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.