Six Tips for Making Math Fun for Kids

Here's your nightly math! Just 5 quick minutes of number fun for kids and parents at home. Read a cool fun fact, followed by math riddles at different levels so everyone can jump in. Your kids will love you for it.

Six Tips for Making Math Fun for Kids

December 6, 2013

Here’s something a little different for our Add It Up blog. Professor Jo Boaler, from Stanford University and CEO of,is on a mission much like Bedtime Math to help adults and kids get over math anxiety. She is a driving force behind math change in the United States and beyond. We’re pleased to present 6 of her 12 steps to help parents make math fun. See her site for the other research-based tips.

Parents and guardians have incredible opportunities to shape their children’s mathematical futures. At times, it may not seem that this is the case, especially when children are going through bad experiences at school.But I know, both as a professor of mathematics education and a mother of two children, that you have the opportunity to make a huge difference in children’s mathematical lives.

One of the most important contributions you can make is to dispel the idea that only some children can be successful at math, or that math is some sort of a “gift” that some children have and some do not. This idea permeates American (and other) societies but it has been completely disproved by the science of the brain and learning. The idea that some children can do well in math and some can’t is a damaging myth that is harmful to children’s mathematical development.  Everyone can achieve at the highest levels of math in school, if given the right opportunities and support.


Some ideas as you work with your child:

1. Always praise mistakes and say that you are really pleased that your child is making them.  Recent research has shown that our brains grow the most when we make mistakes.  Scientists have found that when people make a mistake in math synapses spark, and there is activity in the brain that is absent when people get work correct. What this means is that we want people to make mistakes!  In fact, making mistakes in math is the most useful thing we can do. But many children (and adults too!) hate to make mistakes. They think it means they are not a “math person.”  It is important both to celebrate mistakes and tell children their brain is growing when they make them.

My 10-­‐year old recently worked on 2 math problems and got one right and one wrong. When she got one wrong she reacted really badly saying “I can’t do math” and other negative things.  I said to her – “do you know what just happened? – when you got that question right, nothing happened in your brain, but when you got that question wrong, your brain grew.”  I give this message to my children every time they are confused, are struggling or they make a mistake, these are the most important times in their learning.

2. Encourage drawing whenever you can. The whole of mathematics could be taught visually, which would help millions of children, but few classrooms encourage drawing and some students believe it to be babyish. Yet mathematicians draw all of the time, they do this because sketching a problem helps them really see the important mathematical ideas.  Drawing and restating problems both help children understand what questions are asking and how the mathematics fits within them.

3. Encourage students to think flexibly about numbers. Research has shown that the biggest difference between elementary students who are successful and those who are not is not that the higher achievers know more, but that they think flexibly with numbers.  It is critical that children develop number sense, which means that they think flexibly with numbers and can change and regroup them. For example, a student with number sense faced with a problem such as 41-­‐17 would not use an algorithm such as:

Six Tips for Making Math Fun for Kids

 Nor would they count up from 17 or down from 41; they would change the numbers to something like “40-­‐16,” which is a much easier question.

Often when students struggle with math early on, they are given more practice with methods, facts or skills. This is not what they need.  They need a more conceptual understanding of math and they need to develop number sense.

Many students in the US fail algebra. The reason for this is not that algebra is really difficult, but that the students lack number sense, which is the most important foundational base students can have. There are materials on youcubed that show ways to develop number sense.

4. When children answer questions and get them wrong, try and find the logic in their answers – as they have usually used some logical thinking. For example, if your child multiplies 3 by 4 and gets 7, don’t say “That’s wrong,” say “Oh, I see what you are thinking; you are using what you know about addition to add 3 and 4. When we multiply we have 4 groups of 3…”

5. Give children math puzzles. These have been shown to inspire children mathematically and are great for their mathematical development.

Award winning mathematician, Sarah Flannery reported that her math ability and enthusiasm came not from school but from the puzzles she was given to solve at home.

6. Play games, which are similarly helpful for children’s mathematical development. For young children any game with  dice will help. Some board games I particularly like are:

Place Value Safari                                         Mancala

Blokus                                                            Yahtzee

Guess Who (great for logical thinking)      Mastermind

For more games and puzzles go to


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Bedtime Math

Bedtime Math

Bedtime Math’s mission is to make nightly math as common and beloved as the bedtime story.

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