How to make math more fun. Online games that excite and delight!

Elementary School Math Class: Two Girls and Boy Use Digital Tablet to play Math Maze 2. They’re Excited, Full of Wonder and curiosity. They love the game.

Why are educational math games so powerful?

The answer is simple.

Students love playing games. They don’t love practicing math.

Let’s face it. When students get home from school, the last thing they want to do is an extra hour or two of multiplication or algebra.

In school, a lesson will often be spent learning new concepts, but the reality is that students need to practice math skills to consolidate their learning. Enter the dreaded math homework, which often ends up being worksheets and textbooks that are simply too repetitive and dry to be engaging.

In the current landscape of digital distractions boring math activities don’t cut the cake.

A young boy struggling with his math homework sits with his head down on the table surrounded by crumpled pages of screwed up paper. He is frustrated and bored by traditional worksheets.

The Holy Grail is an immersive and interactive math game that blends game-based fun with math skills, so your child can learn while still staying engaged.

The advantages of online math games

Self-paced

Good online games can help children develop their skills in real-time, at an individual level. One of the greatest challenges in a classroom is giving students work that is at their level. A digital product can take care of that because students can pick level-appropriate math problems to practice without being held back by other classmates, or pushed into territory beyond their ability.

Adaptive

Many online games these days will respond to your student as they play. This is very useful from a teaching perspective as it ensures that each student is getting challenged at a level that matches their abilities.

No prep

It may seem obvious, but online math games have the huge advantage of requiring little-to-no prep, and next to no resources.

This may not sound like a big deal at first, but the time it takes to print or photocopy just a few sets of worksheets really adds up (don’t even get me started on laminating!), not to mention the cost of paper. This is why I am more than happy to buy high-quality resources from other educators. A $5 lesson plan that saves me an hour of work is a no-brainer!

Two cute girls playing math maze 2 on a laptop together in a cafe. They're happy and having lots of fun learning new math skills.

Auto-grading (and no cheating!)

Any online math game these days should check a student’s work as they play and let them know if they got the correct answer. The huge advantage here is that students receive quick feedback on their learning without needing to wait for a teacher or parent to check over their work.

Of course, many kinds of math actually do benefit from one-on-one feedback from a human being. Having said that, any math feedback that can be automated really should be, as it’s such a huge timesaver for both students and teachers.

Another huge problem with traditional worksheets and workbooks is that it is easy for students to cheat (by looking at the back of the book).

Picture this: Your tired sixth grade student gets home and has to do their homework. All they want to do is go and play with their friends. Looking at the answers here becomes a cruel temptation!

On the other hand, in an online free math game there’s no way a student can look up the answer – the temptation is removed.

…So where does that leave us?

If online maths games are so good, why isn’t everyone playing them?

A little boy with an expressive face playing a math game on a tablet. He's really excited by the game.

Good question!

The reality is, not all math games are created equal, and even though there’re so many options out there, no online math game (including Math Maze!) is perfect.

There are no silver bullets or magic pills when it comes to finding something that will work for your child.

On the one hand, there are lots of excellent online resources that teach kids about different aspects of math, for instance Khan Academy and IXL.

Free math resources like this tend to teach math concepts well, but the practice itself is often boring.

These resources are excellent, but they still often feel like work – and if your child is struggling to engage you may find that they don’t maintain interest for longer periods of time.

One interesting approach is to combine these teaching resources with games that give students more engaging math practice.

Example: Spend 20-30 minutes on Khan Academy learning a new math concept, then practice that concept for 30 minutes in your favorite math game!

We all know that children learn best when they want to learn, but finding the right game can be tricky!

Here are some helpful questions you can ask to find the right one…

What to look for in an online math game

In order to find the right online game for your students, you need to choose wisely.

Your kids can spend hours on these games, so you want to make sure they are actually learning!

Here are some questions you can ask to guarantee that that happens:

1. Does it delight YOUR students?

A primary age student playing a math game on a laptop computer. He is having fun and very engaged.

Your students can answer this one for you pretty quickly…

Do they agree quickly when you ask them to play? Do they look engaged while they are playing the game? Do they ask to play it again?

These are all good signs that you may have found a good fit. Well-designed games should delight students with game-based rewards, a compelling reason for the math practice as well as plenty of variation to increase replay-ability.

