Playing With Math: Games for Kids


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Ada Lovelace.

Today is Ada Lovelace’s 198th birthday, and while many recognized Ada Lovelace Day a couple of months ago, we’re going to use the anniversary of a favorite mathematician’s birthday as an excuse for a party, anyhow. What better way to have fun like a mathematician than with an afternoon of playing games?

Games in general develop some mathematical sensibility, as most of them involve random chance, re-combinations of different scenarios, and problem-solving. Game theory is a branch of mathematics, so the distinction between math and non-math games is very fuzzy. I credit a great deal of my love for math to afternoons spent indoors rolling dice and drawing cards with my family.

I scanned my own collection and talked to some math-loving friends to collect especially math-y games you can consider giving to your favorite young number-lovers and your most special spatial thinkers.

Blokus challenges spatial strategy skills with inversion vs. rotation.

Bonkers (really called “This Game is Bonkers!”) reminds us of simple computer programming whenever we play it, in that you start with a blank board and your cards are a limited set of instructions which you lay out on the track to build the game as you go along.  You can end up creating infinite loops to create score-traps. While it gets mediocre ratings on boardgamegeek, its groovy graphics will always make it a winner with us.

Booby Trap resembles Jenga, but it’s a two-dimensional array fighting the force of a spring instead of friction and gravity. Pull out one of three different-sized units without disturbing a spring mechanism.  You have to get the hang of the principles of packing or structural forces.

Krypto, a card game in which you deal out five numbers between which you can put any arithmetic operand to yield the number on the sixth card, was Mr. James Partridge Morrison’s favorite minute-filler in my 6th grade class, and the best engagement present I got two decades later (thanks, Abigail!). I thought back to hours spent playing Krypto when I encountered all the principles around order of operations.

Mancala, a good counting game to start out the youngest players, can be made easily as a DIY project. Math teacher Sage uses it for an “Exploding Dots” lesson.

Mastermind. This old favorite endures as a good deductive logic game.

Orienteering, while not a game, builds skills in mathematical reasoning as “players” use compasses, adjust for declination, find a bearing on a topographical map, and triangulate — all fantastic uses of geometry and proportional reasoning. Try our Cup Positioning System, too.

Origami. Who doesn’t love folding paper squares into surprising shapes? The Sage writes, “As a teacher, explaining how to create a figure gives me great opportunities to use mathematically precise language.”

Paper and Pencil Games. For the near-zero-budget end of the list, give Sprouts and Racetrack a scribble along with six others on this list of classics.

Playing cards open up hundreds of possibilities for play. Blackjack, for example, introduces addition and probability in an entertaining way.

Roulette. Roulette fascinated me when I was a kid. How many ways could I divide the number 36? I could bet on all numbers that are all even numbers, or all red or black numbers, or this row or this column, etc. And in each case you get a reward that matches your risk, of course. It’s a really concrete way to build up an understanding of probability for the whole family.

Set, a language-free card game playable even by very young kids (especially if you scale it down to Set Junior), gets votes from all corners when I polled my math-loving friends. I keep thinking of Jamie, the then 6-year-old grandson of my game-loving friends Peggy and Traugott Lawler, who learned the rules quickly and thereafter spotted the winning trios uncannily fast, frequently beating the adults who challenged him to a game. My math teacher friend Sage calls it “marvelous. It can be hard to begin, but most people improve quickly.  You never know who will be the natural, and I have had a number of students shine where they had not done so at math before.”

Spirograph. Bump it up a notch by learning about the mathematical puzzles behind these “hypotrochoid” shapes.

Tangram sets offer a great exercise in geometric and spatial reasoning. Sure, tangrams have been around for a millennium, but these puzzles continues to confound and delight. If you’re handy in the woodshop, consider making a set by hand, but be careful not to give away the square solution by letting the wood grain match.

ThinkFun‘s Trango, Turnstile, Rush Hour, Swish, and Chocolate Fix. Sage Moore, an innovative math teacher at Skyline HS in Oakland always looking for ways to engage her students in mathematical thinking in new ways. recommended Chocolate Fix to me as “a great deductive logic game.” Rush Hour is available for Android and Apple and Chocolate Fix for Apple only.

3D Tic-Tac-Toe. When your kids have mastered Tic-Tac-Toe in Flatland, time to take the challenge into three dimensions!

Tri-ominos, in which each triangle is a unique combination of three numbers that must be matched edge to edge with other triangles. I also have a similar game called Eckolo which involves matching colors instead of numbers.

Yahtzee and other dice games (like Zip! that we just bought at a yard sale and is my six-year-old’s current favorite.)

Recommended by others, but I haven’t tried them myself yet.

  • Category 5 (also known as Take 6): a card game on comparing two-digit numbers
  • Cosmic Wimpout: “We have played a dice game called endlessly — all we use are the five dice, none of the accoutrements.”
  • DragonBox “secretly teaches algebra”
  • Shut the Box and Can’t Stop: learn about probability.
  • ‘Smath, Equate, and Numble: Scrabble-like equation-building games (Scrabble, for that matter, exercises your arithmetic skills, especially the 2x and 3x tables!)
  • Strut! requires a lot of pattern recognition and adding.
  • Usborne’s set of 50 cards with codes to solve
  • wff ‘n proof

Author’s note: Special thanks to Sage Moore, Jennifer Audley, Sam Murphy, and Tony DeRose and the Pixar parents community who contributed ideas to the list.

Michelle, or Binka, makes . While at Maker Media, she oversaw publications, outreach, and programming for kids, families, and schools. Before joining Maker Media in 2007, she worked at the Exploratorium, in Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, and as a curriculum designer for various publishers and educational researchers. When she’s not supporting future makers, including her two young sons, Binka does some making of her own, most often as a visual artist.

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