It’s time for math class, and your students are bored.
It might sound harsh, but it’s true — only about half of students report being engaged at school, and engagement levels only drop as students get older.
Math puzzles are one of the best — and oldest — ways to encourage student engagement. Brain teasers, logic puzzles and math riddles give students challenges that encourage problem-solving and logical thinking. They can be used in classroom gamification, and to inspire students to tackle problems they might have previously seen as too difficult.
If you want to get your students excited about math class, this post is for you. You’ll find:
- A list of 20 interesting (and sometimes amazing!) puzzles, inspired by both classic math thinking and modern classroom techniques
- Research on why math puzzles are a great idea for your classroom
- Tips on how to effectively use them in the classroom
Math Puzzles for Kids:
1. Math crossword puzzles
Take a crossword, and make it math: that’s the basic concept behind this highly adaptable math challenge. Instead of words, students use numbers to complete the vertical and horizontal strips. Math crossword puzzles can be adapted to teach concepts like money, addition, or rounding numbers. Solutions can be the products of equations or numbers given by clues.
2. Math problem search
Have students practice their addition, subtraction, multiplication and division skills by searching for hidden math equations in a word search-style puzzle. It can be adapted to any skill you want students to practice, and promotes a solid understanding of basic math facts.
3. Math riddles
— Rachel Frasier (@MsFrasierMHS) January 8, 2019
Do your students love word problems? Try giving them some math riddles that combine critical thinking with basic math skills. Put one up on the board for students to think about before class begins, or hand them out as extra practice after they’ve finished their work.
KenKen is a “grid-based numerical puzzle” that looks like a combined number cross and sudoku grid. Invented in 2004 by a famous Japanese math instructor named Tetsuya Miyamoto, it is featured daily in The New York Times and other newspapers. It challenges students to practice their basic math skills while they apply logic and critical thinking skills to the problem.
5. Pre-algebraic puzzles
Pre-algebraic puzzles use fun substitutions to get students ready to perform basic functions and encourage them to build problem-solving skills. They promote abstract reasoning and challenge students to think critically about the problems in front of them.
As an added bonus, students who suffer from math anxiety might find the lack of complicated equations reassuring, and be more willing to attempt a solution.
6. Domino puzzle board
There are hundreds of ways to use dominoes in your math classroom, but this puzzle gives students a chance to practice addition and multiplication in a fun, hands-on way. You can have students work alone or in pairs to complete the puzzle.
This online game and app challenges players to slide numbered tiles around a grid until they reach 2048. It’s highly addictive and not as easy as it sounds, so consider sending it home with students or assigning it after the rest of the lesson is over. It encourages students to think strategically about their next move, and it’s a great tool for learning about exponents.
Kakuro, also called “Cross Sums,” is another mathematical crossword puzzle. Players must use the numbers one through nine to reach “clues” on the outside of the row. Decrease the size of the grid to make it easier for younger players, or keep it as is for students who need a challenge. Students can combine addition and critical thinking and develop multiple skills with one fun challenge.
9. Magic square
Magic squares have been around for thousands of years, and were introduced to Western civilization by translated Arabic texts during the Renaissance. While magic squares can be a variety of sizes, the three by three grid is the smallest possible version and is the most accessible for young students.
This is also a great math puzzle to try if your students are tactile learners. Using recycled bottle caps, label each with a number from one to nine. Have your students arrange them in a three by three square so that the sum of any three caps in a line (horizontally, vertically and diagonally) equals 15.
10. Perimeter magic triangle
This activity uses the same materials and concept as the magic square, but asks students to arrange the numbers one to six in a triangle where all three sides equal the same number. There are a few different solutions to this puzzle, so encourage students to see how many they can find.
Sudoku is an excellent after-lesson activity that encourages logical thinking and problem solving. You’ve probably already played this classic puzzle, and it’s a great choice for your students. Sudoku puzzles appear in newspapers around the world every day, and there are hundreds of online resources that generate puzzles based on difficulty.
There’s a pretty good chance that by now, fidget spinners have infiltrated your classroom. If you want to counter that invasion, consider challenging your students to create flexagons. Flexagons are paper-folded objects that can be transformed into different shapes through pinching and folding, and will keep wandering fingers busy and focused on the wonders of geometry.
13. Turn the fish
This puzzle seems simple, but it just might stump your students. After setting up sticks in the required order, challenge them to make the fish swim in the other direction — by moving just three matchsticks.
14. Join the dots
This puzzle challenges students to connect all the dots in a three by three grid using only four straight lines. While it may sound easy, chances are that it will take your class a while to come up with the solution. (Hint: it requires some “out of the box” thinking.)
Prodigy is a free, game-based math platform where students can practice their math skills as they play with their friends. While it’s not a math puzzle in the traditional sense, Prodigy uses many of the same principles to develop critical thinking skills and mathematical fluency. Students must complete curriculum-aligned math questions to earn coins, collect pets and go on quests.
16. Brain teasers
While they don’t always deal directly with math skills, brain teasers can be important tools in the development of a child’s critical thinking skills. Incorporate brain teasers into a classroom discussion, or use them as math journal prompts and challenge students to explain their thinking.
Bonus: For a discussion on probability introduce an older class to the Monty Hall Problem, one of the most controversial math logic problems of all time.