What you really want to avoid are games that feel monotonous and overly repetitive (ie like watching the same movie over and over again with the sound turned down). What you really want are experiences that your student/s are excited to return to again and again.

Example: In Math Maze 2, each practice session is a mini quest. Replayability is high because the quests and mazes are randomized – the game is different every time you play!

2. Are Students really learning? Is there a good math-to-game ratio?

Where traditional ‘drill and kill’ math activities often alienate students, the opposite pitfall you want to avoid are math games that lack substance.

One of the most challenging aspects of educational game design is making experiences that are both fun AND meaningful in terms of learning outcomes.

Example: In Math Maze 2, students go on mini-quests to help villagers. The core of the game is a maze challenge combined with math drilling. In many ways, it’s just a fancy worksheet, but one that students want to complete!

An easy Times Tables maze level

A simple Order of Operations level

3. Does it adapt to their learning?

Great games adapt as a student improves their skills. Some students need extra encouragement while others relish that super hard challenge. A good digital game won’t just advance your students through a preset series of exercises, but will react to your student’s performance in real time.

Example: Math Maze 2 adapts to the learner: if a student solves a puzzle quickly they will be given a harder one, and if a student solves a puzzle more slowly they will be given an easier puzzle to solve next time.

This keeps students in a dynamic learning loop where they’re always getting a math problem and puzzle that is the right level of challenge.

Educational theorists sometimes call this the Zone of Proximal Development.

Think of it as a Goldilocks type quality of something being not too hard, not too easy, but just right!

This is super important in terms of student engagement and confidence levels too – See here for more discussion of this rubber-band effect and why it’s important.

4. Is the game easy to use?

A Mum helping teenage boy with a math game on a tablet in the lounge. They are both having fun together.

A well-designed game will be streamlined, but also flexible enough to allow for differentiation of class instruction. Students should be able to choose a challenge that is right for their level or have their teacher do it for them.

Example: In Math Maze 2, Teachers can assign math question sets via links. This makes it super easy to differentiate for a mixed ability classroom and ensure students are practicing according to their ability.

If a math lesson is is focussed on learning math facts for instance, a teacher should be able to assign an easier multiplication table to one group of students, and harder math topics to another group.

5. How much does it cost?

While there are some excellent free resources out there, some of the best math games cost money. If you have the time and resources to make your own math games, I’d highly recommend that (it’s super challenging and rewarding!) but just realize that this kind of thing takes an enormous amount of time and preparation.

Assuming equal quality, you need to weigh the trade-off between COST, FUN and PREP TIME.

A teacher trying to weigh up choices. A man standing in front of a whiteboard with a set of scales drawn on the whiteboard behind him.

Often you’ll find you can choose two of these things, as you can see in these examples:

You want something CHEAP & FUN! (But time-consuming!)

Make your own math game! This can super fun (especially if you can involve your students) and cheap. Why not try building a card game, or an escape room? The downside here, of course, is that designing a game is extremely time-consuming, so it may not actually end up being that cheap if you put a dollar value on your time.

You want something CHEAP with NO PREP! (But not always fun!)

Use Khan academy! It’s free and requires no prep time! The downside is the exercises can be a bit dry. There are lots of other free online math games to check out too, but just make sure you find one that has substance (ie not just a fun game).

You want something FUN with NO PREP! (But costs $$!)

Use Math Maze 2 or Prodigy! These games are no-prep and super fun. The downside is the full versions are not free…Or are they? See below!

Ultimately, finding the right online math game is a matter of looking at your particular students and circumstances, but hopefully you can see it can be a worthwhile pursuit!

If you find a good fit it can make a huge difference for both you and your students, both in terms of learning and motivation.

Thanks for reading!

-Gil

Discussion:

Which online math or logic games have you tried? What did you think of them? Are there any educational math games you recommend?

Pssst…

You can play Math Maze 2 for FREE right now!

Turning boring worksheets into brain-engaging fun!

Math Maze 2 is a puzzle game that gives students engaging practice in addition, subtraction, multiplication, fractions and more!

A great tool for teachers and parents who are looking for educational math games to supplement their learning.

Lessons are available for grades 1-10 with a current focus on primary and middle school.

Written by gil@gogamewise.com

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