much later. We didn’t have a lot of success with this method, although we did have a lot of frustration. One of the things we tried to help the girls memorize was a little song about bacteria from Lyrical Life Science. They almost learned it well enough sing along with the tape, but they could never sing without the tape, and it was always a source of frustration for them. Years later those girls took a biology course, and after their biology class they happened to hear that song again. “Ohhhh,” said one of them, “that song makes a lot more sense now. It would be easier to learn now that I know what they are talking about, too.” For my children, having some understanding of the ideas behind a concept is vital before they can memorize the facts and details.

So my smaller children may not learn the alphabet until they are six, while their neighbors half their age might be reciting the names of the Presidents and the alphabets of three languages. My children are climbing trees, splashing in puddles, digging in the mud, playing hopscotch, and wasting their time in other seemingly frivolous play while others are inside working over flashcards and workbooks. By the time my children are ten, they are reading Plutarch and one would be hardpressed to accurately guess which child learned the alphabet last. It doesn’t always have to be an either/or situation, of course, but it often is, because parents, being busy people, sometimes focus on academics to the exclusion of other things.

For those interested in learning more, I strongly recommend reading Jane Healy’s _Your Child’s Growing Mind,_ anything by Ruth Beechick or John Holt, and volume one of Charlotte Mason’s six volume series.

And don’t forget to play.


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