Wondering how to make math fun for kids and encourage problem solving? Get ideas and activities to make math interesting and engaging!
“I know lots of ways to make 10!” my six-year-old said. He had been learning different combinations using adding and subtracting to make certain numbers. It’s reassuring to see his excitement about math and get a glimpse of how his brain works to understand these new concepts.
As a mom, I only have so much access to the materials my kids learn in class, but that hasn’t stopped me from nurturing a love of math at home. I may not be a researcher or even a classroom teacher, but I certainly find ways to make learning fun for them.
This is especially important when it comes to math. According to Maya Thiagarajan, author of Beyond the Tiger Mom, parents in the western culture do a fantastic job of nurturing reading and language. We’ve all heard to read with our kids at least 20 minutes a day, and we likely stock our homes with books.
But we don’t spend as much time teaching them math as parents do in eastern cultures. We’re almost opposite in that way—parents in eastern cultures talk about math daily just as much as we promote early literacy.
The problem? Young learners who struggle with math can feel like it’s a chore. They grumble about math homework and detest flashcards. They develop math anxiety and even tell themselves they’re “not good at math.”
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How to make math fun
I’ve found that learning how to make math fun isn’t about forced memorization or engaging in power struggles to get the work done. Instead, math can be enjoyable, where your child will take the initiative to learn. Math can be part of your everyday life and routine and easily incorporated throughout the day.
As a mom, I want to make sure my kids do well in school but also enjoy the learning process and develop a love of learning.
And I truly believe that success in math boils down to learning how to make math fun. I based these games and tips on their classroom assignments as well as books and articles I’ve read to make math enjoyable. I hope you’ll find them just as useful:
1. Play dominoes
“Let’s play domino flip!” my twins said one day after school. Apparently, they played this game every day in their first-grade class, and it’s a big hit among the kids. It helps them practice adding numbers while making it a friendly competition.
Here’s how to play:
- Lay all the dominoes face down on the floor.
- Each player turns one domino face up and adds all the dots from the two squares of the domino together.
- The player with the bigger number collects both dominoes.
- After all the dominoes are turned and added, each player counts the number of dominoes they collected. The player with the most dominoes wins.
Once your child starts adding the dominoes easily and quickly, play a version where each player flips two dominoes up and adds all the squares.
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2. Play “21” (aka Black Jack)
I feel a little guilty for teaching my kids how to play Black Jack, a card game typically played in casinos and gambling games. But boy, do they love it. Like dominoes, playing 21 encourages addition skills as well as knowing when to keep going and when to stop.
Here’s how to play:
- Each player gets two cards and adds up the numbers. (Jacks, Queens, and Kings are all 10, and the Ace can be either 1 or 11.)
- The goal is to get as close to 21 as possible without going past it (for instance, a player with cards that add up to 22 would instantly lose).
- Each player can get additional cards from the deck, one at a time, until he or she feels like they’re as close to 21 as possible without going past it.
- The player with cards that add up to 21 (or the number closest to it) wins the round.
3. Play board games
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You can learn how to make math fun with the board games you already have at home! Nearly every board game can be turned into a math lesson. Even counting how many spots you move on the board is fantastic math practice.
4. Play math games and puzzles
My kids got Blokus as a gift and can’t stop playing it. Each player tries to lay pieces on the board, with each piece touching their same color. Eventually, people get blocked, and the player who can lay all of his or her pieces down wins the game.
What math games and puzzles can you play at home that incorporates mathematical concepts?
5. Guess estimations
Every week, my son’s first-grade teacher played “The Estimation Jar,” where a student brings a jar filled with items. The kids guess how many items are inside and write their guess on a sticky note.
Then, they take turns sticking the notes on the board in number order (any duplicates are stuck vertically on top of each other).
Once all the numbers are in order on the board, the teacher starts giving hints. She might say, “The number of cotton balls in the jar is higher than 30,” at which point the kids then decide whether their guess made the cut. The person coming closest (or right on the nose) is the winner.
You can play a version of the estimation jar at home, even without a jar. For instance, place pretzel sticks on your child’s plate, and you can both guess how many there are. Or guess how many feet long the couch is before measuring it with a ruler.
6. Use real items to explain concepts
Nothing beats seeing math actually applied in real life using physical, tangible items.
Show how fractions work as you slice an apple into pieces. Explain multiplication when you divide blocks among your kids (“If 3 kids each get 5 blocks, how many blocks are there all together?”). Use toy cars to show tens and ones or to practice adding and subtracting.
