Parents’ Guide to Math Games: Setting the Foundation

Math games are a great way to build foundational math skills and math confidence. Children develop an intuitive sense of mathematics on their own. Through games, children have the opportunity to formalize their ideas as they make connections, communicate with others, and represent their ideas in multiple ways.

Playing games also builds important problem solving and social emotional skills. Children learn cooperation as they navigate winning and losing, playing fair, and taking turns – something many adults still struggle with! Children also develop problem solving skills as they learn how to strategize and decide for themselves what move they should make next.

These rich experiences are exactly what children’s brains need to build strong pathways and connections. This post is the first in a series of posts about how to use math games to support math learning. Today, I will discuss how to choose a quality game and create a positive play environment. In the next few posts, I will go in depth into games for younger children and then games for older children.

Not All Games are Created Equal

Choosing the right math game is more important than you might think! Every math moment your child experiences has the potential to either build a positive or negative view of math. To determine the quality of a math game, ask What does this game tell my child about math?

Let’s take a look at two first grade addition games to see how different games promote different skills and beliefs.

Game A (Granny Prix): This is a multiplayer online game, and the goal is to correctly answer the addition questions. The faster you answer the question, the faster granny goes. Whoever’s granny gets to the end of the hallway first wins.

Game B (How many are hiding?): This is a two person game where each player has a cup and 10 objects. Players take turns hiding some of the objects in their cup and showing the leftovers. The other player then has to figure out how many are hiding. For example, Player A hides 4 objects in their cup and shows Player B the remaining 6 objects. Player B has to figure out how many objects Player A is hiding – 6 plus what is 10?

So what does each game tell children about math? Game A tells children that math is about answering math facts as fast as possible. If you’ve read my post Subtracting Speed from the Equation, you know where I’m going with this. Separating math from speed is an essential step in building positive mindsets and expanding interest in math. While some children may enjoy playing Game A, it reinforces the belief that being good at math means being fast at calculations.

Game B tells children that math is about representing numbers in multiple ways. You can hide 4 objects and show 6 or you can hide 3 objects and show 7, all while keeping the same total of 10. As children play, they come to see 10, 7 + 3, 6 + 4, 5+ 5 as equivalent representations of the same amount – ten! It’s also visual and tactile, emphasizing that math exists beyond memorized facts.

When choosing a math game, you want to choose a game that builds essential skills and promotes positive mindsets. Instead of games that focus on memorizing number facts and recalling them as fast as possible, play games that have your child work with numbers in different ways. This builds both essential skills and positive mindsets as children come to see math as more than a right or wrong answer.

Setting the Scene

In addition to choosing the right game, it’s important to create a positive and playful environment while playing the game. Here are some tips for keeping math games fun:

Send positive math messages: The messages we say to children have the potential to build or take away math confidence. Build a growth mindset by praising your child’s effort and persistence, and refrain from saying negative things about your own math skills.

Keep it fun by providing choices: Follow your child’s lead to determine which game to play or which rules to use. This will ensure your child is interested, and it will give you an idea of what games might be too easy or too difficult.

Embrace mistakes: Making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process. In fact, our brains grow more from mistakes than right answers! If your child gets something wrong, ask them to explain their thinking and have them try again.

Think out loud: When it’s your turn, say what you’re thinking out loud. This gives your child a model for how to think about the game.

Ask, don’t tell: Avoid the temptation to “help” your child by telling them what they’re next move should be. Instead, ask questions to guide their thinking.

Play time is important – so why not spend some of this valuable time building both relationships and math skills? If you choose the right game and create a positive environment, your child will come to see math as flexible and fun – and perhaps you will too!

Take Action

  1. If you currently play math games, analyze the quality of the games you play. Ask, What do these games tell my child about math?
  2. If you do not currently play math games, commit to playing a math game with your child at least once a week.
  3. Check out the resources below to find one new game that you think your child will be interested in.



Learn to Play. Math For Love. Retrieved from

NAEYC and NCTM. 2010) Early Childhood Mathematics: Promoting Good Beginnings. NAEYC/NTCTM Joint Position Statement.

Reed, K. and Young, J. (2018). Math Games to Excite Young Minds. Development and Research in Early Math Education. Retrieved from

Reed, K. and Young, J. (2017). Play Games, Learn Math! Explore Numbers and Counting with Dot Card and Finger Games. Teaching Young Children 11(1). Retrieved from

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