Children really enjoy fun math circle games, and they develop lots of skills during them that they can then transfer and apply in their play and in their lives.
Some of the best math circle games use puppets, songs, or simple props to bring them to life.
Having taught children from the ages of 3-5 over a ten year period, I have created and trialled literally hundreds of math circle time games. In this article I will describe my favourite twenty of these games. With these twenty games in your repertoire, I guarantee your adult-led math sessions will go to the next level.
So, if you want to find out what these twenty games are, with a detailed description of how to play them, then read on.
1. Fishing for numbers
What you need for this are some number flashcards. What you do is to stick a few paperclips in a line in one spot on the back. Just stick a piece of Sellotape over the paperclips.
Then get a fishing rod. A stick with string tied to it is all is required. Get a magnet to tie to the end of the string. You now have a magnetic fishing rod.
Put the numbers face down in the middle of a circle of children. Pick one child to go first. They fish a number using the magnetic rod.
They say what it is, then they do that number of jumps. All the rest of the children count and clap as they do it. Then repeat for other children.
2. Numbers numbers all around
This is quite possibly my favourite math circle time game.
Have some number flashcards face down in the middle of the circle. Pick one child to come into the middle of the circle to go first.
Then you all sing the song that goes:
Numbers numbers all around!
All around! All around!
Numbers numbers all around!
What have found?
The tune I use is that of the song Mary Had a Little Lamb.
After you sing the song, the child picks up a number and shows it to everyone. For example, it might be seven. This child then does seven slow jumps. Every time their feet hit the floor, the other children clap and count. The trick is to try to stop when you get to seven! Repeat for different numbers.
This is one of the games in my favorite 21 circle time games for preschool article.
3. Counting to an instrument
Get an instrument like a drum or tambourine, and simply hit is slowly a number of times. The children count the strikes.
To get them to all join in, give them number fans or get them to write it down on whiteboards if they are at that level.
Giving the answer verbally for younger children is fine.
4. Counting with a puppet
Puppets are fantastic for a range of math games and strategies. To read my in-depth article about how puppets can be used for math then click here.
To summarise, puppets can help you count in a range of ways. Some of the most important are:
- Counting past ten
- Counting on from a given number not one
- Counting backwards
- Counting backwards from a given number
- Missing number problems
5. Counting songs with number bags
These are one of the most effective math circle times. Have some toys in a bag that link to a song. A good example is Five Little Men in a Flying Saucer with five little alien toys.
Put the Little Aliens in the middle of the circle, count them, and then sing the song. After every verse count them, take one away, and see how many there are left. A great way to introduce counting for a purpose, one less, and it also makes number very visual as well.
This is one of the best ways to teach one to one correspondence (for the full guide on what one to one correspondence is and how to teach it, check this out).
6. Quiz Quiz Trade
This is a game of cooperation. It is good to play for number recognition or counting.
If you play for number recognition, then what you do is give out one number flashcard to each child. Get the children to stand up and then they each find a partner. The idea is to say what your partner’s number is, and your partner says what your number is. Then you swap your cards, and go and find a new partner.
Try to do as many partners as you can.
This game could also be played with spots on the cards which the children have to count, or it could be holding shapes for your partner to recognise.
7. Pass the number round the circle
This is a good number recognition game, and is good for more skilful children that know lots of numbers, as well as being possible for children who know much fewer numbers.
You simply pass number flashcards around the circle. A child holds the number, says what it is, and then passes it to the person next to them who repeats this process. Have lots of numbers on the go at once.
It is great practice for children who recognise lots of numbers, but OK for those that don’t because they can just listen in to the person next to them and copy the number name.
8. Count round the circle
This is good for laying the foundations for counting on from a given number.
One child says ‘one’, then the next child says ‘two’, and you just continue around the circle as far as possible. You could give them a toy to hold to focus them. You say the number when you are holding the toy, then pass it on.
An extension to this game is to try to count backwards around the circle.
9. Count with a partner
This is similar to the last game, and again is a good one for beginning to learn how to count on from a given number.
Sit facing a partner. One child will say ‘one’, the other says ‘two’, and keep counting as far as you can go. Games like this are good for one child to coach the other and teach them new skills, as there will usually be one child that can count further than the other.
To read a full article about how to count on from a given number, then go here.
10. Zoom Zoom Zoom song
This is my favourite learning to count backwards activity.
