I love hands on math activities for students to practice. I find it best when these activities are self-checking if they’re independently or require group involvement so there will be an element of peer accountability. I also have purchased games for my classroom (Here are my recommendations), but there is something really great about students using simple structures over and over again with different content. I have used all of these structures with both 2nd graders and 6th graders just with different problems. These activities do take some time to make, but for me, the output is worth it. When I batch making them, I can make a dozen sets in a couple of hours. Then, I can have students use them over and over again as a station in math class for weeks. I don’t have to make copies. If I lose pieces, I just need a popsicle stick or sheet of paper to fill in the gap. The directions are the same each time they play that type of game, so once they can play one, they can play others just like it. These are more hands-on than a worksheet, but provide the same kind of repetitive practice. Even better than a worksheet, they can be re-used and practiced for fluency once mastery is achieved.
Here are a few generic structures you can use. Once you have an idea, you really can make an infinite number of games just by swapping out numbers, content, and vocabulary words.
This is the easiest to make. If you have small bits of cardstock, you can just have two things that match up. I matched up clocks and times, equations and what x equals, vocabulary words and definitions, base ten blocks visually and their number representation, and so many more. You can also put these on popsicle sticks for durability.
I Have…Who Has…? Sequence Popsicle Sticks
I saw this idea on Pinterest years ago. The description on the first popsicle stick was the answer on the next popsicle stick. This is just like the game “I Have…Who Has…?” that you could do whole class. If someone starts, “I have 10. Who has 20 – 3.” The next kid pipes up, “I have 17. Who has 3 groups of 5?” And so on. The popsicle sticks work the same way but one person is doing the whole list instead of it being spread out throughout the class. I like this better purely because it’s more efficient and students have to think of all the answers. I usually mark the answer on the left in one color and the question/prompt on the right side in a different color.
This could be used for other content areas as well to remember social studies events, historical figures, or science terminology, but it works great for any kind of mental math or math that would require mild checking on a paper/whiteboard. If a popsicle stick does get lost, it’s easy to still use them with a blank spot, and it’s also easy to slip in a new popsicle stick to make it complete again. These can also be on pieces of paper that students cut out and do on their own, but I like being able to reuse them. I have had some of my popsicle stick sets for years. Also, did I mention I don’t want to make copies?
Clothesline Math/Number Lines
Many of these already exist and are ready for you to print. As I shared in this number sense routines post, I particularly like Daniel Kaufmann and Kristen Acosta. I set up a clothesline (taped up string) between bookcases and kept an eye on this station as some students were independently working at a station with me. I’d wander over to check their accuracy since this was not self-checking and sometimes students would not check one another as accurately as I would wish. I still love this activity, and it fosters great discussion among a group.
The way I’ve done this is just like Clothesline Math, but with cups. I took sticker labels and wrote numbers that could be equivalent as well as along a continuum on the labels. For instance, I made a set for fractions decimal percent with 30%, 1/3, 1/2, 50%, 0.55, 4/7, 150%, 15/100 and so on. I put the labels on the little cups. Then, I put the cups into empty Pringles containers. Students took out the cups, stacked the numbers that were equivalent, and lined up all the others in order so they would read like a number line. I purposely include tricky numbers so they need to think about place value and converting between representations. I’ve seen other ideas for stacking cups with multiplication and challenges and so on; I’m sure Pinterest has more than enough other ideas.
I would guess you know the game Jenga, but the goal is that you stack a bunch of blocks into a tower. One by one, you pull out a block and try to set it up so that another competitor will have to pick a block that makes the tower fall. You can make this game a bit more academic by writing questions onto the Jenga pieces in permanent marker or sticking a label onto the Jenga piece that has a question. This does, of course, make this Jenga set math-y forever, but if the questions are something that students will be practicing over and over again, it could be a worthwhile investment. You could also have one easier question and one challenge question per block to make it like 2 games in one.
Flashcards Game Show
I have taught students how to create their own game show using Flashcards. I’ll have one student be the host and other people in their group will slap their hand down on the table to be the first to get called on. These flashcards need to be something that students should memorize. I had students do flashcards for “50% equals which fraction”, for example. You could do flashcards for multiplication or addition problems. While I know his particular activity encourages speed, students knew that I was certainly not looking for speed across everything in math class. We often did slow thinking routines, deep number sense problems, spent 30 minutes on an Open Middle challenge, and so on. If a student really didn’t like the format of this game host style, they could also just do flashcards at a slower pace with a friend or even by themselves. I knew which students loved the competition, and I often grouped different preferences together when I had this as a station so no one would feel left out of an experience or overly anxious.
