The Atmosphere of the Charlotte Mason Math Lesson

Today I want to talk about the atmosphere of the math lesson and give you some simple ways to retain a child’s happy relationship with math and to maintain a healthy relationship between you and your child.

When I was writing my son’s high school transcript, I pored over his portfolios, progress reports, and treasury of notebooks—fascinated by the glimpse each one gave into his education. Leafing through the pages, I smiled at those first numbers written with a chubby pencil, remembered how long he labored over fractions, and recalled how certain he was that two straight lines could enclose a space—until he set out to prove it first on paper and then outside. Trusting the guiding principles of Charlotte Mason, I found our math lessons could be every bit as exciting as reading a tale of adventure together during the history lesson, or as elegant and beautiful as listening to the term’s composer over a pot of tea. 

Today we’re starting a short, three-part series based on the motto, Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. In this post, we will focus on the Atmosphere of Environment—the first of three educational tools in that motto. Here are some simple ways to generate a wholesome atmosphere that retains a child’s happy relationship with math while maintaining a healthy relationship between parent and child. 

Provide a Quiet Growing Time

From infancy, children acquire so much knowledge in a natural way through their senses, unstructured play, and home environment that there’s no need to rush them into special math instruction in their early years. Allowing this important time of freedom, growth, and unhurried thinking also ensures that when formal math lessons begin, the brightness isn’t already worn off.

While Miss Mason urges formal lessons to start no earlier than six years of age, she also recognized that younger children are “eager to know and to do.” So, how do we balance this eagerness without taking the shine off formal lessons?

According to Charlotte, restraint on mother’s part—that wise letting alone known as masterly inactivity—is to be mixed with the knowledge for which a child thirsts. These activities should be taken at a child’s leisure, are often seen as play, and have no formal learning requirements attached.

While there’s no explicit talk of “addition” and “subtraction,” early counting could use a ball frame or dominoes. One end of a domino might be matched to another, patterns might be made with game counters, and your child might learn to draw numbers in a tray of sand or rice, just as she might trace her letters.

Some early math-related activities that your child might enjoy and are in keeping with a child’s natural environment include:

  • Playing store
  • Sorting and stacking
  • Putting together jigsaw puzzles
  • Paper folding
  • Counting Rhymes & Fingerplay
  • Forming or cutting out different shapes & sizes in play dough.
  • Playing games with counting components, such as skipping rope, hopscotch, or cup and ball.
  • Age-appropriate boardgames
  • Time in the kitchen with you, doing things like baking or setting the table.

Once your child is ready to begin formal arithmetic lessons we still want to provide

A Natural Environment

Everything needed to convey ideas in arithmetic can be found at home and in a child’s natural surroundings—making a contrived environment and expensive manipulatives unnecessary. Coins, beads, shells, acorns and craft sticks are just a sampling of objects that can be used to communicate a concept or prove a fact, while putting them away once a concept is grasped or a level of confidence achieved keeps them from becoming tiresome. Using a good variety of everyday objects also conveys the idea that math isn’t bound to specially-developed manipulatives used only in the math lesson but that these ideas are part of the wondrous whole of life.

Short Lessons

Keep lessons short and lively—lessons are built up to 20 minutes in the earlier years while never exceeding 30 minutes even in high school and with advanced math subjects. More can be accomplished when students are able to give their full attention to short concentrated lessons rather than becoming accustomed to dawdling over long drawn-out ones. So much can be accomplished in a 20- to 30-minute lesson, especially with the use of oral work, mental math, and engaging questions.

Alternate Lessons

Our children are expending great mental effort while exercising their reasoning skills during math lessons. No matter the age or level of your student, you can avoid mental fatigue by alternating the math lesson with subjects that use a different part of the brain or body, such as picture or composer study, singing, or perhaps even a short play break. Charlotte tells us a change is often as good as a rest and changing up lessons goes a long way in keeping both the atmosphere and your child fresh.


What are your own ideas surrounding math? Perhaps you had a poor experience that has stayed with you. When discussing Education as an Atmosphere, Charlotte tells us that “the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives” (Parents and Children, p. 247).

Giving your student the idea that math is to be dreaded, boring, or isn’t for her can quickly pollute the atmosphere of the math lesson. Charlotte believed that every person can be taught to think mathematically to some degree when the subject is approached in a living way, just as a child’s artistic sense can be cultivated through picture study and drawing lessons—even if she’s not destined to become an accomplished artist.

