(Last Updated on April 17, 2021)
Parents of kids with math phobias are in a tricky spot. They know their child needs extra help with math but the more they try and work on it, the more the anxiety builds. The more anxiety builds, the worse their kid performs at math! And the vicious cycle continues.
If you’re like me, you might’ve tried to solve this problem by adding educational math games to your yearly curriculum plan to make learning more fun. This works well for kids who don’t mind math and just want a break from worksheets. And it’s great for kids who like playing with numbers.
But a math-anxious kid will smell your academic intentions a mile away.
Psychologists tell us one of the best ways to get over a fear of something is to become more familiar with it, right? But how can you get more familiar if you’re scared to go near it?
By having a
sneaky strategic parent, that’s how!
What’s helped us is to play games that aren’t necessarily meant to be “educational games” but that do have math elements. Then — and this is key — DON’T mention anything about the fact that they’re doing math while playing!!
This way, they’re building familiarity and number sense without realizing it. This increases their confidence and skills (secretly and painlessly) so the next time they tackle a worksheet they’ll start with lower anxiety and be more likely to succeed!
Here are our favorites in order of recommended age, from youngest to oldest…
13 Awesome Math Games
(for Kids Who Hate Math)
Roll & Play (ages 18+ mo.)
Hopefully your 1 year old doesn’t already have math anxiety but this game might help prevent it! Math is only one of the six categories of early skills Roll & Play covers. Kids toss a soft cube and pick an activity card that matches the cube color rolled. Math-related cards (like “count 5 fingers”) are mixed in with non-math cards (like “moo like a cow” or “rub your belly”). This provides a very gentle introduction to counting and number sense in a super-low-stress way. All three of my kids loved this game!
Hi Ho! Cherry-O (ages 3+)
OK — this one is sold as an educational math game to “practice counting and number recognition” BUT hear me out. In the original version (with all red cherries) all players have the same fruit, so counting and gaining/losing fruit are really the only aspects of the game. Since those are all math-related skills, it might be too math-intense for a math-phobic kid to enjoy. I’ve found my youngest kids enjoy the newer version, with colored fruits (blueberries, oranges, cherries, and green apples), even more than the original. The additional colors, fruit-types and new (optional) collaborative play features add a few more elements to the game which helps better disguise the math focus.
Chutes & Ladders (ages 3+)
This one is a classic. Instead of feeling like a counting game that’s fun, it comes off as a fun game where there happens to be counting. It painlessly exposes kids to numbers up to 100 with the visual cues of “climbing up” to the higher numbers and “sliding down” to the lower numbers. This is great for older preschoolers to begin getting familiar with numbers larger than 1-10 (which seems to be the limit of many other preschool games).
Spot It! 123 (ages 3+)
All my kids have enjoyed Spot It! games (plus I like them, too)! Older kids and adults can play it competitively but, for use as a math-anxiety-reducer, you can let your little kids play the “123” version as solitaire or by alternating turns with you. This way, there’s no time pressure – they can just look for matches and get practice with shape and number recognition (numbers 1-9) in a fun way.
If your kids enjoy other versions of Spot It! (we like Spot It! Jr. Animals best for our littlest ones), try rotating in the Spot It! 123 version once in a while. Hopefully it will encourage them to think of numbers and shapes in a friendlier way. They’ll be able to recognize and call out “triangle” or “six” just like they’d recognize or call out “duck” or “balloon” which will help give them the vocabulary to tackle their next math steps with confidence.
Card Games (ages vary)
War, Crazy 8’s, and Go Fish are all great, easy games to play to reduce number phobia and practice basic math skills. These are also excellent options for elementary kids who’ve already mastered number recognition and inequalities, but who have some uneasiness when it comes to math. Playing overly-easy games with numbers helps reduce their anxiety around numbers and builds their confidence by reviewing skills they’ve already mastered.
