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June 12, 2020

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5 Card Games to Teach Mathematics 

There are hundreds of maths games that can be played with cardsThese are just a small sample of those I have found to be most beneficial.  Please do not take the rules as set in stone but use them more as a guide to shape your own game play and increase or decrease the difficulty of each game to match your child’s needs.


Firstly why we need to play math games with children. 

All of us need to be able to addsubtract, multiply and divide.  Children need to know if they have enough money to buy 1 or 2 chocolate frogs or if I they give everyone 1 pancake how many will they have left over to eat themselves. But maths is not always about good things like pancakes and chocolate so we need to make it fun.   

 

No child wants to sit and complete sheet after sheet of addition and subtraction sums - but they need to master this skill. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill.  10,000 hours of addition and subtraction – no thanks but 10,000 hours of playing games, yes please.  This is where cards come in as they are already synonymous with games and all children love playing games.  It is like the old Sultana Bran ads - “don’t mention its healthy and they’ll eat it by the boxful”.  Don’t let know that you are doing maths and they are sure to want to play. 

The best games for the job. 

The following 5 card games are listed in order from easiest maths to hardest maths.


  1. 1. Heads and Tails - At the most basic level children need to learn to read and identify numbers.  They need to learn the order from 1 to 10 and that 10 is more than 5 and 5 is more than 1 and this game is brilliant for teaching this concept. It is definitely a lot more fun that writing numbers on a numberline and just 10 minutes of playing could see a child order more than 120 numbers if 3 people were playing.

For this game you will need a pack of cards with the picture cards (King, Queen and Jack removed) and a coin (any regular coin will do).  To play this game the pile of cards are placed face down between the players.  One player tosses the coin to see if head or tails will be played this round. Each player then draws a card from the deck and turns it face up for everyone to see.  The player with the highest card (if the coin was heads) or lowest card (if it was tails) wins the round.  The winner collects all the cards and adds them to their pile.  This continues until 1 player has collected all the cards. 

  1. 2. Memory Tables - This is a tried and true method for helping children remember their tables which removes the need to chant or sing which both remind me of Oliver Twist for some reason.  This game is best for 2 players but does require you to make your own cards rather than use a regular set of playing cards - you will need 20 cards in total.  You need to write the table being learnt on 10 of the cards and the answers on the other 10. Ie. 1 x 3 on one card and 3 on another card, 2 x 3 on one card and 6 on another, 3 x 3 on one card and 9 on another – I’m sure you get it. 

 

Just like the Match Up Memory games all over Learn From Play the cards are placed face down on a table and players take it in turn to reveal 2 cards.  When the equation and answers match the player gets to keep this pair of cards.  This game relies on children using their memory to find the pairs of cards and teaches the multiplication set being used.  The player with the most pairs wins the game and hopefully the child playing learns their tables while having fun. 

 

  1. 3. Fish - This is almost identical to Memory Table and uses the cards you made for that game but this time the cards are held rather than turned.  For this game 2 players are each dealt 6 of the 20 cards and the remaining 8 cards are placed in the middle.  Players remove any pairs of cards and place these next to them.  Players then take turns asking for the equation or the solution to find the pair for their cards.  If the other player does not have the requested card they are told to “Go Fish” whereby they draw a card from the deck to try to find the required card. Just like in Memory Tables the person with the most pairs wins. 

 

I want to make a point of the fact that I say use 20 cards and not 24 in these first 2 games.  The idea of teaching children tables up to 12 is very antiquated just like chanting really.  It comes from a time when we dealt in dozens, yard, feet and inches and before we used the metric system.  As Australia went metric in 1966 it is probably high time our tables followed suit.  It is also important to teach children that 12 times anything is just 10 times it plus 2 times it so they can work out any table by just adding the composite parts. 