Irene Stephens, Lecturer in Mathematics at Charlotte’s teacher training college tells us:

It may be argued that this attitude towards mathematics, or the appreciation of some of its fascination and beauty, is a gift only given to the very few: but we venture to think that such an argument is more a habit of thought than a proven truth. In days not long past we were accustomed to think that music was a heaven-sent gift to a chosen few and a hard exercise in discipline and the sterner virtues to those not of this blessed minority. In this present-day we are told that every child can be a musician of some degree; that, given the right beginning, every child can be taught to think musically, to improvise for himself, and to appreciate intelligently the music of others. Though the world may never produce another Beethoven, the teachers of music are learning how to put their pupils into the right relationship with this subject, so that it is a gift to every one of them of opportunity for happy and joyful experiences; not, as it has been for the majorities of the past, a grinding between the millstones of drudgery and despair.

The Parents’ Review, Vol. 40, pp. 39, 40

Measuring Progress

We never want to give a child the idea that he is somehow “behind,” which can be a great discouragement and instill an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. A child’s progress should be measured against his own achievements rather than an arbitrary set of standards, the child next door, or even a sibling. Making sure your child truly understands a concept before moving on, working at the child’s pace to ensure each step is taken on solid ground, and having consistent daily lessons builds a child’s confidence, no matter his age or skill level, and allows him time to delight in the study of math.

Recognize Beauty and Truth

To be sure, numbers are of great practical help, and with them we can balance a bank account, build a bookcase, and map a vacation route. The ability to see numbers beyond their utilitarian use opens a realm of beauty and truth that extends well beyond the problem of the moment. Charlotte tells us that it’s the beauty and truth of math that gives the study its rightful place in our curriculum and invokes an atmosphere of wonder, joy, and reverence:

Never are the operations of Reason more delightful and more perfect than in mathematics. Here men do not begin to reason with a notion which causes them to lean to this side or to that. By degrees, absolute truth unfolds itself. We are so made that truth, absolute and certain truth, is a perfect joy to us; and that is the joy that mathematics afford.

Ourselves, Book 1, pp. 62, 63

She continues in A Philosophy of Education,

We take strong ground when we appeal to the beauty and truth of Mathematics; that, as Ruskin points out, two and two make four and cannot conceivably make five, is an inevitable law. It is a great thing to be brought into the presence of a law, of a whole system of laws, that exist without our concurrence, —that two straight lines cannot enclose a space is a fact which we can perceive, state, and act upon but cannot in any wise alter, should give to children the sense of limitation which is wholesome for all of us, and inspire that sursum corda which we should hear in all natural law.

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 230, 231

This gradual unfolding of absolute truth and recognition of beauty can occur with something as seemingly simple as the child’s discovery of fascinating patterns in her multiplication table or the idea that all whole numbers greater than 1 can be composed using only prime numbers.

Rather than an atmosphere of conflict or anxiety, we have an amazing opportunity to draw power out of our children, excite their enthusiasm, open a realm of beauty, and allow them the time they need to wonder, play, and grapple with numbers. A healthy atmosphere and natural environment results in a happy relationship with beginning Numbers and arithmetic as well as with more complex mathematics. Slow down or speed up according to your child’s needs because, before you know it, those dimpled hands and chalk slate are replaced with ones larger than your own working the quadratic formula in a quarter-inch gridded notebook.

For more guidance, take a look at our Charlotte Mason math resources.


    • Hello Lesley,

      Thanks for your interest in our resources! We do ship anywhere internationally. Another option is to purchase the digital editions and take them to a local office supply store to be printed. We’d be happy to answer any questions you have– feel free to get in touch.

  1. Hi there,

    I’m currently working through Book 3 of the elementary arithmetic series. I am excited to see that book 4 is now available! I’m wondering what SCM recommends after book 4? Is a book 5 in the works? Or is there a recommended pre-algebra/algebra curriculum SCM recommends? Thanks!

    • Hi Krissy, thank you for your interest in our resources and thanks for asking about future Charlotte Mason Elementary Arithmetic books! We do not yet have a release date for Books 5 and 6. The books are in progress as we know there is very high demand for them. We don’t like to give a release date because all four of the previous books in the series have taken longer than we anticipated as we’ve triple-checked everything to ensure that we’re publishing an accurate math book.

      When Books 5 and 6 are ready, we’ll announce it in our weekly email. While we’re working on Books 5 and 6, we have recommendations for Grade 5 and higher math on this page:

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