Math Games to Excite Young Minds (2023)

This guest blog by Kristen E. Reed and Jessica Mercer Young of Education Development Center highlights their work on Young Mathematicians, a collection of math games and resources for preschool teachers. The authors join DREME's Deborah Stipek for a NAEYC webinar, "Playful Math: How to Teach Essential Concepts with Fun Mathematical Games" May 2, 2018.

“Playful math?” Yes! For young children, play and mathematics go together seamlessly and naturally. With simple materials and a little planning, early childhood educators can use games to help spark important mathematical ideas—and help them learn a lot about children’s thinking.

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Why Math Games?

Math games provide a structure and process for children to engage in problem solving in order to reach a particular goal or objective. Reaching that goal might be challenging, but the challenge is also what makes game-playing fun. In a game, children can play alone or with a group, they can make their own decisions about the moves they will make, and they can play over and over again trying out different strategies.

In addition to all the foundational mathematics learning going on while they play games, children are building their confidence as problem solvers and practicing important social-emotional skills. Games in the preschool classroom also provide teachers the opportunity to gain insights into children’s developing mathematical thinking.

Persistence and problem solvingGames are an ideal vehicle for children to practice persistence and problem solving as they try out new strategies and encounter difficulties. They can see what works and why, and try again without the pressure of doing it “right.” Teachers can support the development of children’s persistence at challenging games and of their confidence as problem solvers.

Social-emotional developmentPlaying games with classmates fosters social and emotional skills like being patient, taking turns, and solving problems collaboratively. Games with an element of competition also give children an opportunity to practice winning and losing graciously and with respect.

Teacher observationAs children engage in game-play, preschool teachers have a rich opportunity to observe children’s thinking, reasoning, and math skills at work. For example, as a child moves a game piece along a number path in a board game, the teacher can observe whether the child can recite the number sequence accurately and maintain one-to-one correspondence.

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Repetition and practiceFinally, games give children repeated practice, as they enjoy playing the same games over and over.

What's the Math?

Using games as a foundation for learning, and with input from over one hundred Head Start teachers, EDC’s Games for Young Mathematicians has developeda set of instructional materialsfor preschool teachers that are fun, engaging, and easy-to-use. Games and accompanying resources on the Young Mathematicians site focus collectively on counting, operations, algebraic thinking, and geometry.

These games are designed to be adaptable, with multiple entry points so they are appropriately difficult for all children. For example, children who are at the beginning of their mathematics learning can engage with small numbers and simpler versions of the games; children who are further along are challenged with additional choices (e.g., you can addor subtractthe quantities on a die).

Below is a sample of games focused on number sense. Number and operations skills are foundational for later mathematics learning [1] and represent a large portion of early childhood math learning standards. The following games are examples that highlight these key number and operation skills:

  • recognizing and knowing the number word list ,
  • subitizing (knowing how many in a small set immediately),
  • cardinality (knowing that the last number of objects counted is the number in the set),
  • one-to-one counting correspondence (pairing one object with exactly one number word),
  • written number symbols,
  • comparing numbers (more, less, same), and
  • composing and decomposing numbers (addition and subtraction).

Games with Fingers

Simple games with fingersfocus on key skills including counting, cardinality, subitizing, and combining and taking apart sets. New research shows that using fingers plays an important role in learning and understanding arithmetic (despite what we might’ve been told!). [2] You can also play finger games at any time—since your fingers are always with you!

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Try this simple finger game. Hide your hands behind your back, then show your hands holding up a few fingers on each hand. For example, show three fingers on your right hand and two fingers on your left hand. Children love it when you chant a little rhyme before revealing your fingers: “Fingers, fingers, 1,2,3, how many fingers do you see?” Children then call out how many fingers you are holding up.

To make the game a little more challenging, ask children to use both hands and show five in a different way. You can also ask children show you on their fingers one more or one fewer than the number of fingers you held up. As children get older and have more practice, you can even ask them how many fingers you arenotraising.

Games with Dot Cards

Dot cardsprovide a wealth of game options for young children topractice subitizing, counting, and cardinality.Children use cards that havefrom one to tenblack dots arranged in different configura­tions—linear (straight line), rectangular, dice pattern, circular, and scattered.The dots are arranged in different configurationsbecause the variety helps children develop many mental images of quantities. Children need practice with objects in lots of different arrangements. In particular,circular and scattered arrangements are harder to count one-by-one.

Children can also play with these cards in different ways: covering dots, copying the patterns, matching cards, finding a certain card, and figuring out one more or one fewer. For a book link, we suggest the picture bookTen Black Dotsby Donald Crews. Children can use this as inspiration to make their own illustrations with dots at the art table. For a home link, teachers can send home the mini-bookCan You Find?for children to read with their families. On each page children try to find the card with a certain number of dots.

Jumping on the Lily Pads

Children playJumping on the Lily Padswith a lily pad number-path board, dot cubes, and frog game pieces (or other tokens). This game helps children develop a mental number line and understandthat whole numbers are spaced equally along a number line. The more that children develop a mental number line, the more prepared they are for the math tasks that await them in kindergarten. [3]

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To play the game, children take turns rolling the dot cube and moving their frogs along the game board. The goal is to be the first to reach the pond. While playing this game, children are practicing numeral recognition, using one-to-one correspondence (when moving on the board), and using vocabulary such asbefore,after,closer,further.Jumping on theLily Pads give students experience with a mathematically crucial tool—the number line—and strategic use of that tool.

