Home Math Tips: Games and Family Fun

There is quite an industry out there offering “math learning games” — and charging quite extravagant rates for many of their offerings. While some of the games are quite useful, before you empty your bank account here are some suggestions for low-cost or free alternatives.

Card Games:
An ordinary set of playing cards (available at your local dollar store, or more likely already in a drawer in your house) can provide hours of math-related learning fun. Old-fashioned games like “crazy 8s” or “concentration” or “go fish” or “snap” are a good place to start. These simple games build skills such as focus and concentration, number recognition, number patterns, matching, math facts, strategy, score keeping, and even help develop your child’s fine motor skills and memory skills. Good instructions for some of these games can be found at kidspot.com  or at thespruce.com  For more ideas, google “card games for kids.”

You can of course also purchase card games like UNO or Old Maid or Multiplication War, which are also often available at your dollar store or local thrift store.

Dice can also be used in similar ways to cards. You can google “dice games for math” or “dice games for kids” to get loads of great ideas. If you do want to buy an excellent guide to math-centered dice games (and the dice and cards to go with them), I suggest the Shuffling Into Math set.

Flash Cards:
Every dollar store carries a wide selection of math flash cards for math facts like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (or you can even make your own with index cards). If your child isn’t enthusiastic with ordinary flashcards, lots of them are available with themes such as “Disney Princesses” or “Superheroes” which may make them more appealing. There are also flash card sets for math skills such as telling time, counting money, and number words (one, two, three…first, second, third…). Besides using these sets simply as flash cards, you can also use them for many of the childhood card games listed above in the card game section.

Table Games:
While there are many table games made specifically for practising math skills, you might be surprised to find that you have lots of “math table games” around your house already–or check with the grandparents or the used games section at the thrift store.

  • Dominoes are great for counting, matching, adding or subtracting or multiplying (and lining them up on edge, and sending them flying with a gentle push from one end–a fun reward after the “math” time); there are also “triomino” versions and even “Winnie the Pooh” versions.
  • Yahtzee provides lots of practice with addition and multiplication, as well as strategy and patterning.
  • Snakes and Ladders is a perennial favourite, helping with counting and with good sportsmanship skills when those snakes get in the way!
  • Tile rummy style games are great for pattern recognition (both numbers and colours) and strategy–and offer a challenge to all ages of family members and friends.
  • Bingo is a great way to practice quick number recognition; specific versions are also available for practice of math facts, such as multiplication bingo–or you can use an ordinary bingo set and, instead of saying the number, turn it into an equation–for example, instead of saying, “Under the B–5, you could say, under the B–3 plus 2.”
  • Games like “Clue” or “Parcheesi” or other games that involve rolling dice and moving around the game board are great for practising counting and adding (if you use 2 or 3 dice).
  • Monopoly-style games involve money skills, counting, and addition.
  • Some table games require filling in charts.

And while you’re playing these table games, many of them also develop reading and writing skills as well as math skills, not to mention developing good sportsmanship and having family fun.

Online games:
Many websites offer great math skills video games for free. Try out different ones and see which of them your kids enjoy; watch out for the variety of skills each game develops. Some sites with good online games (and there are many more) include:

Outdoor children’s games:
Lots of common outdoor kids games are great opportunities for practising math skills and provide physical activities for kids who learn kinesthetically. “Mother, May I?”  is good practice for counting (up to 10 or so). Running races provide opportunities for measuring distances and clocking and comparing times. Hopscotch can involve counting squares while jumping; skipping, bouncing balls, and other similar activities are also great as opportunities to count (try skip-counting, too). Toss balls and measure distances. There are so many options–involve your children in coming up with ideas!

Sports and other activities:
Involving your child in sports is a great way to develop math skills–whether the child is participating or watching. Learning strategies, keeping score, measuring and marking lines for the games, keeping track of percentages of wins and losses, determining probabilities of which team might win… sports are full of mathematical possibilities!

Math is also involved in lots of other outdoor activities. Trips to the local pond or walks through the woods can involve record-keeping of the number of turtles sunning on a log, or the number of species of birds in the trees. Record the temperature at different times of days and graph it, along with recording other weather phenomena. Combine your outdoor science, social studies, language arts and math in all your outdoor activities! Plan and set up your garden beds or plan to landscape your yard (A great “backyard mapping” activity is found at the Canadian Wildlife Federation site )

Planning a family vacation or just driving around town? Map reading is a great way to use math skills–determine distances, learn to use map charts, learn to use mapping scales, develop navigation skills, compare the distances of different routes. On road trips, keep track of speed zones for the driver, watch for distance signs and determine how far you’ve already travelled (knowing the total distance to start), play “I Spy” (“I spy [number] of [description of thing”]. Record licence plate numbers (and provinces/states) and make a chart of given items (such as stop signs and gas stations) and record “how many.” Play “I Spy” (“I spy [number] of [describe item]”).

“Real Life” Math:
Probably the best way to encourage and help children who are struggling with math is to present it to them in practical, “real life” situations. Does your child have a passion or deep interest in a topic or activity? Keep an eye out for all the possible ways that math is involved with that interest, and do “hands-on” math instead of focusing on math textbooks or workbooks (refer to them for ideas of different math aspects). A love of building with Lego blocks, for example, can involve counting, sorting, patterning, math facts memorization, geometry (perimeter, area, etc.), physics (with electronic Lego components), percentages, fractions and decimals, and much more. What could an interest in baseball or remote control toys or cooking or coding or solving mysteries lead to, math-wise? Be imaginative!

Also, look for math in the world around you. Such simple, everyday activities as setting the table, baking, turning on the thermostat or checking the thermometer, telling time (digital and analogue), keeping track of your favourite sports team, using the calendar and so on, all involve practical, hands-on math. Make it a “game” for the whole family to spot ways math is used every day–and then dive in and take advantage of those opportunities to learn math in fun, practical ways.

Share your ideas:
What other games and fun family activities can you think of that encourage and develop math learning and skills? Please share them in the comments! Thank you!

“Home Math Tips” posts:
Games and family fun
Charts and tables
Books and workbooks
Online sites
Tips for kinesthetic learners
Unit studies


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