If you don’t know the game Heads Up, it’s a game Ellen came up with on her show, and it’s a fun app. Similar to charades, you are trying to get the “guesser” to guess the word you’re pantomiming or verbally explaining. I find it great to have students pantomime geometric figures or verbally explain math vocabulary. For the app, you can flip your phone down to mark it as correct or flip it up to skip it. The goal is to get through as many words guessed correctly as you can in a minute or whatever time limit you set. I give students physical stacks of cards to use for this game. They hold the cards in front of their forehead so they can’t see it and try to guess based off of their partner or team’s clues. Each time you get a word correct you can move that card to a pile. The team with the most cards in their guessed correctly pile wins. Students are incentivized to go back to those they skipped at the end of the game or look more closely at the ones they took a long time to guess correctly because they’ll play this game again in the future. This is a fun game to play whole class in teams or in partners as a station. I pull the vocabulary words for this straight from standards. In fact, I even have printed the vocabulary posters 4 to a page on cardstock off of the VDOE website. Why reinvent the wheel?
The game Cranium has some fun representation ideas. If you think about students having to explain vocabulary through the Heads Up option above, you could also think about students having to explain vocabulary or math concepts with drawing or sculpting with Play Doh. I put together kits that have index cards, mini play-doh, and a minute sand timer to have students use with a stack of cards. This is great for geometry vocabulary especially as it solidifies the concept and makes it a little more hands-on and entertaining when you add the game element. If you have an actual Cranium board, kids can move the pieces and everything, but that is not necessary.
There are so many games you can play with just a deck of cards. One of my favorites is where you have 3 students together. 2 of the students face one another and each have a card on their forehead. The 3rd students states the sum, difference, or product of the two numbers. The 2 students holding cards use that information to guess what their card is. For instance, if I’m student A holding a card on my forehead. I can see student B holding a card that’s a 7. Student C calls out “The product is 21.” Now I know my card is a 3. Or Student C calls out “The sum is 14.” Now I know my card is also a 7 because 7 + 7 = 14. This can be a very engaging game for practicing fact fluency. Students can use their own deck of cards and be spaced out, so this would also work well with social distancing. Students could even stay at their desk to do this; they’d just have to turn theie head enough to see the other card.
Other card games can be as simple as picking 3 and making the largest 3-digit number possible. You can play that with a partner by comparing your number to them, and stating the biggest number wins. You can use any generic worksheet that asks students to identify place value, add 2-digit numbers, etc. and use the cards to create the numbers so every time they use the worksheet it’s different.
One of my favorite card games was Absolute Value War. Black cards were positive and red cards were negative. Students could play war where the most negative number won, the most positive number won, or the greatest absolute value won. You can also have students do an operation with the numerical value of their cards.
Tribulation was a game I purchased for my classroom that I love. The goal of that is to lay out numbers in a grid; the numbers are all single digits 0-9. Then, you draw a two digit number from a separate pile. The goal is to search the grid for 3 numbers in a row that are used to make the number you drew, but you must multiply the first two then add or subtract the second and third. So I could make 43 if I see 9, 5, 2 in a row for 9×5=45 then 45-2=43. I could also make 43 if I saw 7,6,1 for 7×6 = 42 then 42 + 1 = 43.
Too much work to make your own? Have kids do it!
Of course some of the above take a good amount of effort to create and store. One of my favorite easy homework assignments is to have students create a problem on an index card. I’ll hand out index cards. Students write the problem on one side and the answer on the other. I walk around at the start of class, usually as they’re doing a quick thinking routine or reflection or retrieval practice activity, and check all of their problems. This serves as an exit ticket assessment for me. I can reteach and fix their problem on the spot. It’s a self-differentiated homework assignment as kids want to create a card that is correct when they know I’ll use it in class. My favorite way to use these is to do a quiz-quiz-trade activity where students stand up, quiz one another, then trade cards. They continue this pattern and hopefully talk to lots of classmates. I’ve also used this for students to essentially make task cards for me, though. Then, students can do them independently and I didn’t have to do much at all!
I organize these materials (except the cups) in ziploc bags. Regular plastic ones work, but pencil pouches work best for me. I also have used a rubber band to stick the popsicle sticks together in a pinch.
Teaching to Students
In order to introduce students to a game I do one of two things: teach it and play it with students as a teacher-led small group in stations or teach it as a minilesson the day students will play it and try it out.
In Conclusion, Just Try It!
I love games in math class! I think math should be engaging and fun. I did not love math as a kid. I remember a few cool activities in middle school. I loved my 6th grade math teacher, and my 7th grade teacher did a great job helping me understand solving equations. I hated long division drills daily in 5th grade. I hated being sent off to do boring work by myself because I already understood the classwork in 4th grade. I did not enjoy math in high school. It felt like all I ever did was take notes and do worksheets. The above are not those things. Should math still be done on paper? Absolutely! Should they still take notes? 100% But that does not need to be your whole math class. There are so many fun things you can do that offer great practice, so jump in! Try one out. I’d love to hear how it goes.