Why I Love Math Games in the Classroom

How I Started Teaching with Math Games

When I became a first grade teacher in 2011, I was really excited to put my skills as a reading teacher to use building foundational literacy skills and sparking a passion for reading in my young students. I had completed a year-long graduate program in reading education while interning as a reading specialist at a Title I school. I knew how to assess my students, implement guided reading instruction, and plan a literacy block with a balanced literacy approach. Reading instruction was my jam. Math, on the other hand- that was a different story. Aside from a couple of college courses and my student- teaching practicum, I had very little experience with primary grade math instruction. I felt intimidated.

It was a steep learning curve, but after two years in first grade, I started to hit a stride with my math instruction. I got to know the Everyday Math curriculum. I developed routines, learned how to differentiate for my diverse learners, and found ways to make the material engaging for my students. Just when I thought I had it all down pat, my former district did what districts love to do… changed the curriculum. We adopted the Common Core State Standards, and Everyday Math went out the window. 

The district decided to write its own math curriculum to address the standards, pulling from a number of different sources to do so. The curriculum wasn’t completely finished when we started the next school year. We received each new unit as it was finished, and our training was less- than- thorough. My third year was a bit chaotic to say the least. After that wild year, the district decided to take a more traditional route and adopted the Houghton Mifflin Go Math! Program. 

first grade math games
My head when Go Math! became my third curriculum in four years of teaching first grade.

Go Math! became my third curriculum in four years of teaching first grade. I was frazzled by the task of learning yet another approach to teaching math! However, I was hopeful that THIS would be the program that stuck. I dove into Go Math! and did everything I could to plan and implement meaningful instruction with the new curriculum and the Common Core Standards as my guides. I spent that fourth year developing my own understanding of this “new way” of teaching math and followed a pretty standard routine of whole group lesson- guided practice- independent practice- closure during my math block.

For the most part, I liked the Go Math! style and its resources (although perhaps I was just relieved to have a complete, coherent set of materials at my disposal). My major concern was its emphasis on the workbook activities. Each lesson had 3-4 accompanying workbook pages, and sometimes the language and layouts were a bit confusing for my little firsties. I wanted more opportunities for hands-on learning that would give students chances to use math language in more kid-friendly contexts. I slowly started toying with ways to introduce math games into my instructional routines. I looked for ways to address the standards without relying solely on the curriculum; I wanted to cultivate a versatile set of activities that would teach the standards without relying on any singular program, in case my district decided to mix things up yet again! Eventually, I started creating my own math games that took the mathematical concepts out of the Go Math! workbook pages and put them into students’ hands.

first grade math games
These are some examples of games that I created when I was frustrated by my math program’s emphasis on workbook pages. I wanted more opportunities for hands-on learning that would let my students use math language in kid-friendly contexts.

Throughout the next couple of years, I worked on transforming my math block to more closely resemble my literacy block. We typically started with a whole group “Number of the Day” discussion and mini-lesson. Then, I broke the class into three data-driven groups: intervention, on-level, and advanced. These groups fluctuated with each new chapter in the Go Math! program. Each group completed 3, 15-20 minute rotations almost every day:

  1. Small Group– a targeted, guided math lesson with the teacher.
  2. Number of the Day & Fact Fluency– a daily number sense and fluency routine in which students completed a Number of the Day page and practiced addition and subtraction facts within 20, based on ability levels.
  3. Independent Practice & CentersGo Math! workbook pages, differentiated practice, and math games that reinforced current and previously-taught topics.
daily math block
After a few years in the first grade classroom, I worked on transforming my math block to more closely resemble my literacy block.

It took a lot of effort, planning, and trial-and-error, but eventually I started to love teaching math so much that I went back to graduate school to earn my Masters in Mathematics Education, K-6! In case you’re wondering, the district still uses Go Math! to this day… but I left for another district when I got married and moved in 2017. Fortunately, I landed another first grade job in a wonderful district right away! Surprise Surprise… Houghton Mifflin Math Expressions became my fourth curriculum in seven years. This time, I felt much more prepared to take on the challenge of a new set of materials. I established the same math routines right away, and since my games were STANDARDS-based and not PROGRAM-based, I was able to integrate them into my plans with ease!

first grade math games
I created The Greatest Star while teaching the Go Math! curriculum, but since it’s a standards-based game, it worked just as well when I started teaching a new program in a different district!

