Unless you're an engineer or math teacher, there will come a point in Life of Fred: Elementary Series when you won't be able to help your kids solve the problems or understand the content. That's okay, because they'll get it on their own, and more than likely be able to teach you what they've learned. It's math as serious as it needs to be, and that doesn't mean it's not math, just that it's actually easy-to-understand and practically grounded.
There aren't many (if any) other math programs that start out with the commutative property. That's exactly where this series begins, showing in the first short chapter how switching the order of the numbers in basic addition problems doesn't change the outcome or answer. Given the way most of us learned math, we're tempted to balk at such a radical departure from traditional methods, but Stan Schmidt is able to make even the most complex principles easy to grasp through simple (yet not condescending!) language.
Each of these volumes is short. Chapters are generally six pages long followed by a page of exercise answers, with about 19 chapters per book. The books are heavily (if somewhat primitively) illustrated in black and white, with many difficult concepts presented visually. The 10-book series follows the adventures of a five-year-old math genius named Fred who lives an adventurous (if solitary) existence into which the need for math often enters.
The books read like stories, but each math concept is formulaic: Fred experiences something in his life, he realizes he needs some kind of mathematical knowledge to solve the problem or accomplish the task which he then learns, and finally the student solves the problem with the information they've been given. At the end of each chapter is a "Now We Play" section in which students do some written work; answers appear on the following page.
In typical Life of Fred fashion, the books progress at a fairly rapid rate and by the final volume students are doing algebra and other fairly advanced mathematical functions. However, because each new concept is presented in light of those before it, students aren't likely to get lost, and they certainly won't be able to keep going without grasping the material. Furthermore, the content is fast-paced, but the books are deceptively moderate; students are learning a ton in every chapter without getting the sense that they're doing all that much work.
Life of Fred: Elementary Series is best suited for 1st-4th graders, though Schmidt suggests using them with students as old as 6th grade. If you intend to continue on with the rest of the Fred books, we'd suggest starting here regardless of your age or your students' ages (this is a great course for adults, too) since the approach and information is so foundational.
Even if it's "too easy," if you're going to do the Elementary Series you need to start with Apples and move through each volume consecutively. Each book is 128 pages, but they also go pretty fast, especially for kids who "get it." It's entirely possible to get through one of these a month, and some will be able to do more. For those of you who really don't want to start at the beginning:
Many users have found the later Life of Fred books work best as supplements to a more traditional-style math course. That can certainly be done, but we'd suggest using this as a primary course and adding drill material if you want to supplement. Schmidt employs a specific way of learning math that is faster-paced and yet more practical than a "normal" curriculum, and students (especially younger ones) would likely only be confused with other slower-paced material.
Another great feature of these books is their broad appeal. Fred doesn't just learn about math; he learns proper grammar, history, science, hygiene, even the rules and strategies of chess. Schmidt clearly loves learning, and passes that love on through wild humor, interlinking of ideas and facts, and his ability to spin an interesting tale while making even the most difficult math understandable and useful.
Author Stan Schmidt is a Christian, but this is more plainly evident in the Elementary Series than the other books. Still, Schmidt doesn't preach, and his faith is mostly bourne out in depictions of virtue rather than explicit references. Some parents have expressed concern over the section at the end of Dogs dealing with the euthenization of pets at animal shelters, but in later printings of the book Mr. Schmidt has changed the ending. Bringing up the issue at all could provide an excellent opportunity to discuss a sensitive issue with kids in a non-threatening way.
The Elementary Series is best used as a stand-alone curriculum. Because students aren't simply taught rules but instead are led to understanding, exposing them to Life of Fred as young learners will likely prove invaluable to their future advancement as mathematicians. Older students will probably rediscover the fun of math, or will realize that it actually does make sense and have useful everyday functions. Even adults can learn from these books! For any age, this series is highly recommended.
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Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.