How to Make Math Fun with Games: A Quick & Simple Guide

Find out how to make math fun, boost math skills, and reduce anxiety all at the same time! Math games are basically a miracle drug for kids’ math learning. Here’s everything you need to know…

What’s a parent to do when your artsy, bouncy, glitter-loving bookworm avoids math like the plague?

Do we have any more pompoms?

Do you grit your teeth and make her do weekly flashcards for her own good, or do you throw in the towel and resign yourself that your kid is just not a math person?

Or…is there (please God) a better option?

This is post #2 in the 3-part series: How to Help With Math At Home…And Love It. (Here’s the first post in the series, in case you missed it.)

In this article you’ll discover:

  • How kids learn best (and also what you should probably stop doing)
  • Why games are practically a miracle drug (and why games are indeed “real learning”)
  • How to find great math games for what your child needs right now

How Kids Learn Best: A Primer

The children sit perfectly still in neat rows as they listen quietly to their teacher. Studious and serious, they memorize the teacher’s words, intense concentration etched across their miserable little foreheads.

How NOT to make math fun: retro photo of an early 1900s classroom
Gosh, I wonder why no-one is smiling??

Children are not meant to sit still for long periods of time, stifling their inquisitiveness and creativity, and being told to memorize rather than think for themselves.

And yet, this is our default when we think of how kids are “supposed” to learn math. We vaguely itch for a better way, but we fall back on what we know: flashcards, facts drill, explaining how to do the math.

When these methods fall short (and they will fall short), we don’t know what else to do…so we do MORE explaining, MORE drill, pinning the problem on our child and hoping that eventually something will just *click*.

Instead, we end up with kids who are confused, anxious, and bored.

NOTE: If your kid is confused, anxious, or bored, that’s a huge red flag.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Albert Einstein

Kids already have a perfect system for learning, naturally built into them. They are curious explorers by nature, asking questions and making sense of their reality through play.

The frustration you feel at home when you’re trying to help with math is NOT a result of you “doing it wrong”, or being bad at math, or your kids being difficult.

It’s a mismatch between how they learn best, and the way we’re trying to make them learn.

How Kids Learn Best + A Teeny Bit of Brain Science

There are three points to remember when helping your child learn math:

1. Kids learn best when they are relaxed and happy.

This is even more true than you might realize. Scientists have shown that stress and anxiety actually prevent kids from learning.

In fight or flight mode, the brain shuts down all learning centers and releases adrenaline into the bloodstream to address the emergency.

Heartbeat goes up, breathing quickens, and learning is put on hold until the child feels safe and her brain can switch back to “all systems go”.

3. Kids learn best when something is interesting and fun.

No surprises there! When math is fun, kids give it all their attention, energy, and enthusiasm…so they learn and remember much more.

When the brain encounters something new or interesting, it sets off an explosion of brain activity for a big burst of learning.

how to make math fun: little girls smiling and laughing while playing a math game with cards
This little girl’s brain cells are having a party right now

2. Kids learn best when they get lots of repetition in varied, real-life contexts.

It’s no secret that repetition helps kids learn. But repetition needs to come in many different forms to keep the brain engaged, otherwise kids get bored, and stop learning altogether.

Every time your child learns a related piece of new information, like seeing a multiplication fact in visual form, her memory and understanding become more solid and multi-dimensional.

3 rows of 5 that’s 3×5, or 15 chocolates

Imagine painting a blue sky. A kindergartener draws a thick line of the blue paint across the top and calls it “sky”. A skilled artist uses a full palette of blues, reds, greens, and golds, textures them just so, and the result is stunning, like a sky in real life.

When we insist that a child “just do the math” or simply memorize facts because it’s quicker, we are settling for kindergarten art.

The more varied the learning about that one topic, the more deep and rich her mathematical understanding becomes.

Math Games…The Miracle Drug

So, sometimes in math circle I get a really tough case…a girl who makes me feel like, “Do I know ANYTHING at all?”

There was this one 5th grade girl, back in the early days when I was just starting to teach, who was terrified of math.