As you introduce more math into your classroom, be positive! Your attitude matters, so have fun introducing and integrating math activities. Use books and games to promote playful math experiences. It’s as easy as playing finger games, card games, and board games to build young children’s understanding of number and the number line!

Kristen E. Reed is a senior project director and mathematics educator at Education Development Center.

Jessica Mercer Young is a senior research scientist and developmental and educational psychologist specializing in early learning at Education Development Center, in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Cover photo: Yen Thieu, EDC

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[1] National Research Council. 2009. Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

[2]Berteletti, I., & Booth, J. R. (2015). Perceiving fingers in single-digit arithmetic problems.Frontiers in Psychology,6, 226.

[3]Siegler, R. S. & Ramani, G. B. (2009). Playing Linear Number Board Games – But Not Circular Ones – Improves Low-Income Preschoolers’ Numerical Understanding.Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 545–560.


What are some fun math games for kids? ›

20 Exciting Math Games for Kids to Skyrocket New Math Skills On-The-Go
  • Prodigy. [caption id="attachment_501" align="aligncenter" width="545"] ...
  • Around the Block. ...
  • Math Baseball. ...
  • Bouncing Sums. ...
  • Math Facts Race. ...
  • Math Facts Bingo. ...
  • Math Is Fun. ...
  • 101 and Out.
5 Jan 2017

How do I make math fun for kids? ›

Keep reading to find some of the best ways to make math fun and help your students build a love of learning!
  1. Math games. ...
  2. Visual aids and picture books. ...
  3. Using modern technology. ...
  4. Take a hands-on approach. ...
  5. Encourage communication with students and parents. ...
  6. Focus on your students. ...
  7. Stick to fixed routines. ...
  8. Use real objects.
17 Aug 2021

What games improve math skills? ›

10 Best Apps to Improve Math Skills for Adults
  • Star Dash Studios.
  • Sumaze.
  • SumQuest.
  • Khan Academy.
  • Math Brain Booster Games.
  • King of Maths.
  • Math Riddles and Puzzles.
  • Photomath.
3 Dec 2021

What is math bingo? ›

Math Bingo is a twist on traditional Bingo designed to reinforce basic arithmetic skills. In this game, each player has a 4x4 card with a series of numbers. A caller reads a series of math problems (either addition and subtraction for younger children or multiplication and division for older).

How do I get my child excited about math? ›

5 Tips to Get Your Children Excited About Math
  1. Ask, then listen. “Let your children drive the conversation,” Berry said. ...
  2. Let them show what they know. “Let your children use their ideas to explain their thinking. ...
  3. Be open to new ideas. ...
  4. Be patient. ...
  5. Learn something new.
21 Jan 2020

How do you motivate students to learn math? ›

Approaches that encourage the growth mindset include having multiple methods, pathways and representations (instead of just one fixed method), giving students opportunities to conduct their own inquiries, asking the problem before teaching the method to solve it, and asking students to explain the math in a visual ...

How do I teach my 5 year old math? ›

Here are three simple, but effective learning ideas that you can try with your child using everyday items at home.
  1. Count objects around the house. When counting, encourage your child to point to each object, putting them in a row. ...
  2. Play dice games. ...
  3. Use toys.

How do you play shut box? ›

How To Play Shut The Box - YouTube

Why are maths games good for children? ›

Math games provide a structure and process for children to engage in problem solving in order to reach a particular goal or objective. Reaching that goal might be challenging, but the challenge is also what makes game-playing fun.

Does cool math games still work? ›

We've seen a crazy rumor flying around that Coolmath Games is shutting down, but don't worry: There's no truth to it.

What are some free math games? ›

Online Math Games
  • Math Playground. With games aimed at students from 1st grade to 6th grade, Math Playground is a treasure trove of free online math games for kids. ...
  • PBS KIDS Math Games. ...
  • MathGameTime. ...
  • Get the Math. ...
  • Fun Brain. ...
  • Math Twister. ...
  • Multiplication Touch. ...
  • Math Tic Tac Toe.
7 Aug 2020

Is cool math games gone? ›

A lot of childhood memories were made playing the multitude of games they had to offer. This rumor was likely caused by another concern. Although Coolmath isn't shutting down, it won't be accessible to people who have Adobe Flash. Students were devastated and or concerned about not being able to play CoolMath Games.

What are the examples of math games? ›

We have great whole class math games to enjoy:
  • Addition and Subtraction Bingo. To play this game, create bingo cards with the answers to simple addition and/or subtraction problems. ...
  • 101 Points. ...
  • Action Addition and Subtraction. ...
  • Math Twister. ...
  • Shape Scavenger Hunt. ...
  • Guess My Number.

What are some free math games? ›

Online Math Games
  • Math Playground. With games aimed at students from 1st grade to 6th grade, Math Playground is a treasure trove of free online math games for kids. ...
  • PBS KIDS Math Games. ...
  • MathGameTime. ...
  • Get the Math. ...
  • Fun Brain. ...
  • Math Twister. ...
  • Multiplication Touch. ...
  • Math Tic Tac Toe.
7 Aug 2020

How do 3rd graders make math fun? ›

30 Third Grade Math Games and Activities That Really Keep Kids Engaged
  1. Count your dots to learn multiplication. ...
  2. Punch holes for multiplication. ...
  3. Visit the Multiplication Shop. ...
  4. Flip dominoes and multiply. ...
  5. Make multiplication pool noodles. ...
  6. Search for the multiplication equations. ...
  7. Repurpose a Guess Who? board.
21 Apr 2022


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