What is Life of Fred?
Life of Fred is an engaging story-based math curriculum spanning from elementary school all the way through university math courses such as calculus and statistics. For the elementary years, Life of Fred includes ten books in the elementary series for 1st-4th grade and three books in the intermediate series for 4th to 6th grade. The beauty of Life of Fred as a math curriculum is that it is humorous and fun for kids. Rather than focusing specifically on math concepts and then having the child work through problem after problem like a traditional math curriculum, Life of Fred instead weaves the math concepts into the story of Fred's days.
Fred is a 5-year-old math genius who teaches math at a university in Kansas. He lives with his doll Kingie in his office at the university. Although Fred is obviously precocious in math, he is lacking many other life skills and accordingly he often ends up in strange situations (such as when he adopts 30 dogs to save them from being euthanized, or when he ends up being swindled out of all of his money by a con-artist). In addition to the math concepts, many other concepts are woven into Life of Fred books as well, such as the differences between carnivores and herbivores, details about the Orion constellation, and basic information about nutrition.
After each chapter of the book, there is a short section titled "Your Turn To Play". This section generally includes a few math problems as well as other questions related to the content of the chapter. As the books move on from the earliest elementary books, "Your Turn to Play" also often includes a "Row of Practice" that can be used to reinforce the math facts (such as addition and subtraction facts).
Our Experience With Life of Fred
We've been using Life of Fred in our homeschool for over 4 years. We are currently working through the 7th book in the elementary series. My children LOVE Life of Fred. They ask to read it often, they enjoy the math problems, and they find the bizarre storylines to be very entertaining. I use Life of Fred in addition to games, everyday math, and a few other math read-alouds for teaching elementary math without a traditional math curriculum.
My daughter will be 10 years old in March, and my son will be 7 years old in a couple weeks. Because my children are 3 years apart in age, their math comprehension is not at the same level. Instead of reading two different Life of Fred books to match up with their math skills, I just read one Life of Fred book at a time, continuing to progress through the books even though some of the math concepts have moved beyond my son's level. That doesn't mean that my son doesn't get to learn math through Life of Fred; rather, I customize their experience with Life of Fred so that it works for both of them at the same time even though they are 3 years apart.
Tips for Teaching Life of Fred to Children of Multiple Ages
When teaching Life of Fred to kids of multiple ages concurrently, I try to keep in mind three principles:
Avoid the Glaze
Inspire, Not Require
Customize the Math Problems
Avoid the Glaze
While my children generally love Life of Fred, sometimes there may be a math concept introduced that my kids are not ready to engage in. I can tell if a concept is a bit too abstract or complicated if I see the "glaze" on my kids' eyes. For instance, in the early elementary books the author keeps bringing up the idea of cardinal numbers versus ordinal numbers. This concept is one that I can tell my children are uninterested in or not ready for yet, as they get the "glaze" over their eyes whenever it is mentioned. I don't think this concept is important for them to know at their current ages, so I just skip over those parts and skip over any problems in "Your Turn to Play" that focus on that concept. There is plenty of time for my children to learn about the cardinality of numbers as they get older (and, indeed, that same concept is introduced later in Life of Fred: Fractions, which is one of the middle school math books).
When reading Life of Fred to kids of multiple ages, sometimes the glaze will only be present in the younger children. At those times when I note that my son's eyes are glazed over (or he seems otherwise uncomfortable) but his older sister is still engaged, I make sure to reassure him that this particular concept is just for his older sister, and that he'll be ready to learn about it later. That gives him the confidence to be okay with not understanding the concept, and then I can proceed with teaching it to my daughter.
(As a side note: I think that avoiding the glaze is very important in other subjects in addition to math. Because I am endeavoring to create a Love of Learning in my children, the glaze is a signal for me to know when it is time to back off. Sometimes the glaze just means that the student is tired and not ready to engage at that particular moment, but other times it means that I need to back off and wait a few months before coming back to that concept.)
Inspire, Not Require
"Inspire, Not Require" is one of the 7 Keys of Great Teaching, and applying this principle to our math studies is a crucial part of keeping math enjoyable for my children. I know from previous experience that forcing academics in our homeschool is detrimental to creating a Love of Learning in my children. In applying the principle of "Inspire, Not Require" to our use of Life of Fred: