Math Games to Play with Your Kids

posted Jun 29, 2013, 8:32 PM by allison coates   [ updated Jun 29, 2013, 8:33 PM ]
Summer is a time for fun, not necessarily a bunch of math worksheets. But you can increase mental math skills and practice number sense by playing games.

Board Games: Board games can teach number sense, addition, and virtues such as patience and stamina.

For children in preschool through primary grades, playing games where they practice moving the correct number of steps is good practice for the number line. Emphasize that a move of 3 means counting 3 hops, and that adding means the same thing. Chutes and Ladders, Uncle Wiggly, Sorry, Parcheesi, etc. help addition skills. For children in lower primary and above, Monopoly and Scrabble both practice addition and multiplication, optimization of sums and mental math.


Card Games: These games can be played using a standard deck of cards. Some are traditional card games, others are more mathy, but all can be fun. Having your child be the score keeper is an excellent way to practice mental math or standard algorithms.

    1. Salute! (For any child learning addition or beyond)

This is a game for three players. The goal is to be the first person to determine their own card’s value. This game is played with an ordinary deck with face cards removed. Aces have value 1; all other cards match their number. Play is as follows: one of three players is chosen as Dealer; Dealer hands out the cards evenly to two players who sit facing each other; each holds the stack of cards face down. Dealer says “Salute,” and the two players simultaneously take the top cards off their respective piles and hold them on their foreheads with the card facing OUT, so each player can only see opponent’s card. Dealer announces the sum of the two cards. First player to correctly announce his own card wins the hand, and keeps both cards. 

For short games, play continues until all cards have been played once; winner is player with most cards. Players then rotate who becomes Dealer and repeat until everyone has once played Dealer. For longer games, play continues in the style of War, repeating the game with cards won on previous rounds, until one player’s cards are exhausted. Players then rotate who becomes Dealer and repeat until everyone has once played Dealer. More advanced variations have the Dealer finding the product of the cards, or 3 times the sum, or ….

    2. 24 (For children who have learned all four basic arithmetic operations. Middle school or beyond)

24 is a game where the object is to use arithmetic operations on a set of 4 numbers to produce an expression whose result is 24. Suitable for any number of players. This game is played with an ordinary deck of playing cards with all the face cards removed. The aces have value 1; all other cards match their number. The basic game proceeds as follows: dealer places 4 cards face up, and each player tries to form a mathematical expression whose result is 24 using only addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and parentheses. The first player to do so wins the hand. (Some groups of players allow exponentiation, or even further operations such as roots or logarithms.)
For example, if the four cards are 3 of hearts, 8 of diamonds, 4 of clubs, 3 of clubs, then one possible answer is (3 + 3)  × (8 - 4) = 24. Another is 3 × 8 × (4 – 3). Yet another is ∛8  ×4 ×3.

Players may either write or verbally express their answer. For short games of 24, once a hand is won, the cards go to the player that won. If everyone gives up, the cards are shuffled back into the deck. The game ends when the deck is exhausted and the player with the most cards wins. Longer games of 24 proceed by first dealing the cards out to the players, each of whom contributes to each set of cards exposed. A player who solves a set takes its cards and replenishes their pile, after the fashion of War; players are eliminated when they no longer have any cards. (Rules from Wikipedia.)

3. War! (For any child learning numbers)

A standard game of War is perfect for teaching young children to count and compare. The object is to win all of the cards. Suitable for 2 or more players. Dealer deals out the cards evenly between game participants. Number cards are worth their number; face cards are worth ten; aces 11. (Alternative rules: Aces represent one and face cards are ten.) Play proceeds as follows: each player turns over the top card from their own pile. Player with the largest value card wins all the cards. In the event of ties between highest valued cards, players who tied then shout “War!”, and count out three cards face down from their pile, and then display an additional fourth card. Winner takes all played cards. 

4. 21 (For any child learning to add)

This is a game of Blackjack with all of the complicated rules removed. The object of the game is to get a hand of cards whose sum is as close to 21 as possible without going over. Suitable for any number of players. Number cards are worth their number; face cards are worth ten; aces are worth either 1 or 11, as determined by player’s choice for each ace they hold. Dealer deals two cards to each player. First player then chooses based on his hand whether to take another card (“a hit”) or to receive no more cards (“stand”). If he chooses another card, dealer lays it down face up for all players to see. Player then repeats this choice as often as he likes or until he goes over 21 (“bust”.)  Dealer then moves on to next player and repeats the choice. (First player may not take more cards later in this round.) When all players have chosen to stand or gone bust, all players then lay down their cads so all players can see. Player whose cards are closest to 21 without going over is winner. 

5. Uno!

Uno! is terrific for preschoolers through lower primary grades, teaching number recognition and matching. Most easily played by removing the face cards from a traditional deck, but local variations are numerous. Increase the difficulty by varying rules so the next playable card matches the same number or is the same color but only either 1 greater or 1 less than the current played card. Encourage score keeping by keeping track of the sum of losing players’ hands across many rounds; lowest sum after n rounds wins.


6. Go Fish!

Play Go Fish with a standard deck to help a preschooler or kindergartener practice counting and matching. To increase difficulty, keep score, counting the face value of all cards each player wins. Look for patterns in how to count things up more quickly.

7. Gin Rummy 

Variations of this game are numerous. Score keeping versions encourage the most practice with mental math and standard algorithms.


8. Sum Fun (For primary grades and above)

Working with a deck of cards with face cards removed, player whose 2 2-digit sum is as close to 100 without going over wins the round. To begin, play an easier version until the concept is mastered: player whose sum is highest wins the round. 

Dealer deals out 5 cards face down to each player. On a turn, each player lays down 4 of 5 cards, face up, in 2 pairs, showing cards a 2 2-digit numbers. 
Example: Player receives 8 of hearts, 2 of spades, 3 hearts, 6 of clubs, 5 of spades. She plays 8h5s and 6c3h, because 85 + 63 = 148. She doesn't play the 2s, because using the 2 anywhere would have lowered her score.

Player whose 2 2-digit numbers sum highest wins the round. Winner receives all cards. Dealer deals out 4 more cards to each player, repeating until deck is dealt. Player with most cards wins. Once this version is mastered, play this real version: player whose 2 2-digit sum is as close to 100 without going over wins the round.



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