Games for Math by Peggy Kaye (grades K-3)
So, I cheated. This one isn’t a game – it’s a book. But it has a lot of cute and very easy ideas for DIY math practice! Some of them are more “obviously math-related” than others but most are just simple paper and pencil games you can play in a relaxed way with even very math-phobic kids. I’ve used many of her ideas over the years and keep coming back to this reference when we need a break or some extra practice with a certain early math concept.
Monopoly Jr. (ages 5+)
Monopoly Jr. provides young kids a much-needed look at why math is important for everyday life. For young kids who just don’t get why they need to learn this stuff, games like this (and of course, the classic Monopoly, ages 8+, which comes in every theme imaginable) can begin to connect math concepts to real life experiences which might help motivate them to stick with it even though they feel like math isn’t their cup of tea.
Mancala for Kids (ages 6+)
This has been one of our most-played, favorite games. Besides teaching counting and inequalities, the gameplay really encourages an understanding of the value of numbers in a concrete way. Since you’re trying to get pieces in certain places, and you need to drop one in each space, you get a good feel for how many “4” really is or how far “6” pieces will get you around the board. And all without a numeral in sight!
Pass the Pigs (ages 7+)
This one is super fun and silly which goes a long way to distract your kids from the fact that they’ll be doing constant mental math to keep their score. There’s not much to it and you can make the game as long or short as you want by changing up the score needed to win. So, for kids who really don’t like math, try using short 5-10 min. rounds to get in a little addition practice without overdoing it. Or, if the competition is too much for them (on top of their math anxiety), encourage them to play it as solitaire and try and beat their own high score.
Racko (ages 8+)
If your older elementary child is struggling with numbers in general, this game might help. There’s no addition or subtraction – the basic goal is just to put numbers in order. The location of the numbers on the cards acts as a cue to help them visualize the value and order of the cards.
Racko really encourages an understanding of numbers as compared to each other – for example, the amount of numbers between 10 and 20 is smaller than the amount of numbers between 20 and 50. Although there’s not much to the game, there’s enough strategy that it won’t seem babyish to your fifth grader (even though it’s helping him with foundational number sense).
Monopoly Hotels (ages 8+)
This game is totally different than regular Monopoly and my 7 and 9 year olds love it. Beyond the basics of counting, adding and subtracting, it gets elementary and older kids comfortable with the concepts of paying bills and rent and other real-life money and business concepts. The hands-on building of your hotel game structure and the crazy ups and downs in the game successfully distracts players from the math they’re practicing. (Fair warning: it can get competitive, so if you have any intense-competition aversions in your family this might not be the one for you.)
** 2021 Update: My now 11 and 9 year olds still love this game! I can’t recall where we got it but I’m so glad we did! **
Life (ages 8+)
Paychecks, bills, unexpected expenses, loans and debt – life has it all, right? This is another fun, classic family game to get the consumer math conversations started and familiarize kids with terminology they’ll be using the rest of their lives… like “taxes due.”
Settlers of Catan (ages 10+)
The whole premise of this game – acquiring resources and building up the island – is based on probability. And a solid grasp of probability will help give kids a foundation for higher maths, like statistics. What I love about Catan is that the tokens placed on the game board (to show which resources you get for different dice rolls) are visual cues for the probability of those rolls happening. So, for example, there’s only one way to roll two dice and get a 12 (i.e. 6+6) so that token shows a very tiny “12” with one dot. On the other hand, there are five ways to roll a “6” (i.e. 3+3, 4+2, 2+4, 5+1 and 1+5) so that token shows a very large “6” and five dots, to represent the higher probability (and, therefore, higher property value) of that land.
If you play with the Maritime Trade rules, you can practice other advanced concepts like ratios and exchange rates, too. Overall, this game is great for learning some higher math ideas in a fun, “we’re-just-playing-a-fun-strategy-game” kind of way.
…if your child already has some math anxiety – DON’T introduce these games by telling your kid “come play Racko so you can practice ordering your numbers”!
Don’t say anything about the math parts of the game – just include these games as part of family game night, pop some popcorn and let the learning (secretly) begin!
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