17. Tower of Hanoi
This interactive logic puzzle was invented by a French mathematician named Edouard Lucas in 1883. It even comes with an origin story: According to legend, there is a temple with three posts and 64 golden disks.
Priests move these disks in accordance with the rules of the game, in order to fulfill a prophecy that claims the world will end with the last move of the puzzle. But not to worry — it’s going to take the priests about 585 billion years to finish, so you’ll be able to fit in the rest of your math class.
Starting with three disks stacked on top of each other, students must move all of the disks from the first to the third pole without stacking a larger disk on top of a smaller one. Older students can even learn about the functions behind the solution: the minimum number of moves can be expressed by the equation 2n–1, where n is the number of disks.
Tangram puzzles — which originated in China and were brought to Europe during the early 19th century through trade routes — use seven flat, geometric shapes to make silhouettes. While Tangrams are usually made out of wood, you can make sets for your class out of colored construction paper or felt.
Tangrams are an excellent tool for learners who enjoy being able to manipulate their work, and there are thousands of published problems to keep your students busy.
Similar to Sudoku, Str8ts challenges players to use their logic skills to place numbers in blank squares. The numbers might be consecutive, but can appear in any order. For example, a row could be filled with 5, 7, 4, 6 and 8. This puzzle is better suited to older students, and can be used as a before-class or after-lesson activity to reinforce essential logic skills.
20. Mobius band
Is it magic? Is it geometry? Your students will be so amazed they might have a hard time figuring it out. Have them model the problem with strips of paper and see for themselves how it works in real life. With older students, use mobius bands to talk about geometry and surface area.
Why use math puzzles to teach?
Math puzzles encourage critical thinking
Critical thinking and logic skills are important for all careers, not just STEM-related ones. Puzzles challenge students to understand structure and apply logical thinking skills to new problems.
A study from the Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education found that puzzles “develop logical thinking, combinatorial abilities, strengthen the capacity of abstract thinking and operating with spatial images, instill critical thinking and develop mathematical memory.”
All these skills allow young students to build a foundation of skills they’ll draw on for the rest of their lives, no matter what kind of post-secondary route they pursue.
They help build math fluency
Math games can help students build a basic understanding of essential math concepts, and as another study shows, can also help them retain concepts longer.
In the study, early elementary students gradually moved from using the “counting” part of their brains to complete math problems to the “remembering” part that adults use, suggesting math puzzles and repeated problems can help build the essential skill of math fluency.
Many of the math puzzles above allow students to practice essential addition, subtraction, multiplication and division skills, while advanced or modified problems can be used to introduce pre-algebraic concepts and advanced logic skills.
Math puzzles connect to existing curricula
No matter what curriculum you’re using, there’s a good chance it emphasizes problem-solving, critique and abstract thinking. This is especially true of Common Core math and similar curricula.
Math puzzles allow students to develop foundational skills in a number of key areas, and can influence how students approach math practically and abstractly. You can also tie them into strategies like active learning and differentiated instruction.
Instead of just teaching facts and formulas, math puzzles allow you to connect directly with core standards in the curriculum. You can also use them to provide a valuable starting point for measuring how well students are developing their critical thinking and abstract reasoning skills.
Tips for using math puzzles in the classroom
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Now that you’ve got some great math puzzles, it might be tricky to figure out how to best incorporate them into your classroom. Here are some suggestions for making the most of your lesson time:
Make sure the puzzles are the right level for your class
If the problems are too easy, students will get bored and disengage from the lesson. However, if the problems are too difficult to solve, there’s a good chance they’ll get frustrated and give up early.
There’s a time and a place
While math puzzles are a great way to engage your students in developing critical thinking skills, they’re not a tool for teaching important math concepts. Instead, use them to reinforce the concepts they’ve already learned.
Kitty Rutherford, a Mathematics Consultant in North Carolina, emphasizes that math puzzles and games shouldn’t be based solely on mental math skills, but on “conceptual understanding” that builds fluency over time. Math puzzles help build the essential balance between thinking and remembering.
Give them space to figure it out
Rachel Keen, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, conducted a study about problem-solving skills in preschoolers. She found that “playful, exploratory learning leads to more creative and flexible use of materials than does explicit training from an adult.”
Give your students space to struggle with a problem and apply their own solutions before jumping in to help them. If the problem is grade-appropriate and solvable, students will learn more from applying their own reasoning to it than just watching you solve it for them.
Model puzzles for your students
Use problems like the mobius strip to awe and amaze your students before drawing them into a larger discussion about the mathematical concept that it represents. If possible, make math puzzles physical using recycled craft supplies or modular tools.
Afterward, have a class discussion or put up math journal prompts. What methods did your students try? What tools did they use? What worked and what didn’t? Having students explicitly state how they got to their solution (or even where they got stuck) challenges them to examine their process and draw conclusions from their experience.
Final thoughts on math puzzles
Be aware that it might take a while to get all your students on board — they could be hesitant about approaching unfamiliar problems, or stuck in the unenthusiasm that math class often brings. Consider creating a weekly leaderboard in your classroom for the students that complete the most puzzles, or work through a few as a class before sending students off on their own.
Instead of yawns and bored stares, get ready to see eager participants and thoughtful concentration. Whether you choose to use them as an after-class bonus, a first day of school activity or as part of a targeted lesson plan, math puzzles will delight your students while also allowing them to develop critical skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.
What are you waiting for? Get puzzling!
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