Monthly Archives: March 2016

Games as a tool for practicing math facts



When it comes to the debate between basic skills practice vs. conceptual understanding, I stand firmly in the middle – both have to be in place for math progress to occur. A student who is great at the rote practice of algorithms, but who lacks understanding of the underlying concepts, will often look like a whiz through elementary school but may stall out when they get to the more abstract ideas in algebra. On the other hand, students who have a clear understanding of concepts, but who are slow with calculation, will be bogged down significantly in their problem solving, which can lead to boredom and frustration. This is my fancy way of saying that learning your times tables does not make a math education by itself, but is still very important.

Practicing calculation gets a bad rap, however, because it usually involves boring worksheets. It gets even worse when a timed element is added. I hate timed tests for elementary students! Either the student is good at them and doesn’t need that kind of practice, or they’re not good at them and their self-confidence crumbles with the ticking of the clock. Instead of worksheets, I recommend games for practicing basic skills. Even the most contrived game is going to be more fun than flashcards or a worksheet.

Recommendations vary a lot with the age of your child and what they need to work on, but for a student who is struggling with self-confidence or is math-phobic I like starting with commercial games that have some skills practice but don’t look too educational. In that category I suggest:

Zeus on the Loose – An incredible game for practicing rounding skills and mental addition to 100. We made our own variation that reverses the meaning of the cards to practice subtraction as well. My top choice in this category.

Lost Cities:The Card Game – A game that I actually play with other adults for fun, but also that just happens to involve a lot of mental addition, along with a bit of subtraction and multiplication.

Star Realms – A fast paced card game that involves keeping track of several different kinds of points (combat, trade, and life) and uses mental addition and subtraction on every turn. The numbers start small but build quickly. We love the space theme and cool art work.

If you need a little more focus, and your student doesn’t mind practice that’s more obviously about math I recommend the following:

Sum Swamp – Fun for the littlest elementary kids. Basic addition and subtraction for Pre-K to 2nd grade.

Double Shutter – Fun and hands-on way to practice breaking apart numbers from 1 to 12. Especially good for Pre-K to 1st grade.

Math Dice – This is a cheap and portable game that involves rolling dice and using addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division to reach a target number. There are a few variations including a junior version with larger dice, Math Dice Chase, and Math Dice Powers.

Prime Climb – A little bit of an investment but a beautiful game with phenomenal game play. A roll and move board game that involves practice of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, with an added introduction to prime numbers and factorization. My top pick in this category!

Finally, outside of commercial games there are a ton of facts practice games you can play with just a deck of ordinary playing cards. My favorite is “Multiplication War” – a simple adaptation of a childhood classic that involves each player turning over two cards and multiplying them together to compare scores. This handout describes several variations and many more math games that you can play with just a deck of cards.

Although computer programs and apps would seem a natural for practicing math facts, most I’ve seen are little better than dressed up worksheets or flash cards. Games that involve physical components like cards and dice are a much better way to practice mental agility with numbers because they are competitive and engaging. Cognitively, I believe more learning takes place when there is a human connection and something tangible to manipulate.

Games also fit well with my learning philosophy of starting small and working frequently.  For busy families, its a way of spending quality time together in a constructive way, and if you have multiple children parents don’t even have to be supervising.  Siblings can play by themselves or you can enlist grandparents, cousins, and other relatives.  Uncle Joe probably doesn’t want to supervise homework when he’s visiting, but he might just be willing to play a few rounds of Star Realms with the kids.

Comments Off on Games as a tool for practicing math facts

Filed under Games

Starting after school enrichment with math-talented students



If you have an elementary student who is talented in math (or just simply loves it), figuring out how to supplement their math education can be tricky. You may sense that they need more than what school is providing, but not know where to begin. With remedial students it’s usually clear which skills need to be shored up or which gaps in conceptual thinking need to be bridged. However, for a student who is great at math and is under-challenged in school, the answer is less obvious. Doing more of the same is rarely the answer. Math-talented students don’t need more work, they need different work; work that really stretches their brain, but not so tough that it’s discouraging.

Acceleration is usually the first option considered, and it can be part of the solution, but its not always the perfect choice. Frankly, most math programs don’t actually get much harder as they go along. They introduce new topics and procedures but rarely delve into the kind of multi-step problem solving or open ended questions that will really develop math ability.

Also getting too far ahead in the school curriculum can be a real concern for some parents. This isn’t a problem if you’re a homeschooler, have a very flexible school that will work with your child’s acceleration, or are willing to continue supplementing at home until high school, but otherwise there can be consequences to working too far ahead and having a child bored in the classroom.

Fortunately it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. There are many topics in mathematics that are both broader and deeper than basic arithmetic and that go way beyond the standard pre-algebra-to-calculus pipeline. I’ll be talking more about this in future posts. However, my first recommendation for any student, of any age, is to improve their problem solving skills.

An easy way to get started is with the Singapore Challenging Word Problems (CWP) series. A great first step is to simply buy the CWP book that is at a level appropriate for your child, tear out a page, grab a magnet, and put it on the fridge. Make this “The Problem of the Day.” Do it before school or after school or whatever time of day is best for your family. Perfectionism among gifted students is common, so I believe it’s important to keep it fun and not get caught up in whether your child gets it right or wrong. Doing math outside of school should not be a chore, but about learning to love problem solving.

There are other great problem solving books out there, but this is the one that I’m most familiar with. The problems in CWP have incredible depth and are extremely well written. The best thing about this is that you’re hitting a lot of different skills in one time-efficient package. You get multi-step problem solving, a gentle introduction to algebraic thinking, and basic arithmetic practice on a variety of topics. My only caveat is that CWP, as the name says, is challenging, especially if you haven’t had experience with Singapore math, so I often recommend buying a grade level down to build confidence and patience.

The reason I like the “problem a day” approach is that it fits in with my two basic educational principles.  The first basic principle is that starting small is the best way to begin. There are a few people who can radically overhaul their lives in a small amount of time, but its rare. For most parents, finding the time and energy to squeeze in some math enrichment between sports and music and homework and dinner and bedtime is tough. Starting small means you will actually do it.

This leads into my second basic principle, which is that a little bit every day is better than a lot all at once. With daily work you have higher retention and the extra minutes quickly add up. I know the idea of starting with 10 minutes a day of extra math sounds like the too-good-to-be-true ab workout on the cover of a fitness magazine in a supermarket checkout. However, that extra problem a day can painlessly lead to an extra hour of math per week, and if you keep it up all year round you’re potentially talking about the equivalent of two full grade levels in the course of an elementary education.

So if you’re not sure where to start with your math-talented student start simple with a daily word problem.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Educational philosophy, Resources