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8 ways to mix fun and real life into math

Finding the right way to entice students to feel more confident in -- and even enjoy -- math isn't as hard as it sounds, Bonnie Duhé writes.

5 min read


teacher playing math game with several elementary students for article on enjoy math fun

(Sturti/Getty Images)

Every math learner is a “math person.” So, why don’t more students enjoy math?

SmartBrief Education Insights blurbFor starters, every student enters the classroom with a unique set of triumphs and struggles in math. Some might be enthusiastic about digging deeper into math concepts and skills, while others are decidedly less so. These students might lack foundational skills or confidence in math, or they might simply see it as less interesting than other subjects.

To engage all learners, it is important to show them that math is much more than numbers on a page. Math is all around us. 

Mixing fun and real life into math can bolster learning and create a more positive attitude toward this essential subject. Some of the many ways to do so include: 

Begin with a warm-up activity

Use the first five minutes to introduce or review concepts or practice skills in a fun way. This starts class on a positive note and helps students shift into a math mindset so they’re focused and ready to dive into the day’s lesson. 

  • Solve a problem of the day.
  • Play a game or solve a riddle.
  • Read an entertaining passage or short story involving math.
  • Do a daily numeracy activity, posing an open-ended question that allows students to freely think about associations and patterns while building up their mathematical confidence as they identify them.

Integrate movement into lessons

Spending too much time behind a desk can lead to boredom and disengagement. Getting students up and out of their seats is a great way to wake up their brains and energize the class. It also helps to build social-emotional skills and a sense of community. 

  • Create a life-size number line, present addition or subtraction problems and have students leap to the correct answer. 
  • Do stretching exercises where students’ arms show angles and degrees or parallel versus perpendicular lines. 
  • Play wastebasket basketball to practice estimation or probability.

Use manipulatives

The act of touching and manipulating objects can make learning new concepts easier and make abstract concepts more concrete. 

  • Use blocks to construct geometric shapes or illustrate concepts such as area and perimeter.
  • Stack cubes to solve addition problems.
  • Lay out fraction tiles to show what one-sixth really looks like or show fraction equivalence.
  • Roll dice or use spinners to teach probability and statistics.

Gamify it

Games also can help students engage with math differently and reinforce skills. 

  • Use board games such as Monopoly to sharpen strategic and operational skills. Ticket to Ride helps teach planning and probability.
  • Do card sorts to help students visualize equivalent fractions or match fractions, decimals, and percentages.
  • Create an escape room challenge where students solve math puzzles to unlock the “key.”

Highlight real-world connections

Demonstrating how math is used in everyday life makes it more meaningful. This can be especially powerful with students who don’t yet feel a connection to math. 

  • Implement the 5E model of instruction (engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate) to make math concepts come alive.
  • Share articles or videos about current issues and discuss how math is being used to address them.
  • Tackle problems students can relate to, such as calculating the cost of a bicycle repair or the amount of money needed to save for a new smartphone or gaming system.
  • Conduct a survey and organize the data into a bar graph or pie chart.
  • Use the stock market to teach probability and statistics.
  • Show career connections and how math is used in a variety of occupations both inside and outside of STEM.
  • Create interdisciplinary connections to help students reinforce and see the value in their learning. Linking math to other academic subjects also makes it more approachable for those who don’t yet feel confident.

Make it hands-on

Hands-on activities give students opportunities to investigate, experiment and make connections on their own. As an added benefit, when students interact with their peers, they build social-emotional competencies and skills such as collaboration and communication. 

  • Practice classification and counting by sorting objects of different sizes or shapes into bins.
  • Measure ingredients and prepare a no-cook recipe in class. 

Tell a story

Embedding math problems within stories helps contextualize learning and makes math more relatable.

  • Craft a mystery where each problem solved leads to a new clue.
  • Have students write a short story about a math problem they encounter in their daily routines.
  • Write and act out skits that illustrate math problems and their solutions.

Go outdoors

The natural world offers limitless possibilities for math explorations.

  • Organize a math trail where students solve nature-based math problems at different stations.
  • Plan a school garden, applying area and perimeter skills or geometry to the design.
  • Collect natural items to create art projects that explore geometric shapes and symmetry.

Creating math-friendly classrooms

Mixing fun and real life into math helps students better understand and retain the material while increasing their engagement and motivation. It supports active learning and creates a positive, vibrant atmosphere where students feel connected to math and each other. It increases confidence and reduces math anxiety. This is particularly important as more students are playing catch-up due to the math achievement decline during the pandemic.

Further, this approach helps show students that the how and why are just as important as the what (the correct answer) in math. When students experience the beauty and relevance of math firsthand, they want to learn more because they see that learning and applying math is a lifelong pursuit.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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