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  • Writer's pictureAlex Box

3 maths games to break out before the bell

Games are a wonderful way to engage learners in mathematical ideas and practice. What better way to spend 2 or 7 minutes before the bell than with a maths game that is quick to launch and play!

This post shares three games adjustable for all ages and that you can jump in and out of at a moment's notice. But first, here are three criteria I use when designing or choosing games and other tasks for the classroom.

1. Everyone can be actively involved. This means group engagement is higher. Also, if everyone is involved in 'playing' at the same time, that lack of a spotlight on individuals provides additional safety for risk-taking. It's inclusive of, and accessible to, all.

2. Mathematical choices are involved. Having mathematical choices means having opportunities to think mathematically. Rarely does a game that requires speedy correct answers involve mathematical choices. Game #1 below though is a nice exception of one that involves speed but in a safe and playful way that requires mathematical choices.

3. Support positive mindsets and perceptions about maths. For example, maths is playful. It's creative. It's something that everyone can do well in. Depth is more important than speed. Mistakes and struggle grow our brain... etc. Maths learning experiences should be inclusive, not segregative.


Game #1: Paper, Scissor, Number!

Time required: 1+ minutes

Materials required: Nothing

1. Students play in pairs. Odd numbers? Have one group of 3.

2. Prepare in a similar way to Paper, Scissors, Rock. Students hold up their fist ready to play. But instead of revealing the paper, scissors or rock hand signal, they reveal a number of fingers.

3. The challenge on each reveal is to be the first person to say the total number (of fingers) on display. Repeat play for 30 seconds or so.

4. The teacher adjusts the rule. 'Okay now we play with two hands'. No doubt there will be students who've developed an auto-matic ritual of 0, 1, 5 or 10 fingers to make it easy - this is a great time to adjust the rule! For example: 'Okay, now we play with numbers other than 0, 1 and 10!'

This one is great fun for all ages - from Year 1 to Year 6 through to adults. It's simple to start but can be ultimately taken of in different directions with other operations. I will never forget playing this entry level version with a year 5/6 class and one of boys telling me afterwards that he usually finds maths very easy but this was deceptively challenging! He obviously enjoyed it as well.


Game #2: What do you know about...?

Time required: 1+ minutes

Materials required: Nothing

1. Students get into pairs. Odd numbers? Have one group of 3.

2. Teacher asks the question "What do you know about...?" and simply inserts a mathematical idea. Ensure it's open-ended and accessible enough for everyone to share ideas. For example:

  • What do you know about one hundred?

  • What do you know about 3D shapes?

  • What do you know about calendars?

  • What do you know about multiplication?

3. Once the question is posed, given students 10 seconds of individual thinking time. Then say 'Go'.

4. In their pair, students share as many ideas as they can come up with. Until the teacher says 'Stop'. This could be 15 to 30 seconds. Or whatever feels like a good amount of time to keep a positive energy!

5. Repeat with another question!

NB: This game can be played across the curriculum. The first time it's played, start broader general knowledge topics before moving into the maths realm. For example:

  • What do you know about birds?

  • What do you know about The Cookie Monster?

  • What do you know about school assembly?


Game #3: Poison Clocks

Time required: 5+ minutes.

Materials required: Teaching clock and Student clocks (analog)

1. The teacher makes an o'clock time on the teaching clock but keeps it hidden.

2. Students each make an o'clock time on their own clock. Everyone checks that their time is technically an o'clock time e.g. The hour hand is pointing to the hour, the minute hand to the 12.

3. The teacher reveals the hidden, poison time. Students who made the same o'clock time as the teacher loses a life. But everyone has 3 lives so all can continue playing!

Because this is a short game (I'd typically cap it at about 10 minutes if we even had that long) we never got to a point where anyone lost all their lives. Well, maybe once. But it was all positive and naturally opened up a conversation about chance and luck!

4. Repeat 2-3 times. Then adjust the focus. For example, make a half past time. This is an opportunity to remember what the features to check before revealing the hidden, poison clock time.

Variations: The focus can be adjusted to quarter past / to clock times, clock times to five-minute intervals and clock times to the minute.

NB: If you don't have access to ready made student clocks, getting students to make a clock to use for this game is a nice way to add to the purpose of make 'making a clock'. Depending on the teaching context, making a clock could be done at home or school.


Example of an Abandoned Game:

Around the World is a classic review game. It's easy to jump in and out of at a moment's notice and I'd sometimes lead the class in a game once bags were packed and we were waiting for the bell. It's also a game abandoned since.

Around the World doesn't do any of the jobs in my current criteria list. And the public display and putting of correct answers and speed on a pedestal is not something that aligns with my philosophy. In fact, it never really felt good implementing it. But everyone knew the game, some of the children liked it and I was doing the best I could at the time with what I knew. The intentions underlying my pedagogical choices were always positive.

Here's how we'd play:

  1. All students would be at their table. One student would be nominated to start the trip 'Around the World' and stand next to another student. Both would be standing and everyone's attention would be on these two.

  2. I would state a maths equation. For year 1's it was usually addition. Perhaps a double or near double. For year 4's it was a mix of operations but typically something from the ol' times table.

  3. The first student to say the correct answer won that round and moved on to stand next to the next student. The student who lost that round sat down.

  4. Play would continue - the 'winner' moving on and the 'losers' sitting down.

Below is a list of maths myths recognised as damaging by the Victorian Education Department. Which of these does a game like Around the World help to perpetuate? What other commonly run activities or games come to mind as reinforcing these ideas?

  • gene myth – you either have a maths gene or you don’t

  • gender myth – one gender is better than another at maths

  • speed myth - ability in mathematics can be measured by how quickly a problem is solved

  • memory myth - maths is only about memorising facts, rules and procedures

  • perfection myth- mathematicians never make mistakes

  • creativity myth – maths is not a creative pursuit as there is usually one right way and one right answer.


When building up a bank of go-to games that are quick to launch into, consider asking:

  • What are the benefits to students and what are the risks of playing this game?

  • Who in the group will it benefit and how?

Sometimes, asking questions like these can lead to innovation in the form of new ideas for the classroom; ideas that align better with our beliefs (as both practitioners and learners) of what education should be and do.

Wishing you a smooth transition back to school in the coming weeks. If you have any questions or feedback on the games (what works well, what you've changed and why) I'd love to hear!

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