Get your game face on: why maths games for KS2 children provide great practice

    Published: 28 April 2020

    A note to start: there are a multitude of maths games available but this blog focuses on non-digital games requiring minimal resources (pencil and paper, dice, dominoes or cards) and that importantly can be played at home.  At the end of this blog there is a link to some of our favourites with videos that can be shared and a list of upcoming games that we will be sharing over the Summer Term. 

    Consider the following activities:

    Task A: Compare each pair of fractions using a <,> or = sign




    Task B: Fraction Duel

    Players are dealt 2 cards each, placed face down.

    Each player place cards one above the other to represent the numerator and denominator.

    Cards are turned over and players compare the resulting fractions.

    The player with the fraction that is the highest value wins all four cards. 




    Both of these activities are designed to address the same learning statement: 

    • Compare and order fractions, including fractions >1 (Mathematics Programme of Study: Key stages 1 and 2. National Curriculum. Year 6.)

    Yet, the enactment of the activities result in vastly different behaviours.

    Task A is an example from a commonly seen worksheet. It promotes independent work, providing limited opportunities for discussion, reasoning or justification.

    Task B is an adaption of a simple maths game, Duel. When pupils are playing this game, they naturally engage in maths talk, challenge each other’s reasoning, explore and share strategies for comparing fractions (such as benchmarking to 1, 1/2, 0, same numerator/denominator, translating into common denominators/numerators) and are motivated to continue practising. They might even be having fun.

    Why play maths games in KS2?

    It is common to see maths games being played in KS1. However, as pupils move through the year groups, their exposure to maths games appears to diminish.

    Why is this?

    • Is it because KS1 teachers are more comfortable or confident with the value of play based learning?
    • Is there is a perceived need to move towards more ‘formal’ or traditional representations of maths as pupils get older?
    • Do KS2 teachers feel that games are too time consuming to include in an already packed curriculum?
    • Are teachers concerned about how pupils record their learning in every lesson?
    • Are there behavioural barriers which result in classroom management problems?

    There are multiple advantages to playing maths games and these reasons maintain their relevance regardless of a learner’s age.


    Graphic table


    How do you select a maths game?

    1. Keep an eye on the learning outcome required

    Games can bring out the competitive edge in pupils, which can be highly motivating and create an energising classroom.  However, Gough (1999) reminds us that learners can also be distracted from the actual maths by the superficial elements of the game (for example colour of game piece, being unlucky etc.). It is the role of the teacher to facilitate reflection, reasoning and discussion with or without a written outcome, to ensure that the actual learning content returns to the forefront of the experience and is focused on. To enable this, a game should only be selected if it is in ‘direct alignment to planned mathematical goals’ (Buchheister, Jackson and Taylor, 2017).

    It is hard to categorise maths games as it really depends on what the teacher does with the game, what questions are asked, what prompts there are for reflection and how discussions are developed. But the games referred to in this blog could be categorised into 2 very broad bands.

    A) Fluency development games

    B) Logic / strategy games

    Developing fluency requires pupils to have a balance between conceptual understanding, procedural proficiency and core fact recall. Gaming has the advantage over traditional drill exercises because of the pupil interactions leading to rich discussions, peer correction and justification of solutions.

    WARNING: watch out for SPEED TRAPS. There are many games that are practised in classrooms that place speed at the forefront, such as Round the World. These games overtly value fact recall over mathematical thinking and pupils can very easily begin to believe that maths is all about speed and that strategy or mathematical thinking are not important; they begin to turn away from maths.

    (Round the World has many different forms but basically pupils sit in a circle and one pupil stands behind another pupil, a maths question is asked and the first pupil to call out the correct answer is allowed to ‘travel on’ to the next pupil.)

    2. Make sure that there is balance of luck and skill;

    Games that only require luck (for example, some dice-based games such as Snakes and Ladders) are undoubtedly important to early concepts such as counting, subitisation and number recognition. These are important skills but it is worth remembering also that this type of game doesn’t have any element of decision making or strategy so mathematical thinking opportunities are limited.  On the other hand, games that develop ‘skill only’ play allow those who are more mathematically skilled to dominate, rapidly reducing the motivation and enjoyment of the other pupils.

