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Playing with Math – A Look Inside My Mathematical “Toy Box”

By Alycia Zimmerman on February 1, 2012
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

Math is inherently playful to me – and therefore a perfect fit for my students’ natural playfulness. From “hopping” along the number line, to “juggling” numbers in our heads, math is exuberant, it follows game-like rules, and it takes a lot of strategic thinking to succeed. It makes perfect sense, then, that games are a wonderful way to teach and reinforce math concepts. Here are some of the many math games that my students love to play.


Fact Practice and Basic Review Games

As I wrote about in my blog post about mastering multiplication facts, memorizing math facts feels like a necessary evil to me, a hurdle to be dealt with as painlessly as possible. Thankfully, there are a wide range of games that reinforce basic math skills while making the practice fun. Here are some of the “reinforcement” games that I like to use in my classroom:

“I have …, who has?” Interactive Game Cards

This whole class card game is fabulous for transitions and filling the odd leftover bit of time. The deck of cards is distributed to all of the students in the game. One student reads the question half of his card to begin. The rest of the students look at their answer half, and the student with the correct answer calls out the answer. Then, that student reads her question, and the game continues. I challenge my students to see how fast they can complete the entire set of cards and return to the first player. This game is particularly useful for practicing listening skills.

Here is a “homemade” subtraction deck of “I have …, who has …?” cards that I made up to use with my class. The book Ask and Answer Interactive Fact Cards includes six decks of review cards ready to print and use with your class such as this deck of 40 time cards. Terry Kawas at Mathwire.com has more than a dozen “Who Has” decks available for download on her site.


Top-It is a mathematical variation of the classic card game War. While this game doesn’t require any strategy, most of my students love it for its simplicity. This is usually the first game I introduce in the fall. This game can be played with either addition or multiplication, and number cards with larger numbers can be added to the decks to make the game more challenging. Here are directions I’ve created to send home with my students for Addition Top-It.

Combinations of Ten “Go Fish”

This mathematical version of “Go Fish” helps students practice the foundational skill, automatic recall of the combinations of ten. I find that at the beginning of the year, many of my 3rd graders can still benefit from more practice with the combinations of ten to securely build their number sense. Here are my directions for the game.


Strategy Math Games

This group of games are my favorite because they promote higher order thinking rather than just basic recall. There are so many wonderful math games out there – these are just a few of my students’ favorites. Once my students have had a lot of experience with different math games, I encourage them to “invent” their own math games as an enrichment project. Then the “inventors” get to teach their game to the entire class.

101 and Out

Students practice mental multidigit addition and place value concepts while playing this deceptively simple game.  I’ve adapted these game directions from Marilyn Burn’s version of the game. Here are the game boards that I’ve created to go with the game. I laminate the game boards and then have my students use wet-erase markers to play the game. Burns suggests having your students draw their own game boards.


This is another easy-to learn-game. Students simply need a pair of dice and some scrap paper to play. In the addition variation, students roll the dice and add up the sums in an attempt to reach 100. In the multiplication variation, students add the product of each dice roll in a race to make 200. Here’s my version of the game directions.

Name That Number

The Everyday Math game Name That Number is amazing because it “grows” with the students. When my students begin playing the game at the beginning of the year, most of their solution strategies only used one or two operations. As the year progresses, my students think up incredibly complex, multi-step solutions to “name” the target number. Here are my game directions that I’ve adapted from the original Everyday Math version.

The Broken Calculator Game

You need to print out this deck of game cards for an interesting twist on Name That Number. For this game, students try to display the target number on their calculator screen without touching any of the “broken buttons.” The goal is to display the number with as few key touches as possible. Here are my directions for the game. There are also several online versions of this game such as this basic version.


Making Time for Games

Anchor Activities:

Geometric shape mobiles hang in front of our running list of math games.While I obviously feel that playing math games is a wonderful way to teach math, there is never enough time during the school day to fit in everything. I often find myself wishing for more time for my students to practice skills through games, or to explore deeper concepts through repeated play. When, you might be wondering, do I find time for all of this game play in the schedule?

I keep a math games chart hanging up – a laminated piece of chart paper so that I can easily add and erase choices. I add games to the list throughout the year, and sometimes remove game choices if the game is no longer relevant. My students know that if they finish an assignment early or if I am working with a small group, they can always independently play a game from the anchor chart.

Games as Homework:

I also assign a game every week as an option on my weekend math menus. Each weekend, my students receive a menu with at least three thematically linked choices for math homework. The choices usually include a website, a choice of practice worksheets, and either a game or a project. Students must complete at least one menu choice for homework, although they are welcome to do more.

Math manipulatives are organized so that my students can "help themselves" to the materials they need to play games.

Many of my students look forward to playing a new math game with their families each weekend. I often loan out game materials such as dice, card decks, and chips, and I keep plastic pouches of extra game materials in a bin. My students know that they are welcome to borrow the game materials to use at home on the honor system. (Tip: The cardboard boxes that playing cards come in break in no time at all. Plastic travel soap containers are the sturdiest storage solution I’ve found.)





Here’s a sample of some of my past weekend math menus:

Ready-Made Games

Most of the math games my students play are “homemade.” Dice and playing cards are the standard game materials in my classroom. At times, though, I like to add a “fancy” store-bought game to the list of anchor activities to spice up the rotation. Here’s a list of some of my favorite ready-made math games.

Make-7 -  This game is played almost exactly like Connect Four, except that it uses number tiles instead of the classic red and black checker pieces.

S’math – This numbers variation on the scrabble game is a rainy-recess favorite among my students.

Rush Hour – This spatial puzzle game keeps some of my constant fast-finishers engaged for the longest time you can imagine. I have to pull them away from this logical-spatial puzzle. My students also enjoy playing Rush Hour online.

Chess – Chess is, of course, the classic “brain game,” and we begin teaching our students chess in kindergarten in my school. Chess in the classroom deserves its own blog-post, so I’ll simply say that nothing has helped advance my students’ reflective, strategic thinking like chess.


Even More Games …

I’m always on the lookout for new games to add to our repertoire in class. Mathwire has an incredibly rich library of math games organized by strand. The NRICH Maths website also has a collection of wide-ranging math games.

Marilyn Burns writes about the importance of math games and how to play four of her favorite games in this Instructor article, Win-Win Math Games.

Other games that I use with my students include The Factor Game (Math Solutions Online Newsletter, Issue 36), The Product Game (NCTM Illuminations), The Factor Trail Game (NCTM Illumications), and the Guess My Rule: Function Machine Game (Mathwire).


What are your favorite math games for teaching? How do you make time for math games in your classroom? Please share your tips and suggestions for games with us!

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