To buy any of the games listed below, see the Math Monday Amazon wish list.
1. Pattern blocks
Players: any / Age: 3+ / Time: open-ended / Math: shape, pattern, number, symmetry.
When my friend Rebecca started homeschooling her kids, she asked me for advice, knowing that I loved math. I recommended that she get buckets of pattern blocks — small geometric blocks that fit together to make colorful patterns. She went out and got them, and pattern blocks became an important part of all eight of her children’s upbringing. She found that pattern blocks are just as captivating for young kids as they are for older kids, and lead to endless creativity.
Pattern blocks are common in kindergarten and lower elementary classrooms, where teachers use them to teach concepts of shape, pattern and fractions. They are available through teacher supply stores like Lakeshore Learning. Other classroom manipulatives that make good toys include square tiles and base ten blocks. Consider visiting a teacher supply store when you are shopping for kid’s toys — classroom supplies tend to be durable, versatile, and inexpensive.
Read here about the myriad activities you can play with Pattern Blocks.
Players: 4 / Age: 7+ / Time: 30 minutes / Math: shape, spatial thinking, strategy
Studies show that kids with strong spatial thinking skills (like the ability to rotate shapes in their imagination) tend to do better in math later in life. In fact, spatial thinking tests are better predictors of math performance than math tests. And one of the best spatial thinking games is the popular family board game Blokus.
In Blokus, four players place pieces on a board corner to control space and block other players from spreading their color. Every piece is a different shape, so players must visualize where pieces can fit. Blokus also comes in smaller two-player version, and a triangular three-player version. Like Tetris, Blokus fills your imagination with colorful shapes that fit together, and trains you to look for patterns in the world.
Read here about the history of Blokus, and tips and tricks for playing better.
Players: 2-6 / Age: 5+ / Time: 20 minutes / Math: Properties, sets, logic
You might think that an abstract card game based on set theory would have narrow appeal, but this colorful family game has become a mainstream hit, available in all toy stores. There is also a junior version of the game, appropriate for kids as young as 3.
Everyone plays simultaneously. Look for sets of three cards that match a uniquely tricky rule. Young kids pick up the rule quickly, and can often beat their parents. At Math Monday, Set always attracts a dedicated group of players, who keep bringing in new players to play this wildly engaging game.
Read here how scientist Marsha Falco accidentally create a board game empire while drawing symbols to explain population genetics to veterinarians.
Players: 1 / Age: 5+ / Time: 3-20 minutes / Math: logic
Since it exploded into worldwide popularity in 2004, Sudoku has taken a permanent position beside crossword puzzles as a staple in newspapers and magazines. Although it uses numbers, Sudoku is really a game of logic — the numbers could just as well be letter or other symbols. The goal is to write a number in every empty space in the grid, so that every row, every column, and every outlined box, contains one of each number from 1 to 9 (or in general from 1 up to the size of the grid). Every number can be deduced through pure logic, without ever having to resort to guessing.
Bookstores dedicate entire shelves to paper and pencil Sudoku puzzles. The most common form features a 9 by 9 grid, which takes quite a while to solve. For beginners and kids, I recommend starting with smaller 4 by 4, 5 by 5 or 6 by 6 grids, which take only a few minutes to complete, and still pose heft reasoning challenges. Have kids start with small puzzles, and gradually work their way up to larger puzzles. Solving Sudoku puzzles develops focus, persistence, and confidence in ones ability to overcome chaos with logic.
Sudoku is just one of literally hundreds of similar visual logic puzzles that are particularly popular in Japan. KenKen, the most popular Sudoku alternative in America, was invented by a Japanese math teacher who wanted to give his students practice doing mental arithmetic. Solving a . You can get free weekly KenKen puzzles by subscribing at kenkenpuzzle.com.
Read here about the history of Sudoku, and how it fits into the history of puzzles crazes that have swept the world.
5. Rush Hour
Players: 1 / Age: 8+ / Time: 3-20 minutes / Math: problem solving, sequential thinking
Mathematics is more than just numbers. At its heart, mathematics is about solving hard problems that demand precise reasoning. All mathematicians learn to break complex problems into simpler problems, and to switch strategies until they find a method that works — all useful life skills.
One of the most irresistible problem solving challenges is the puzzle toy Rush Hour. Each Rush Hour puzzle features an arrangement of cars and trucks jammed into a crowded parking lot. Your goal is to get the red car out a slot in the edge by moving other cars out of the way first — very much like the shuttling problems that real parking attendants face when the lot is crowded. Sliding cars around is fun for your hands, and the deck of forty progressively more difficult puzzle cards does a great job of gradually leading you into harder and harder challenges. Recommended for ages 8+, but many younger kids enjoy it too.
Rush Hour is available in a Junior version with easier puzzles, as well as an app that tracks your moves. Other puzzle games like Gravity Maze and Penguins on ice, from publishers ThinkFun and SmartGames all feature a deck of progressively more difficult spatial logic puzzles.
6. Prime Climb
Players: 2-6 / Age: 8+ / Time: 15-20 minutes / Math: Addition, multiplication, prime numbers
Prime Climb is a beautifully produced board game first launched on Kickstarter in 2014. Its colorful but sophisticated design makes it equally attractive to adults and kids. It is one of the most consistently popular games at Math Monday, and even appeals to younger kids who don’t yet know how to multiply — they play it with just addition and subtraction.
At its core Prime Climb is a race along a number line — roll dice, then move your pieces (each team gets two pieces) along a sequence of spaces numbered 1 to 101. Like all such games kids get valuable practice with addition, by counting up or down from the number they are on.
From that basic premise, Prime Climb adds four twists that add depth to both the gameplay and the mathematics:
- you can bump opponent’s pieces back to the beginning (like in the board game Sorry)
- you can move pieces by multiplying your number as well as by adding
- colorful rings show the prime factors of each number
- red rings show prime numbers — and you get to draw a special card if you land on a prime
Prime factorization is an important idea that is difficult for most kids to grasp; Prime Climb makes it fun.
Read here about the history of Prime Climb, the math behind the game, and some Prime Climb puzzles originally published in the New York Times.