Teaching kids Math

I hated math growing up. It made no sense to me. So as long as my kids were interested in reading, I thought we might as well play some math games together too, hoping they’d grow up a little brighter than their poor old ma’. So far, so good. Here are a few of the games we play.

Supplies for a Math Box ‘O Fun
– A box — I used one from a soundcard
– Foam craft sheets (I bought a pack of 48 and I have more than half left over)
– Permanent Markers
– Scissors
– A ruler for measuring and drawing grids
– Empty plastic Easter eggs (for a favorite game the kids made up)
– Cheerios, Fruit Loops, M&Ms, or any other small countable object that’s age appropriate for your kid.
– IF your kids are past the mouth-exploration stage and are somewhat patient, perler beads (the plastic ones you put on a peg board and fuse with an iron) make a great learning tool.
– Baggies (again if they’re age appropriate) or small containers to hold the games
– I’ve also bought math flash cards as the kids get a kick out of these. They get lost / ruined fast though
– Giant Dice (You can make your own with paper polyhedra here)

I had the kids help me make these games whenever I could, and took several days in between each game with several short implementations before ‘letting them’ help me come up with the next activity. They really got excited about it that way.

– Talk about more, less, and equal-to. Put down a few piles of something small and good to eat. Crackers, skittles, halved organic grapes if it suits you. Which pile does the kid want and why? Which has more, which has less? Can they make the groups equal? At first let them ‘just do it’ then ask them how they knew…. My kids’ favorite response, “Cause I took away your money!” made little sense to me, but they got big laughs out of it. They couldn’t really say why what they did made the piles equal, but they thought about it anyway and eventually with a little nudge were able to explain it.

– Cut up a few of the foam sheets to use as ‘cards’ — I wrote numerals on some, operators on others, and evaluators on others still. Keep them in one container and use them with whatever game they happen to be playing. In the more or less game, you can help them count the items in each group and assign a number to them. If you want to, you can even say, “Ah, well if you have five skittles and I have seven, let’s take away one of mine (put down 7-1) and give it to you (5+1) .. now we both have six! (=6)” If they don’t get it yet that’s okay. They’ll still get a kick out of the game and will pick up that idea sooner than you think.

Number cards made of foam so they don't tear up
Number cards made of foam so they don

– A whole foam sheet with a grid drawn on it serves well to list the numbers 1-100. They start to notice how the numbers line up, and it makes a great tool for counting items. You can make one of these grids for each of you if you’d like for your more or less game.

– Sequences: Mary loved discovering that 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 1+3=4, etc. As you can see here, I also let her be extremely creative in her dress and hair styles.

mary playing with addition cards and m&ms
An eclectically dressed four-year-old playing with addition cards and m&ms -- not sure how my camera was so whacked out on this one

– Eventually help them discover that they can group the objects into 10s for easier counting. Once I felt like they had that idea down, I sat down with them and used another whole sheet of foam labeled it with columns for ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands. We only used the ones and tens for the most part but it helped get the idea down.

– We also made toys out of perler beads by fusing them into sticks of tens, squares of hundreds, and then taking ten hundreds to show a cube of a thousand. The kids had a blast making these into patterns for each 100 set too.

perler bead blocks
perler bead blocks

– Yet another whole foam sheet with a grid makes a nice learning tool for times tables. Put six objects across for example, and three down, and let them discover how the numbers magically add up to 18 (which happens to be the very number they put the last item on! – trust me they’ll find this amazing!)

– Estimating: My kids LOVE guessing games. One game Mary made up involved putting a few of the counting objects in an empty plastic Easter egg and having me or Ethan guess how many objects were inside it by shaking it, etc. Whoever got closest, won the loot. Or for guessing right on, she’d put out three numbers (using the aforementioned cards) and we’d have to guess which number was correct.

– Another fun guessing game: Have them pick numbers and roll dice to see whose number comes up. So they grew up in Vegas, what can I say.

– Dividing: Give them a group of items (number it with the cards) and a group of people (or stuffed animals) to share them between. Let them figure out how to divide the items up fairly.

– Cookie fractions: Trace circles on your tan foam sheets and make them look like cookies. You can half some of these (write 1/2 and .5 and 1 divided by 2 on the backs). Cut others into thirds, fourths, fifths (make a Y shape and then divide the two larger sides into two to get pretty close fifths), etc. Play game about dividing them up fairly.

– The Dollar Challenge: Visit a penny candy store (or a vendor of penny novelties if you don’t want to rot their teeth – but I’m a bad mom that way) and let them spend up to one dollar. If they go under, their loss. They can’t go over because they won’t have enough to pay for it. (I give them the six cents extra for taxes since I’m not expecting them to calculate that just yet)

Anyway, the point of all these is to keep it fun and let them be CREATIVE. It’s a bit like investigations math, but with a little one-on-one encouragement and gentle direction. And they eat it up.

Also be sure to check out the National Library of
Virtual Math Manipulatives
and Cyber Chase Online for some super games they can play on their own.


  1. singlemormonmommy

    Boo, I just revisited this and it looks as though some of the comments didn’t import. Alas. I’ll see if I can dig them out of my old database copy 🙂


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