Tabletop Math: Teaching Early Elementary Math with Board and Card Games

Homeschooling is not easy. That’s something my wife and I have figured out over the last two months stuck at home. The two older kids have daily schedules and activities set by their school, but the younger ones, ages 6 and 9? We’ve been mostly on our own figuring out ways to keep their academic skills sharp. Both of us are educators, but we are not elementary school educators. Figuring out how to engage two kids who would rather be enjoying summer vacation hasn’t been easy.

We’ve found science experiments you can do at home–Mentos and Diet Coke was a hit, as were the rubber band cars. I broke out my 1984 copy of Encyclopedia Brown to read aloud for some quality listening comprehension. And my wife ordered some fantastic biographies that cover reading, history, and science all at once. The one subject I knew I had covered was math. That’s because I have a closet full of board games.

Teaching math with board games is like hiding broccoli in mac and cheese–the kids don’t realize they’re getting something healthy because they’re enjoying what they’re doing so much. (This analogy doesn’t quite work for our family, since half our kids love broccoli, but you get what I’m saying.) The games we’ve been playing don’t hit all the math skills listed in the state standards, but they are helping to keep the kids’ math facts and number senses sharp during this long period without formal schooling.

I thought I would share a few of our favorites here on the blog for other parents who are looking for ideas for stay-at-home math class with younger kids.

Kingdomino (Blue Orange Games, 2016) – KingdominoIn Kingdomino, players take on the role of monarchs expanding their lands by adding domino-style tiles to their kingdoms. (Get it? Kingdom + domino = Kingdomino.) Each rectangular tile has two squares showing various kinds of landscapes, including fields, forest, lakes, and and swamps, and some of these squares have crowns on them. Your kingdom starts with a single square and a little cardboard castle on it. Each round, four new tiles come out and players take turns selecting tiles to add to their kingdoms, making sure that at least one square of the new tile touches an existing square in the kingdom of the same landscape. At the end of game, each player will have a 5 x 5 square for a kingdom, or something close to it, for scoring purposes and a general feeling of accomplishment.

There are a couple of math skills needed in Kingdomino. The first is sequencing: Each round, four tiles numbered between 1 and 48 are drawn, and these need to be arranged from largest to smallest. For the 6-year-old, sequencing a set of numbers like 33, 27, 9, and 41 is useful practice. The second is multiplication: To score your kingdom, you have to multiply the number of squares in each continuous region of the same landscape by the number of crowns in that region. For the 9-year-old, playing a game where you have to score a forest with 6 crowns and 8 squares (48 points) keeps his math facts fresh. And the game’s visuals help him see what 6 times 9 actually means!

Kingdomino has been such a hit that we ordered its sequel, Queendomino, last week. We tried it out yesterday, and it has all the same math as the original and a lot more single-digit addition and subtraction–and a lot more strategy. I expect it will hit the table a lot during future math classes.

Longhorn (Blue Orange Games, 2013) – LonghornSome days, math class involves a little cattle rustlin’. In the two-player game Longhorn, players take on the role of some disreputable cowboys stealing cows in the Old West. The game board consists of a grid of nine location tiles, beautifully illustrated by Vincent Dutrait, with little wooden cows of various colors scattered all over. Each turn you take all the cows of a single color from the location where the player token sits, then move the player token a number of spaces equal to the number of cows you just stole. If you took the last cows from a location, you activate the action tile that was randomly assigned to that location at the start of the game. Most of these are good for you and your thieving ways, but some aren’t. The game ends when you can’t move the player token to a location that still has cows.

The math is strong in this game, particularly multiplication. At the end of the game, each cow of a given color is worth $100 times the number of cows of that color remaining on the board. If you have three orange cows and there are four orange cows left on the board, then your orange cows are worth 3 x 4 x $100 = $1200. Since there are four different cow colors and every move involves recalculating your potential score, the game has a lot of multiplication. The in-game math is mostly mental, but I have the 9-year-old do all the end-game scoring on pencil and paper so he can also practice working with tables of numbers.

Songbirds (Daily Magic Games, 2016) – SongbirdsI backed the card game Songbirds on Kickstarter a couple of years ago mostly because of the adorable art. Honestly, it hasn’t hit the table very often; it’s a lot thinkier than you would expect from the sheer cuteness. But it’s been a hit in stay-at-home math class this spring!

To play the game you deal out a whole stack of songbird cards to the players. The birbs come in four colors, and each color has cards valued from 1 to 7. You take turns playing one card from your hand onto the table, filling out a 5 x 5 grid of songbirds by the end of the game. Each time a row or column in the grid is completed, you see which color bird has the highest total value in that row or column. That color gets the points for that row or column, represented by a cute little berry token with a number between 5 and 15. If there’s a tie between colors, those colors don’t score, so a low-value card can win the berry. At the end of the game, you’ll have a single bird card left in your hand. Your score is equal to the value of that card plus the value of all the berries collected by the songbirds of that color during the game. You’re basically making a bet on which of the four songbird colors will have the most points. It’s very clever.

