Unschooling and STEM Careers

You’ve probably noticed it. Your daughter loves playing with lego, taking apart appliances, building complicated computer programs, making volcanoes and playing video games. She loves logic, order and computation. She is probably headed to a STEM career. STEM careers are built on a solid foundation of mathematics.

“What about Math?” It’s the second most common question I get when talking to someone about unschooling, a type of homeschooling which is learner-determined education. (You probably all know the first question and it starts with the dreaded “s” letter.) As the parent of five unschooled children, three of whom were heading in the direction of a STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career, I can share our experience of children learning math and science in their own way and time.


In a Calgary Herald article on Feb 6, 2016, Future of Employment; Women may face job crunch, it’s stated that women make up the bulk of clerical and office positions which will be greatly reduced in the future with technology while 3d printing and robotics are growing fields that create demand in engineering, technology, architecture, computers, coding and many more STEM fields. If more women don’t enter STEM careers, they will be left behind in low paying, unrewarding jobs in the service industry. Clearly, girls need math just as much as boys. So when should she begin formal math studies?

Unschoolers know that math is all around us. Math is simply a tool to solve life’s problems. Just like a screwdriver is a tool to help us in many ways, even beyond its original use,  (I even use it to open paint cans), math is the same, in that numbers are used in different ways to solve different problems.  Children use math as soon as they are toddlers and try out a shape sorter, or put nesting cups inside each other, or slide those wooden beads along those toy abacus wires. Children grow in their math skills as they go about their daily lives playing, building projects, shopping and learning decimals, or cooking and learning fractions.  In their heads, they guess at addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and estimate quantities to solve problems. This is also called mental math or math done in children’s brains, rather than on paper. This provides a wonderful experiential math foundation for the first 13 years of life.

By the time a child reaches puberty, their brains develop and allow abstract thinking, so they can understand complex theories, beyond tangible objects in their everyday lives. That is why algebra and the mysterious “x” standing in for a variable,  is taught in junior high school.  Some children don’t understand it until later because all children vary in their development as well as age of reaching puberty. What unschoolers know is that by the time a child’s brain allows for theoretical thinking, they can understand and learn the entire math curriculum of grade 1-7 in about six months.

So when is the best time to start formal math on paper? Grade 8.  That seems to be the best time to switch from mental math to doing calculations on paper or what we call paper math. In grade 8, children will cover much of the younger years curriculum and get a good foundation of theoretical math to come. It’s a bridging year. In grade 8, they will cover (in Alberta) decimals, fractions, integers, perfect squares and square roots, ratio and rate, algebraic expressions and equations, Pythagorean theorem, prisms and cylinders, graphs and probability. All these concepts are useful for further math needed for STEM careers. By waiting until grade 8 to begin formal math, children will not have had time to feel inadequate about learning math.

All my children began their formal, paper math education around grade 8. Some skipped grade 9 math, but all of them did grade 10, 11, and 12 math according to high school outcomes.  It was also the first time they learned about exams, deadlines and expectations and they did fine. If they wanted a STEM career, they were old enough to understand that they needed to learn higher math in high school in order to pursue math and science at a university level.

Science education on paper began in high school grade 10, even though as every parent knows, experiential science begins in babyhood. When a toddler throws his bowl of Cheerios off the high chair tray, he is learning velocity. Later, in grade 10, he learns velocity again with paper calculations.  My children began with a common grade 10 science program that had 4 components – a little bit of biology, a little bit of chemistry and a little bit of physics and environmental science.  In grade 11, they had to specialize according to their university goals and science preferences.  For stem careers, most students were required to have 2 sciences and calculus math.

One of my children reached adulthood without grade 11 or 12 science and math and discovered he needed it for his career direction. When children are motivated to learn, they will succeed. He took fast track courses and finished all his math and science requirements in 1.5 years.

Another of my children loved science and took all three streams just for the fun of it. True learning for the love of learning. It was a good thing, because the university he went to had all first year students take a timed, 2 hour math skills test. Any student that got below 75% was automatically deleted from all their first year math and science courses and the onus was on the student to pick up remedial courses which added another year to their program. It was the universities way to ensure a cross-Canada standard of math education, because some provinces did not have standardized government diploma exams in grade 12.