    3. Try to pick games that have a high degree of flexibility.

    Teaching a class how to play a game takes up some teaching time. Therefore it is important to consider if the game has multiple ways of being changed;

    • Can the depth of thinking be increased?
    • Would some pupils benefit from a scaffold?

    Some games are highly adaptive; one such game is Duel (Task B above). Once the core rules have been learnt, it can be changed to cover multiple mathematical concepts including digit recognition, place value, rounding, addition/subtraction, multiplication/division and fractions.

    Other games allow multiple depths to be explored, permitting pupils in the same classroom to play the same game but engage in different levels of thinking and learn from each other.

    Maximising a game

    Discussion and reflection are key elements of playing games in the classroom. Without actively engaging pupils, we run the risk of pupils missing the focus of the learning and falling into the distraction traps as discussed above.

    Through directed discussion and reflection, pupils are re-engaged in thinking; they need to identify what they consider significant, therefore important, about the game. The act of reflection allows them to filter what they need to keep and what they can throw away, enhancing meaningful long term memories. Also, it allows the teacher to see what the pupils are identifying as the key learning points from the game. Where possible, elements of this reflection and discussion should be captured in a written outcome.

    Depending on the type of game, there are numerous different ways to engage pupils in impactful recording.

    Possible recording during a game

    • Why did you make that choice?
    • What do you hope / predict is going to happen?
    • Which strategy did you use?
    • Can you think of another way of doing it?

    Possible recording after a game

    • What skill / strategy did you use / practise? Why?
    • If you played again, which strategies would you use?
    • If you played again, which strategies could you use instead?
    • If you played again, what would you do differently and why?
    • How would you tweak or change the game?

    Some of these questions open up a whole spectrum of different levels of reasoning responses: The video for how to play Regroupy can be viewed here.




    Home / School links

    The benefits of gaming are not just restricted to the classroom. Successful games can make the transition into the home. Many adults want to support their children at home with maths but they are unsure how to do it. Some adults are aware that how concepts or procedures are taught now is different to how they themselves were taught and they fear confusing children and some are fearful of maths themselves. Whatever the reason, maths games create a safe, enabling environment which:

    • puts the child in the position of the expert, allowing them to ‘teach’ their adult
    • provides a forum for maths discussions
    • exposes adults to what is meant by fluency, helping them see the difference between it and rote-memorisation
    • creates positive emotional associations with maths


    Special Mention


    As a final note, a top 8 list of hints to help getting maths games started in classrooms based on the work of Aldridge & Badham (1993).


    8 hints


    ‘How to play…’ videos for sharing

    Details on how to play some of our favourite games are on the Herts for Learning ESSENTIALmaths You Tube channel which you can subscribe to here. These games will be released weekly across our social media channels. 

    Many of these are included in ESSENTIALmaths planning materials.  For ESSENTIALmaths users refer to the Gaming Index for details of the complete set.

    Games videos available now (click game names for videos)

    Risky   - Mental addition and subtraction

    Crooked rules - Place value and number magnitude

    Regroupy - Column addition and subtraction

    The remainder game – Building arrays, finding equal groups and remainders

    Further KS2 games will be released over the Summer 2020 Term for sharing.

    • May  - games to support number and computation fluency
    • June set 1– games to support logic and strategy
    • June set 2 – games to support multiplication fluency


    Aldridge, S. & Badham, V. (1993) Beyond just a game. Primary Maths Association. Pamphlet Number 21.

    Buchheister, K., Jackson, C., & Taylor, C. (2017). Maths games. A universal design approach to mathematical reasoning. Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, 22(4), 7-12

    Gyöngyosi Wiersum, E. (2012). Teaching and Learning Mathematics through games and activities. Acta Electrotechnia et Informatica, Vol. 12, No. 3, 23-26

    Gough, J. (1999). Playing mathematical games: When is a game not a game? Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom , 6(2), 14-17

    Russo, J., Russo, T. & Bragg, L.A. (2018). Five principles of educationally rich games.  Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, 23(3), 30-34

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