What I Want in a Math Game

When I started using math games in my classroom, I knew a few things intuitively: 1) Games should connect to the standards and the content I was teaching, 2) They should be adaptable for kids at different levels, and 3) They should be FUN! What’s the point of playing a game if it’s not fun, right? As I learned more about using games in the classroom, I came across the Five Principles of Educationally Rich Math Games (Russo, Russo, & Bragg, 2018):

  1. Principle 1: Mathematical games should be engaging, enjoyable, and generate mathematical discussion.
  2. Principle 2: Mathematical games should appropriately balance luck and skill.
  3. Principle 3: Exploring important mathematical concepts and practicing important skills should be central to game strategy and gameplay.
  4. Principle 4: Mathematical games should be easily differentiated to cater for a variety of learners, and modifiable to cater to a variety of concepts.
  5. Principle 5: Mathematical games should provide opportunities for fostering home-school connections.
math games in the classroom
These principles are excellent guides for finding and creating appropriate math games for the classroom.

How I Used Games in My Classroom

I loved the flexibility that math games provided. I tried to introduce 1-2 new games per week depending on the content I was teaching and time constraints. Plus, I spent a TON of time establishing expectations for math games at the beginning of the year- respecting your partners, taking care of materials, etc. I posted the expectations in our “math game” area and we reviewed them every single time we played a new game.

We played new games together as a class, usually with a document camera and the SmartBoard. The kids always LOVED playing teacher vs. student, but we often broke into student vs. student teams, too! Once my kids understood the rules of a new game, it became available as a math center, an “early finisher” activity, and/or a “Fun Friday” free choice activity. I usually made 5-6 games available at any given time, and put old games away as students mastered concepts. 

Here are the various ways I used math games in my classroom:

math games in the classroom

Assigned as an individual, partner, or small-group center. Math centers kept the class engaged, leaving me free to work with small groups to provide targeted instruction.

Engaged my students during targeted, small-group instruction. I liked finding and creating games that could be easily adapted to various levels by using different manipulatives or adjusting the rules. My small-group instructional time usually focused on the curriculum, but sometimes we played games to review tricky concepts. 

first grade math games
Shape Experiments is easily adapted by mixing two or three sorts together to increase the challenge!

Invited students to play when they finished other assignments early, or when they had “free choice” time. Many of my kids were motivated to work efficiently so they could play math games, especially on days when we had just introduced a new activity! It was so rewarding to see my kiddos willingly choose to play math games during free time! 

first grade math games
First graders LOVE pattern blocks! They often chose games and activities involving pattern blocks during our “Fun Friday” free choice time!

Prepped my sub plans with ease. When I was called away to a meeting or needed to write last-minute sub plans, I often used the math games I had already introduced to make planning simple. The class would play sub vs. student on the document camera if I had to step away unexpectedly, or they played games with partners when I was out for the day. This was another huge perk of establishing clear rules and routines for the games. The kids knew exactly what to do and could be “experts” for the sub! It also gave me peace of mind knowing that they were engaged in meaningful practice while I was away.

Filled extra time with meaningful, standards-based activities. In this day and age, every teacher is strapped for time. There’s simply too much to do on any given day. However, we’ve all had those awkward moments to fill… 5 minutes while you’re waiting to leave for an assembly, a lesson that went way faster than expected… during those moments, we often pulled out our favorite math games and played together as a group!

first grade math games
My firsties got so excited over games with fun themes, like these sea turtle- themed place value activities.

Printed black & white copies to send home with struggling students for extra practice. The home-school connection is essential. I can’t count the number of parents I’ve met who feel uncomfortable helping their kids with math. Math games are a fun, low-stress way to get families involved. Plus, students feel empowered when they can go home and explain math concepts and game rules to their families!

first grade math games
The home-school connection is essential. Every parent I know would rather play games than force a young child to suffer through worksheet after worksheet! “Take Home” kits with black & white copies of math games and appropriate manipulatives can be a great way to support struggling learners.


Math games transformed my math block into one of the best parts of the day for me AND my students. I loved meeting my students’ needs through small-group instruction, and it was a relief knowing the rest of the class was engaged in meaningful practice at the same time. I saw great progress by taking this approach; many reluctant students ended up embracing math when they learned how much fun it could be! I’m currently taking time away from the classroom to raise my family, but you best believe our home will be filled with math games as my kids get older.

Do you use math games in your classroom? I would love to know your thoughts about this topic. Leave a comment on this post or email me at erika@littleowlsteachertreats.com to share, and thank you for taking the time to read!

For more posts like this and free resources to your inbox every month, click here and subscribe to my newsletter! I also have lots of free math games to get you started- see them all here.

first grade math games
These free math games are aligned with the First Grade Common Core Math Standards. Click here to download them (and more!) absolutely free!

Published by Little Owl's Teacher Treats

Erika @ Little Owl’s Teacher Treats believes in creating warm, engaging classroom environments that are inclusive of all students. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Penn State University in 2008, and a Master of Arts in Mathematics Education, K-6 from Western Governors University in 2016. She also studied Reading Education at the graduate level at the University of Pittsburgh. Erika taught 5th grade for a year, but she found her true calling teaching first grade for eight years.

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