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Puzzle it Out – Recreational Maths

Recreational maths

As it’s almost the holidays, I thought it might be timely to post some ideas for recreational maths.  This may sound a tad geeky, but when we enjoy maths ourselves as teachers, we are much more likely to communicate that enjoyment to the children we teach.  So the ideas I’ll be sharing are mainly aimed at adults, but some of them would be accessible to older primary children too.

First of all, a very recent find in the app store.  Logic Games has several different types of logic games, all with many different levels.  I’ve only tried 2 or 3 of these so far and only the early levels but there’s plenty there to challenge.  Unlike some apps, the early levels are already quite challenging (or perhaps it’s just me in need of a holiday).  My husband and I are both hooked and I anticipate some healthy competition over the holidays.   I suspect these ought not to be beyond brighter children at the older end of primary school but they would need to be prepared to be patient and think pretty hard.  A few years ago, I ran an after school maths club which focused on recreational maths, and one of the activities we did was Sudoku puzzles, starting with some fairly easy ones and getting progressively harder.  I was amazed when one of the girls, (I’ll call her Sarah) turned out to be easily the best at these.  Sarah had struggled with maths throughout school and had a very poor grasp of number bonds and tables and only a shaky idea of basic calculation methods, and yet she could think through a Sudoku puzzle and come up with a solution much more quickly than some of the most able children.  It transpired that she had been doing the puzzles with her grandfather every Saturday afternoon for some time.  It also occurred to me though, that Sarah was used to finding things difficult and having to really think about them to arrive at a solution, whereas for some of the much brighter children in school, that was quite a novel experience.  They were used to grasping things quickly and not having to think too hard.  So I think it’s well worth giving our more able mathematicians something that they’ll find quite challenging and have to spend some time on.  The ‘Logic Games’ app is free, or for £2.99 you can install a version without adverts – very good value for such a lot of games.

Next, a really good book.  I’ve enjoyed the books of Ian Stewart and Marcus du Sautoy, but one of my favourites recently has been by Alex Bellos‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland’ explores our relationship with numbers and mathematics and is very readable.  Bellos is a journalist and communicates the ideas involved very effectively without patronising the reader.

Finally, a book aimed at children.  Johnny Ball’s ‘Think of a Number’ is a very entertaining book about maths.  I’ve used several of the ideas from this in the classroom, including one where he imagines a world without numbers and features pages from a newspaper without any numbers.  So one story is headlined ‘Woman has some babies’ and attempts to tell the story of a mother giving birth to sextuplets without actually using any numbers (eg. “it’s quite common for a woman to give birth to a baby and another, but this woman has given birth to a baby and another and another and another and another and another.”)

Why not try one of these over the holidays?

‘Tis the Season – Christmas Maths Ideas

Christmas Counting Stick

With Advent almost here, our children’s excitement levels rising even faster than our energy bills and shops turning on their Christmas playlists, there’s no getting away from the fact that Christmas is rapidly approaching.  So I thought it would be timely to share some ideas for Christmas maths activities which might just exploit the children’s natural excitement and give some of our maths a topical context.  I also recognise that it’s the time of year when the best laid plans go awry – overrunning Christmas production rehearsals, staff laid low by seasonal viruses and bad weather preventing outdoor activities can all mean that even the best prepared of teachers need to reach for a  ‘pick up and run’ activity, so let’s make sure that these have some meaningful mathematical content.

Good sources of Christmas maths activities

For straightforward maths activities categorised into different topic areas try Math Drills Christmas Maths Worksheets; Kidzone has Christmas themed maths pages sorted by age group and Primary Resources Seasonal Activities include lots of maths ideas.  For younger children, there are lots of ideas at Making Learning Fun.  For a bit more challenge, Maths Salamanders have some Christmas themed challenges to help develop reasoning and problems solving skills.  The same site has Christmas themed games and other activities including Christmas co-ordinate pictures.  Mathwire has several seasonal investigations and other activities.  I like the Mathsticks Christmas activities too.  Some of these are free but Mathsticks also produce a whole booklet of Christmas activities each year for about £4 which are well worth investing in.


Work on measures always lends itself to practical activities and Christmas offers a wealth of opportunities.  Children can compare the lengths of stockings, parcels or candy canes or measure them using standard or non-standard measures.  Christmas cooking brings opportunities for weighing, as does working out the postage costs for parcels.  Play games where children have to estimate and measure time, perhaps timing how long different children will take to wrap different parcels.  Capacity can be explored when making up drinks for the Christmas party or leaving glasses of milk for Santa’s reindeer.  For younger children, this Kindergarten blog has some nice ideas.

Data Handling

It’s usually fairly straightforward to find uses for data handling skills.  Make tally or bar charts to record favourite Christmas films or songs or food.  Construct a Venn or Carroll diagram to show who likes sprouts, Christmas pudding, both or neither.  Track the temperature on a cold day using a line graph.  Investigate the types of programmes on television on Christmas day and record the results in a pie chart.

Word Problems

Lots of Christmas themed word problems can be found online including these and these.  However, why not challenge children to make up their own word problems to match calculations that you give them and then they can use these to challenge each other.  This makes a good quick homework activity at this time of year too.


Calendars and Countdowns

Nrich have an online advent calendar each year with a different mathematical challenge behind each number.  I’m sure this year’s will be available soon, but in the meantime, here is the 2012 version.  For a different way of counting down to Christmas, this blog has instructions for making a calendar made from Santa’s beard which will get shorter each day as bits are chopped off.  The instructions are in Italian but the picture is fairly self explanatory!  If your children want to make calendars for 2014, this site has printable templates to make dodecahedron calendars from nets.


Christmas is a good time to play games to practise and reinforce skills and there are lots available online like this Gingerbread Dice game, or this Santa’s Beard game.  There are games for practising doubling or games for practising all four operations.  For younger children these games are clear and attractive.  Or for games that involve a little more strategy and problem solving try theseGordons Christmas Maths has some nice interactive activities for younger children or if tablets are available, this Christmas themed dot-to-dot app might be useful.


As well as the investigations and challenges at Math Salamanders and Mathwire already mentioned, there are some Christmas themed puzzles here and here.  Nrich also have several challenges with a Christmas theme.  If the pace slows down a little at the end of term (and I recognise that this doesn’t happen as much as it used to in today’s pressurised classroom environment), it’s great to let children have a little more time to work on puzzles and challenges.

All these ideas (and several more) can be found on my new Christmas Maths pinterest board.