I am not exaggerating. Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. She would just look at a math problem, and start to cry.

I tried everything I knew: I broke the math down into small steps, explained oh-so-patiently, drew pictures, distracted her, encouraged her with a motivational little pep talk… Nothing worked.

She was too panicky to even hear a word I said. The poor girl was practically hyperventilating.

In desperation, I pulled out a math game.

Just like that, the worried crease in her forehead smoothed itself out. She let out a big sigh, and her shoulders relaxed as she rolled the dice. Her mouth even quirked up into a little smile.

Ok, but here’s the thing: This was a math game. We were doing the EXACT same math problems as before. But suddenly it was no big deal.

Mom teaches a math magic trick to make math fun
Such big smiles! Where did the anxiety go?

I didn’t want to jinx it, but I had to ask: “A minute ago this problem had you in tears. Now look at you go! What changed?”

Without missing a beat, she said, “Because it’s a game. Mistakes don’t count.”


In a math game, there’s no shame in making a mistake, no penalty for taking a moment to think it through. It’s just a game–forgiving and fun.

It feels like play, and it is, but it’s also a framework for learning that is superior to almost any learning method out there:

  • Helps anxious kids overcome their fear to learn math
  • Boosts confidence in kids who think they’re bad at math
  • Helps parents and kids feel more connected, and ends math fights
  • Makes math fun–not stressful or boring
  • Helps kids get better at math without realizing it

As far as I’m concerned, games are perfect in any setting, but ESPECIALLY for parents and kids at home.

When your kid forgets multiplication facts? Play a multiplication game. Doesn’t understand fractions? Play a fraction game.

No more “that’s not how the teacher did it”. No more butting heads. No more tears at math time.

ONE CAVEAT: Not every math game is created equal. Games that are highly competitive or speed-based can backfire and make anxiety worse.

math games that use cards are a great way to make math fun
A math card game can be played anywhere!

Which begs the question: how do you choose the best math games for what your child needs now.

How to Choose the Right Math Game for What Your Kid Needs Now

When you are looking for a good math game for your child, ideally you would ask: “What math is my child working on now?” then find a game to match that.

That’s tricky on two levels. First, most parents don’t have a clue what math their kids need, and second, even if you did know, where would you find the math games?

There are four main types of math games out there:

1. Strategy board games, like chess or Blokus. These games help develop general mathematical thinking, but usually won’t help your child improve specific math skills.

2. Commercial card games and board games. Clumsy Thief and Prime Climb are two great examples. The most effective games for learning cover ONE math skill, but that means buying a lot of games, and at $20+ a pop, that can add up fast.

3. Teacher games. Created for teachers to use in classrooms and sold on teacher sites. Some can be a little teacher-y for my blood, and not all classroom games translate to a 2-person game at home.

4. Math games books. This is a great option for parents if you want fun games at the ready, in your child’s grade, in every math area she is learning in school this year.

I recommend Miss Brain’s Cool Math Games to any parent who tells me they have a confused or anxious kid, or who want to make math fun at home.

There is a version for grades 1-3, and another for grades 3-5.

During the game, my daughter was all smiles and would giggle, “Again! Let’s do it again! This is fun, Mommy!”

Heather Carvill, playing Miss Brain’s Cool Math Games

How To Make Math Fun With Games: Next Steps…

STEP 1: Buy the book Miss Brain’s Cool Math Games.

There’s a version for grades 1-3 and another for grades 3-5. I recommend both books if you have a struggling 3-5th grader or just want extra practice.

STEP 2: After you’ve ordered your book, scroll down to the bottom of the page, where I have an awesome “get-started gift” for you…

I’ll take you step-by-step through what to say and do during homework time to end the math fights for good (and help your child love math).

STEP 3: RELAX…you and your child are in good hands now! 😘

You’ll start seeing a change with the first game you play, and with every simple tip or new phrase you try out at homework time…in as little as 5 minutes each.

Just enter your email below, and I’ll get you all set up!

Did you find this article helpful? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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