First you have to pick your five astronauts to go in the spaceship. Count back from 5 whilst pointing at one child in turn in the circle – ‘Five, four, three, two, one, zero!’ When you get to zero, the child you are pointing at is an astronaut.
Repeat that process until you have five astronauts in the middle of the circle.
Then we all need to get our space helmets on! Get your space boots on! Zip up your space boots! This bit really brings it to life.
Then sing the song:
Zoom zoom zoom
We’re going to the moon!
Zoom zoom zoom
We’ll be there very soon!
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. Blast off!
Everyone pretends to blast off into space.
11. Parachute math games
Using parachutes is one of the best ways of developing cooperation skills and teamwork in the early years, and they are also fantastic for math.
One great game you can try is called Dive! Put lots of numbers underneath the parachute. Then get all the children to hold the parachute. Pick a child to go first. Then say, ‘1,2,3. Lift!’ You all lift the parachute so that it mushrooms up into the air. Shout a number, and the child has to dive under the parachute, grab that number and bring it out.
Repeat for different children and other numbers.
To find out my all-time favourite 14 math parachute games, take a look at this article.
12. Counting in different voices
Children really love this simple game. I have a character voices dice. It has six different characters on it – a ghost, an alien, a tiger, a princess, a robot and a giant.
You simple roll the dice and count in whatever voice you roll.
To make it harder you can roll two dice. Have a character voice and a number dice. Roll both, and then count on from the number you get in the voice that you roll. For example, start counting on from 12 like a robot. Silly but fun and effective!
13. Actions to a number
For this I use two dice. One has actions on – e.g. clapping, jumping, hopping etc. The other one has numbers.
Roll both. You will get something like 3 and hopping. Hop three times! Then repeat.
An excellent game for counting actions, which is a very different skill to counting objects.
14. Skywriting numbers in air
Put some pumping music on, and get the children to stand up!
Using their index finger, get them to draw big numbers in the air to the beat of the music. You could potentially get them to hold streamers or torches to make it even more exciting.
15. Dancing numbers!
For this I roll a numbers dice. For example, you may get a three.
Put some pumping music on, and then simply do a dance moves that number of times. For example, groove to right three times, then groove to the left three times. Reach up three times, then reach down three.
Then roll the dice again. Repeat the routine for the different number.
16. Sharing toys/sweets between two puppets
Have two puppets and some fruit or sweets or something similar.
This is an excellent introduction to sharing.
Say that we need to share out the sweets/fruit equally between the two puppets, but they don’t know how to do it. Can we help them?
Model how to give one item to one puppet, and then one to the other. Continue until all are gone.
It is easier to start with even numbers for this. When the children get good at this, you can move on to odd numbers. The thing about odd numbers is that you will end up with a ‘remainder’ – an odd one out.
17. Matching numbers
Have matching pairs of number flashcards and one odd one out. Give out the flashcards.
The children stand up and try to find their matching partner. Hopefully they will all find a partner who they can stand next to.
However, one child will be by themselves. They are the champion!
When you’ve played it once, get the cards back in, given them out again and play it once more.
To extend it, you could give out matching shapes, or matching cards with dots on that they have to count.
18. Counting stick activities
Counting sticks are probably the best introduction to a number line.
I like to use a homemade counting stick with Velcro stuck onto a broomhandle.
You can stick numbers onto the counting stick, and try counting in different ways. You can also play games like ordering numbers or finding missing numbers.
To find out my favorite 17 counting stick activities for simple math, then take a look at this.
19. Boo game
This is one of the very simplest, but most enjoyable math games. Also this game can be adapted in lots of different ways.
Have a bag and put some number flashcards into it. In with the numbers, you also put a picture of a ghost on a card.
The children pass around the bag, taking out a card. If it is a number they try to say the number, then they pass it to the next person. If you get the ghost card out of the bag then you shout ‘Boo!’ and try to scare everyone. You are the champion!
Put the cards back into the bag and repeat again.
20. March counting
You quite simply get them on their feet and start marching whilst counting in different ways – forwards, backwards, or counting on from a given number.
You can mix it up a bit. Instead of marching you can try stamping like a giant, or hopping, or jumping – still counting as you do it.
Math should take place throughout your provision, and be part of daily life. However, the skills that children learn can be taught first through exciting math circle games. Use props, puppets and songs to really bring games to life.
Children will often ask for some games they really like to be played again. These can become a part of your repertoire, and usually the more children play a game the better they become at it.