Learning Math Through Play

Written by Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool and founder of Steady Mom

So-called “educational” toys line the shelves of every toy store. Each gadget promises to stimulate some important quality in your child–and often includes a bunch of bells, whistles, and batteries to go along with it.

This oversaturation and planned obsolescence is not good for anyone–our children, our already full homes, or our planet.

In Simplicity Parenting, author Kim John Payne reveals that middle class children he counseled in England showed the same levels of mental and emotional overload as poor, displaced refugee children he had worked with in Southeast Asia. The reason?

Too much–of everything: books, toys, activities, lessons, and stress.

At the same time, we want helpful resources in our home–those that spark imagination and further educational goals for our children. This is especially true when it comes to a subject like math, which may not always elicit enthusiasm in the traditional (i.e. worksheets and tests) format.

Are there tools we can choose for our homeschool that inspire math study in our young children–without cluttering up our homes? Here are a few I’ve found.

1. Math Games

Photo by Hazelnut Kids

What early elementary aged child doesn’t love sitting down with Mom or Dad for a quick board game? And if it just happens to tackle numbers at the same time, all the better, right?!

Hazelnut Kids has an incredible selection of games for kids–I like to pull out Clever Bear Learns to Count and Add for our three littles to play with me.

And who could forget Uno, which I spent many happy hours playing with my family growing up. I love the look of Sum Swamp as well (currently on my wish list). To gather ideas for a whole host of easy math games, check out Peggy Kay’s popular book, Games for Math.

2. A Cash Register

We gave this one to my son Jonathan a few months ago when he turned six, and I am still in shock at how much it has sparked his mathematical abilities. How is it that my six-year-old can now make change from a twenty?

The toy also gave me the opportunity to discuss credit cards with the kids–because it included a pretend one. “You mean, they don’t actually want you to pay it off?”

Oh yes, I bet we’ll be having that discussion for years to come.

Of course you can also make a cash register out of some cardboard boxes. And to go with it you’ll need:

3. Play Money

Photo by amazon.com

Purists may say that children learn best with real money, and of course that makes sense. But I’m not about to let my five-year-old disappear upstairs with Mommy’s wallet–no matter what he’s learning!

A set of play money can lead to playing store, a pretend lemonade stand, and other imaginative games. I like this set from Melissa and Doug because all the bills and coins are sized and designed just like the real thing.

4. A Scale

Young children love balance scales and they can be used not only with the accompanying weights, but also to compare a variety of household objects.

Is a shell heavier than an acorn? Let’s find out!

5. Math Manipulatives

Photo by mathusee.com

It seems that every math curriculum includes a variety of manipulatives to help children with counting and visualizing math concepts. Don’t force your kids to use these only for “educational” purposes–let them make towers out of the counting bears or create stories with them as well.

We have the full set of manipulative blocks from Math-U-See–they regularly transform into airplanes and lollipops while we play at our dining table. And that’s fine!

You know your children–what bores them, what interests them, what excites them. Keep your eyes out for creative tools that will inspire math play in your own home.

What resources for math play have you discovered?

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.


  1. These are great suggestions. We do all play-based learning at home, but I hadn’t thought of some of these. I think my 4 1/2 year old would love a scale like that; I might add it to the Christmas list.
    Two Chicks and a Hen’s latest post: Kids Music We Love

  2. I agree with this post completely, which is why I was inspired to write some simple rhyming math stories to simplify and gently introduce math concepts. The manipulatives are jewels and there are heaps of suggested activities on the web site. It is brand new. http://www.arithmeticvillage.com/
    Kimberly’s latest post: First review! Yay! Yay! Yay!

  3. we also the the math-u-see blocks…they turn into all kinds of things at our house. We also use shells from the beach. sticks and acorns, and right now the math manipulative of choice is counting and sorting halloween bats, fangs and cany corn!