  1. 4. 21 or Blackjack – I am not talking about gambling here but the very basic idea of needing a total of 21 as a score to win.  You can make this number whatever you want it to be and you can keep changing it to see if there are some numbers more likely to win than others.  The idea is always the same.  Each player is dealt 2 cards.  They look at their cards and then choose to remain with those 2 cards or have more cards dealt to them to allow them to get closer to 21 without going over 21.  Again you could make it the closest to 21 including both over or under so 21 wins outright but 20 and 22 would also win if no one has 21.  The game is being played by you so you get to make up the rules.  Just makes sure everyone agrees on the rules before the cards are dealt.   

As I said in my article last week on the history of card games and the life lessons they teach this game teaches a lot of maths.  It teaches children how to add and subtract as they need to add their cards to work out how many more cards they need to not bust.  They need to work out whether an Ace will be a 1 or an 11 based on the cards in their hands and the probability that the next card will be a card they need or, as there are 45 cards of value 9 or higher, will push them over the limit.  This game is a nice slow way to practice addition and subtraction and of course children can be asked to check the other players cards at the end to ensure no one said they got a score different to their real score which adds yet more equations to solve.   

 

In just 20 rounds of 21, with 4 players, a child may perform well over 100 calculations to check their cards and that of other players.  Can you imagine any 6 year old wanting to sit for half an hour and solve 100 computations – nope neither can I. 

  1. 5. 3s and 17.  Ok I made up the name of the game which is why you haven’t heard of this before but it is a good game.  This is similar to 21 in that it involves addition but that is where there the similarities stop.  This game is based on speed and it involves multiplication as well as addition.  It is best played with at least 3 people but you can make it work for 2. 

 

For this game the deck is dealt evenly between all players and remains face down in front of them.  When the dealer say “go” each player turns over 1 card. If 2 people are playing 2 cards are turned over by each player.  All the cards must be added very quickly by the players and if the total is a multiple of 3 such as 9 or 12 then the cards can be snapped or hit to mark that you think they are a multiple of 3.  If it is not a multiple of 3 such as 8 then the cards are placed to the side and another round starts. The last player to slap the deck or a player who slaps when it is not a multiple of 3 must take all the cards in the pile.  The pile could be quite large by the time an appropriate number appears.   

 

But what about the 17 part of the game’s name? Once players understand the rules and have mastered their 3 times tables you can add a curve ball to the game.  Choose a number such as 17 or 13 which is not a multiple of 3 and make that also a snap number.  Another way to mix up the game is to change the number of cards each player puts into the middle as this moves learning into the higher multiples of 3 rather than limiting it to below 30 if there are 3 players.   

 

Ok I said that there were 5 games but as the Fish game is a bit of a rehash I wanted to give you one more for good measure.   

 

Sweeties. This game is a perfect back stop for a child who just won’t learn their tables, addition, subtraction or any other area of maths.  It is an occasional game but I can assure you your kids will love it.  The most important part of this game is that you need to choose what the reward will be before you begin.  For me when my son was small it was 2 lolly snakes cut up into 8 pieces.  As there were at least 2 of us playing the worst he could do was eat 2 snakes.    

 

Once you have decided on the reward you then have to decide on the lesson as this can be used for everything.  You can play with a regular pack of cards and as many players as you want.  You then simply draw cards to produce the numbers you want.  So if you were adding it may be that 2 cards are drawn by a player and if they equal a given total, say 17, that person gets a piece of snake. If they do not equal 17 then too bad it is the next person’s turn.  If you were teaching 3 times table it could be that 3 cards are drawn from the deck and if the total is a multiple of 3 the person gets a piece of snake.   

 

The teaching opportunities here are limitless which is why this is an extra rather than a game in its own right. This is a gaming method that makes treats accessible to children as a reward but puts a barrier of chance between then and the reward.  It limits the time the game can be played based on the abundance or lack of sweets and it makes the distribution of an uneven number of sweets something for which a parent cannot be blamed which in itself makes this a wonderful game.     

 

I hope that you enjoy playing these maths card games with your children and please let me know if you have you own variations on these or areas of learning for which you would like gamification ideas.  Next week’s article is all about gaming spelling homework so if you liked these ideas be sure to read that to make all areas of learning fun for you and your children. 

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