The kids are still figuring out the strategy in Songbirds, but they’re enjoying the card laying and berry scoring mechanics. The game is full of addition, since you’re adding single digits every time you finish a row or column. And you have to keep an eye on the berry collection for each bird color, which involves sums like 6 + 9 + 11 + 15. We play without pencil and paper, so the kids have to do all this arithmetic mentally.

I’ll add that you could play this game with a standard deck of cards and some homemade point token, but Songbirds is just $14 on Amazon and, seriously, the birds are adorable.

Sky Tango (Z-Man Games, 2012) – Sky TangoI found out about Sky Tango on Instagram. The hashtag #skytango is used by photographers to show off their drone footage. I was paging through some amazing aerial photography when I saw this striking card game.

Players take turns playing cards from their hands, either in front of themselves or in front of other players. Each player can have a row of sun cards and a row of moon cards. Each card has a number on it between 1 and 29, and cards played must be in numerical order. They don’t have to be in sequence, but they do have to increase from left to right, meaning you could have 4-8-12-23 in your sun row and 1-7-15-16-25 in your moon row. On your turn, if you have five or more cards in each row, you can “clear” them, putting them to the side for end-game points. (Each cleared card is worth one point, regardless of the number on the card.)

What gets tricky are the two other mechanics in the game: eclipses and total eclipses. Some of the sun and moon cards are eclipses, and you can play these on top of other played cards, disrupting another player’s run of cards. They’ll have to play a card on top of the eclipse to fill the gap in their row. A total eclipse happens if a player has no legal plays, either on their own rows or their opponent’s rows. At that point, the player discards all the cards in front of them and in their hand, keeping only the cards they’ve cleared. This is usually a huge setback, except at the very end of the game when it can be helpful. Any cards still in one’s hand or play area that haven’t been cleared are worth negative points at end-game! It’s quite possible to end up with a negative score in Sky Tango.

As for the math, Sky Tango involves a lot of sequencing of numbers. The game revolves around knowing things like the fact that 13 comes between 8 and 21. And the better you are at that kind of sequencing, the more cutthroat you can be in the game, since you can play cards offensively on other player’s sun and moon rows. That’s about it for the math, but the sequencing aspect is strong and certainly useful for younger players.

Sleeping Queens (Gamewright, 2005) – Sleeping QueensWe’ve been a big fan of Sleeping Queens in my family for a long time. When the oldest was young, she kept wanting to play Monopoly. I thought it was great math practice for her, but it’s a pretty terrible game. I posted my quandary on Facebook, and my friend Brandy suggested Sleeping Queens. The math is a little simpler than that found in Monopoly, but it was just right for the kid. And Sleeping Queens is way more fun to play than Monopoly!

In the game, you compete to collect some rather whimsical queens, like the Pancake Queen, the Cat Queen, and the Book Queen. You take turns playing cards from your hand: a king to wake up a queen, all of whom start face down in the middle of the play area, and add her to your collection; a knight to steal a queen from another player; or a sleeping potion to put another player’s queen back to sleep. The gender dynamics are a little suspect, but it’s fine, in part because it’s the queens that have special powers, like the Rose Queen who brings a second queen with her when woken up or the Strawberry Queen who can’t be stolen or put to sleep. There are counter cards, too, like the dragon who beats a knight and the magic wand that wards off a sleeping potion.

There are also a lot of numbered cards in the deck, and that’s where the math comes in. If you don’t have any action cards in your hand, you’ll have to discard a numbered card to draw a new card. But if you can make a simple equation out of your numbered cards, you can discard all the cards involved in the equation and draw that many more. For instance, you could discard a 3, 5, and 8, since 3 + 5 = 8, then draw three cards. This helps you get to those action cards, like the kings, faster.

That’s pretty much the whole game. It’s simple, easy to teach, fast to play, and offers great practice at basic addition facts. It’s one thing to ask a kid, “What is 3 plus 5?” It’s another to challenge a kid to find an additive relationship among a small set of numbers that might or might not have one. All of my kids have eventually asked if they can make longer equations, like 2 + 5 = 3 + 4, and we always house-rule that in the affirmative, because, yes, look for those equations!

We haven’t played Sleeping Queens during this stay-at-home season, since the kids are getting a little old for it. But for younger players just learning their addition facts, it’s a great game, and it will always be on our shelf of honor.

Those are my suggestions! What games are you playing with your kids during homeschool math class?


4 years ago

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