  4. I love using games for all sorts of learning. When I go to the used curriculum sales in the spring, my main goal is to find games. Sum Swamp is a good one – now we use it for multiplication.
    sarah in the woods’s latest post: Listening to the Song of Creation

  5. We use all of these and other things like protractors, temperature guns, dice…. I have a list of fun math stuff here: http://www.examiner.com/homeschooling-in-mankato/10-sneaky-ways-to-improve-your-child-s-math-abilities
    Alicia’s latest post: 20 Fun ways to practice spelling words

  6. My big kids are 11 and 10- it is so important to make math meaningful (and hopefully fun)- if not, the later years aren’t that great! Then, they will discover that math was cool (like me- I was a math-hater)
    priest’s wife’s latest post: Your Husbands a PRIEST 7 Quick Takes

  7. what wonderful ideas, especially with christmas coming up. my mom loves to give incredibly loud, busy, battery operated toys. they always mysteriously disappear in my house (to the give-away box) pretty quickly. i’ll definitely be sharing some of these 🙂
    andie’s latest post: my joy killer

  8. We enjoy using Right Start Mathematics, and my kids LOVE using the special AL Abacus.

    I also cook with my kids all the time. I’ve set up our chore system so that each child has a chance to help make dinner. This is a great way to “play” at math. I never cease to be amazed at how much math is involved. My children not only have a chance to learn how to cook, but they are doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division as well! My 9 year old likes to experiment with ingredients. For example, in making bread in the machine, the recipe may call for 3 1/2 cups of bread flour, but she will experiment to see how it turns out if she substitutes using 3/4 of a cup of whole wheat flour and 2 3/4 cups of bread flour. She does all this on her own…for fun!
    Making pizza is also a fun way to practice math. 1/2 pepperoni and 1/2 sausage anyone?
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  9. Great tips!
    A pack of playing cards for several maths games and some dominoes are really an easy and fun way of making maths practice fun!
    Nadene’s latest post: Parables of the Kingdom of God Minibook

  10. Great post and a wonderful reminder to make learning math fun if you can!
    I am reminded of our two playing store for hours on end when they were smaller…
    They had a cash register with play money. They would set up their bedroom as the store dress up as the clerks and I would dress like a grandma who was shopping for her grandchildren… I had forgotten all about that!
    Thanks for the tips and the memories! Well done! Oh, btw. when we did move into a more ” formal approach with Saxon Math” both children were quite comfortable with basic counting, adding, subtracting, groupings, and counting money.
    Debbie’s latest post: Chasing Fall on CAPE COD

  11. This resonates with me as we tend to approach math in a relaxed and unconventional way. Right now my 10 y.o. and I are reading through “Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat.” We’ve used lots of games, including most recently some for the iPad/iphone, but my crowning achievement was Jedi Math:
    Hannah’s latest post: iPod- iPhone- iWhatever Users Your Advice Please

  12. You can also try some of the online games that are available. Dreambox has a great game. It is character-based and increases in difficulty as the player gets more answers right. The best feature of this particular game is that there is a Parent Dashboard that records the areas of strength and areas that require more practice.

  13. I Just had to add my boys idea! My main goal this year is to teach PEACE , and my boys main interest has been about wars…the civil war, revolutionary way , wourld war one…you get the picture!! Ha,ha. So we took out all the plastic army guys and set up battle fields. With a roll of the dice, that many guys were shot down on the other teams [subtraction], reinforcemnts were brought in when needed [addtion], and then they army guys were split off into groups to go out discovering [ division]. at the end everyone joined forces for the last great battle [multiplication]. All in all it was a big success and we be our math theme of the week! And YES, my daily stories and lessons about PEACE will still go on!!!!

  14. I LOVE the cash register for teaching money math! As a kid, I always wanted to have a lemonade stand and handle money, it seemed so grown up. And I had no idea that these activities helped me, math-wise.
    I also love the suggestion someone else made about cooking. Cooking is the ultimate math trainer because it touches on fractions, addition, subtraction and even more depending on the recipe. I like to half recipes to make smaller batches so I don’t snack as much and that can be quite a math doozy!!
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  15. Those are great ideas and resources. Using regular games work well too. Kids can learn a lot of math concepts from just playing the ordinary games most people have on their shelves.
    Heidi’s latest post: Abeka Home Schooling

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