How to Find Math in Play

Jul 02, 2022

Here, a young homeschool boy from Baltimore, MD, shows the joys of play while swinging on a hammock over the Heathcote stream. 

Way back in 2010, I joined a homeschool Open Classroom program, or classroom without walls, as an apprentice to the program facilitator, Dana. Dana told me during the first month, I would deschool. At first, I wasn’t sure what that meant. I found out quickly. At first I was more of an observer of the residential community’s multi-age homeschool program. There was no curriculum, no grades, tests, desks, nor black or white board. 

My Heathcote Art & Science Center homeschool students freely exploring the learning center.

I watched as the five multi-age children ranging from 4 – 13 years old play mainly with each other most of the day. The program ran 3 days per week from 10 am – 4 pm. What did they play at? All manner of things from creating arts and crafts, make believe, pretend, building blocks to rough housing on the playground. Every program day was different and directed by the children. 

Dana had set up a rich resource learning center complete with books, arts and crafts center, recycled materials, and tables with chairs for projects to be done on. The program was held on the second floor of an old red renovated grain mill. The learning center space was dreamy beautiful with wood floors lined with bookcases, tables, and comfy seating in a circle where we did our daily informal opening and closing meeting simply called “check-ins.” The Mill was located in a valley nestled within 112 acres of wooded forest. In every kind off weather we were outdoors either observing or playing with the children. Almost all weather. We typically didn’t play out in the heavy rain. 

Did I miss standing up lecturing before students? Nope. Did I miss grading, testing, and teaching divided subjects. Not in the slightest. This was the program I was dreaming of while I was confined to the four walls within three different private schools from 1996, the year I graduated college, until I had lost (thankfully) my final private day school job in 2010. 

Play. This is my point today. At the time I was participating as a facilitator in Dana’s Open Classroom program, I wasn’t really “looking” for math in the kids play, yet, I know it was there. I can bet you aren’t always “looking for the math” in your child’s play either, but, if you look closely, carefully and put your math thinking cap on, you’ll see it. 

You can support math in your children’s play simply by providing a rich learning environment and joining in subtly when there are questions. Many times, kids will also ask you for help if they have questions. 

Here are some things you can try experimenting with today:

Stock up your learning area. Add math story books, games, puzzles, and manipulatives. You can even use items around the house, such as jars of dried beans for projects. 

Observe your child’s play. Simply watch them play. You can do this subtly while you’re doing something else, but, carefully tune in. Learn to see the connections between math and their chosen activities for play. Hint: This needs to be completely child directed, otherwise, it’s not true play if it’s directed by adults.

Join in sensitively. If you feel the urge to share more insights in their play, ask to join in. It’s healthy for adults to participate with their children during their play sometimes too. But, it’s healthiest if children are interacting most of the time with other child siblings or friends. Children play best with other children.


HASC student, Noah, self-directing making paper.

Schedule long blocks of time for play. Don’te be afraid to allow several consecutive hours for your kids to really deep dive into play. This will really allow their creative juices and imaginations free and unfettered from curriculum to truly explore the world around them and interact with each other. This is true child learning. Play IS the child’s language of learning. 

Children of all ages engage in significant mathematical thinking and reasoning in their play, most especially if they have knowledge about the materials they are using, if the task is understandable, interesting, and if the context is familiar and comfortable.

Math can be seamlessly integrated with your child’s ongoing play and activities, but it requires a knowledgeable and understanding parent who creates a supportive environment and provides appropriate math and science (math is the language of science) materials, challenges, suggestions, tasks, and language.

In homeschools where parents are alert and aware of all these possibilities, children’s play enriches mathematical explorations and experiences. Don’t be afraid to let go of the math curriculum drudgery and replace it with the forgotten art of childhood play, where real maths learning can truly and deeply take place for children of ALL ages.



Gloria Brooks