Using math manipulatives is the first part of what educators call the Concrete Pictorial Abstract method, or CPA. The “concrete” part of the method relies on tangible ways to show math concepts.
7. Draw math concepts
As such, the “pictorial” part of the method is, as you might guess, drawing the concept. Now that your child has seen math used with real items, she’ll have an easier time drawing it on paper.
Explain the subtraction problem “10 minus 6” by drawing 10 circles, crossing out six, and counting the remaining circles. Tie it back to the “concrete” part of the method by reminding her what you did with the items (“Remember when we had 10 cars, and we took away 6 of them?”).
You can also draw boxes of tens and ones, a number line, or various shapes—anything to record a math concept on paper. That way, the “abstract” part of the method—doing the math problem with only numbers—can come much easier to him.
8. Play “how to make numbers”
Like I mentioned, my kids love to announce different ways to make numbers. They might say, “You can make ’10’ like this: 4 plus 4 plus 4 minus 2.”
Make it a game by coming up with as many different ways to make a particular number. Don’t be afraid to go beyond the typical numbers—add, subtract, multiply, or divide to come up with the same number. You might even introduce large numbers: “200 minus 190 makes 10!”
9. Make your own math problems
Incorporate math into your daily life by creating your own real-world problems throughout the day. For instance, you can say:
- “How many more minutes are left before bath time?”
- “You get 20 crackers. Let’s count them by 2’s together…”
- “If one snow cone is $3, and there are 3 of you, how much money do I need to bring with me?”
- “You have 9 pieces, but your brother has 5. How many pieces do you need to give him so you both have the same?”
Try to incorporate “math lingo” throughout the day, using your daily life as subject matter.
10. Cook and bake
One of the most hands-on ways to make math fun is right in the kitchen. Cooking and baking are prime excuses to practice math concepts. You can:
- Count how many eggs go into the batter to bake cookies.
- Use measuring cups and spoons to talk about fractions.
- Count how many times to stir the bowl.
- Have your child count diced zucchini into the skillet by 3’s.
In other words, you’ll never run out of chances to introduce math in the kitchen.
11. Go grocery shopping
Another fantastic way to make math fun is through grocery shopping. From counting money to comparing items, you’ll find plenty of ways to incorporate math during your regular shopping trips. For instance, you can:
- Explain that two half gallons of milk cartons is the same as one gallon of a milk jug.
- Subtract the savings from a coupon you brought.
- Estimate how much your groceries will cost (this works best if you only have a handful of items).
- Compare the total price with the price per measurement (for instance, a $10 bottle of olive oil at 10 ounces is a better deal than a $7 bottle at 5 ounces).
12. Take math outdoors
Something about being outdoors can easily lift our spirits and moods, especially when it comes to learning. If your child fights you about math practice, see if you can talk about it outdoors.
Grab a box of sidewalk chalk and draw math problems outside. Use fallen leaves to explain adding and subtracting. Gather small rocks in a row to show the number line.
The more you can introduce math in a setting he loves—outdoors—the more likely he’ll take to practicing and understanding these concepts.
13. Read children’s books about math
Combine literacy and math by reading math books for kids! If you already incorporate reading into your daily routine, read books specifically about math. These children’s books are sure to entertain and educate your child about math concepts.
Learning about math concepts may not come as naturally as, say, reading to your child may be. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t incorporate it into your daily life and make it more fun.
Games like dominoes, Black Jack, and board games offer plenty of opportunities to talk about math. Encourage estimations, from the number of pretzels on a plate to how many feet long the couch might be.
Use tangible items to explain math concepts, like slicing apples to show fractions. Follow it up with drawing the math problems, before going straight to solving them through numbers only. Play “how to make numbers,” encouraging your child to come up with all sorts of combinations to make a number.
Make your own math problems as well, using everyday circumstances as problems to solve. Cook and bake at home to practice math skills, and use grocery shopping as an opportunity to teach concepts. Take math lessons outdoors to make it fun, and read children’s books about math to tie it in with literacy lessons.
As moms, we can do plenty to instill mathematics right at home—including all the many ways to make the number 10.
Get more tips:
- How to Encourage Fine Motor Skills for 6 Year Olds
- Why Technology Isn’t Necessary for Kids
- How to Create a Math Rich Environment at Home
- 12 Ways to Teach Preschoolers about Money
- Best Building Toys to Nurture Creative Play
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