In summary, although my children began more formal learning in social studies and English language arts in grade 11 and 12, and science in grade 10, they started earlier in grade 8 for math when they knew they were heading to a STEM career.  However, I believe that waiting to learn paper math until grade 8 increased their self-perception that they were confident learners and also increased their love of math to solve problems. Both are required for STEM careers.

For more ways to learn math without a workbook, pre-order Judy’s new book, Unschooling to University, due out Fall 2016.


About Judy Arnall, BA, DTM, CCFE

BA, DTM, CCFE, Certified child development specialist and master of non-punitive parenting and education practices. Keynote speaker and best-selling author of "Discipline Without Distress", "Parenting With Patience", "Attachment Parenting Tips Raising Toddlers to Teens", and "Unschooling To University."
This entry was posted in Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers Ages 0-5, Elementary-Primary Children Ages 5-12, High School Children Ages 15-18, Homeschooling, How to Unschool, Junior High School Children Ages 12-15, University-College Ages 18-25, Why Unschool? and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Unschooling and STEM Careers

  1. Corene says:

    Hi Judy, I find when we go through unschooling phases in our homeschool, my daughter’s lack of interest in math and my own inability to explain mathematical concepts, result in a complete lack of mathematical learning. We don’t add fractions while baking or experiment with multiplication in our heads; we’re exceptionally skilled at avoiding the subject entirely if we don’t have a curriculum or scheduled math activities forcing us to remember to count something. On the other hand, we do language arts informally all the time. Even when unschooling my daughter’s language arts skills continue to improve, and I’m positive she will catch up quickly when I get around to teaching her some of the formal conventions we haven’t bothered with yet. My concern with math is that if we don’t use a traditional math program, my daughter won’t have the mathematical foundation she needs. Do you have any thoughts about this? Thanks.


    • Hi Corene:
      I know that people worry about building a math foundation, but It’s amazing how fast they catch on when they are ready. When your daughter needs to take a formal math course, she will do fine. You may have to provide a bit more parent support in the first few months if she transfers into school or a regular math program, but she will catch up quickly on any gaps they have. I remember trying to drill long division into my boys when they were aged 10 and feeling totally frustrated with them not getting it, and they were feeling upset that I was upset! What a gong show. We let it go. I came to believe that it was okay if they never learned long division. 7 years later and they both had to take Pure Math to get into university and they did fine! They just were not ready at age 10. We have to let go of the thinking that we have to teach it now or it will never happen. Your daughter is probably learning math but the learning is invisible to you. What she knows now is not what she is going to know in the future. 🙂


      • Corene says:

        Thanks Judy…. my concern is that I’m not exposing her to enough math in her daily life for her to be picking it up, and it is not something that interests her so…. I think that unschooling done properly should provide an environment where learning can take place informally, through discussion etc, and I don’t feel like I’m doing that with math. I don’t have the fluency myself to be able to make it a part of our daily life….. My daughter does pick up math concepts quickly from her curriculum, she just thoroughly hates it…. I do use a lot of math games in our homeschool, and they are slightly better tolerated than the math program.


      • Board games are an excellent, fun way to learn math. Battleship, monopoly, cribbage, and many more. If she picks it up quickly, she will be fine.


  2. SC says:

    We are three years on the path and our kids are thriving, happy, problem solvers. Your article is very reassuring for those occasion when that voice of fear and doubt starts to creep in saying “shouldn’t I be doing xyz???” Can’t wait to read your book when it comes out.


  3. Nancy says:

    So what ones a typical day in “unschooling” look like?


  4. Judy, I completely agree! I homeschool 3 boys, and we use math in our daily activities all the time! I would rather teach them mental math everyday than paper math. We use a lot of games, online activities, projects, and I have even filled our house with math problems taped to the wall. This was to show them math is everywhere. We looked at math in nature, went over the Fibonacci sequence in pinecones, explored it on flowers, etc. My oldest, now in 8th grade is starting working math on paper. He is doing really well, I am also surprised at how fast my youngest is at doing math in his head!! Enjoyed reading this today. Sometimes other stories help reassure our insecurities that the world’s “burdened view” on schooling tends to leave on us homeschoolers/unschoolers. Thanks!


  5. Pingback: Children Will Learn Calculus When They Really Need It | Unschooling To University (And College Too)

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