Remember the 3 E’s? Engagement, Enthusiasm, and Encouragement make up the base of a magic potion for inspiring a child to learn. The E’s are characteristics that parents, teachers, and tutors must bring to the table. They are our job, not the kids’. Today I’m introducing the other half of the recipe…the 3 C’s: Creativity, Choice, and Collaboration.

Over the course of the summer, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the magic with a group of children from my area, as part of *Math Games at the Library.* By my definition of success—”Did every single child have fun doing math?”—the program has definitely made the grade. My biggest problem has been keeping the volume down; the kids have so much fun that they forget they’re at the library. That’s a good problem to have when you’re teaching math.

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Some people think of creativity as something that applies to art, or writing, but it is a critical part of teaching kids any subject, including—and perhaps especially—math. Why especially math? Because while children tend to approach the non-math curriculum with enthusiasm, they often think of math as something they have to do but they’ll never enjoy. One of those “Let’s get it over with” things. So getting them to open their eyes to the possibility of having fun doing, say, fractions, requires a bit more effort than enticing them with the pleasure of reading a storybook.

So how do we apply creativity to math learning? The same way we apply it to anything: we come up with activities that kids find fun to do and that happen to involve some form of mathematics. It’s possible to change almost any game to include math concepts. Here are some we played this morning:

Simon Says. We played the geometry version today. The children took turns being Simon, and instructed the group to make a specified angle or shape with their hands or arms, for example, “Simon says ‘Make an acute angle'” or “Simon says ‘Make a triangle.'” Of course they didn’t always say “Simon says” and that’s part of the fun. If a child makes the angle or shape when the leader has not said “Simon Says,” that player is caught, but he or she was never *out.* This is supposed to be fun; it isn’t a competition. Whenever someone is caught, everyone has a good giggle, and it’s the next person’s turn.

Pizza Fractions. I’ve discussed this game before. It is as fun as any board game I’ve ever played, and it’s a great way to learn the basic concepts of fractions. We play one of two different versions. In one, we make “pizza sandwiches,” which comprises two layers of pizza slices of any flavor. The trick is that the bottom layer can have only one piece, e.g. a slice that is 1/4 of a whole, while the top layer must have at least two pieces, e.g. two slices that are each 1/8 of a whole, so the two layers represent the same amount of pizza. In the second version, which we played this morning, the goal is to make as many whole pizzas as possible, and each pizza can include only one flavor. The kids like this version best, especially when we play “beat the clock,” which I’ll discuss in a bit.

Buzz. In this game, I choose a number, say, 3, and we go around the table counting by 1s, starting at 1. When we get to a number that is a multiple of 3 or that has a 3 in it, the player is supposed to say “buzz” instead of the number. If she doesn’t say buzz when she should, or she says buzz when she shouldn’t, she sits down until her turn comes around again. It’s important to choose the number such that a different player or players say buzz in each go round. For example, if there are 6 kids, don’t choose 3; use 4 or 5 instead. The game goes like this (for our example using 3): 1, 2, buzz, 4, 5, buzz, 7, 8, buzz, 10, 11, buzz, buzz, 14, buzz, 16, 17, buzz, and so on. If the kids are up on their skip counting, they do great until they get to the first number with a 3 in it that is not a multiple of 3, which in our example is 13. That gets them almost every time. It’s really fun once it gets going, and it’s a wonderful way to teach skip counting in preparation for learning multiplication.

If you need more ideas for creating fun math activities, please have a look at my book on Amazon.

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Let’s talk about choice. I don’t know about you, but when I was young, there was no choice, either at school or at home. The teacher told us, or my mom told me, what we were going to do next, and that’s what we did, like it or not. I’ve never understood that approach. We are all happier doing something when we feel we have some say in the planning of it, and every kid I know learns better when he doesn’t feel like he’s being forced into it.

I’m not saying he would choose to work on fractions over playing ball outside, but his mind will be a lot more open to learning fractions if he’s given choices. For example, at the library this morning, I asked each of the kids which activity they’d like to do today. Then we voted on which one we’d do next and next and so on. The same principle can be applied in the classroom and at home. If you need to cover equivalent fractions and decimal multiplication, you can let the kids choose the one they’d rather do first. Then, if possible, let them choose the specific activity for that topic. If your child must complete homework, offer an incentive in the form of a math game following homework. And be sure to let her choose the game.

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The final ingredient is collaboration. This is a topic that has been getting a lot of press, and many schools are going all out to introduce group projects in many subjects. That what I call progress. In my engineering career, I worked with lots of very smart people, some of whom had the skills to work as an effective member of a team, and some of whom did not. In case you haven’t heard, today’s business environment demands teamwork. The brilliant guy at the end of the hall who keeps his door closed most of the time is fast becoming a dinosaur, and he’ll be an easy target when it comes time for layoffs. Why? Because today’s systems are complex, and designing and implementing them requires many different skill sets. The people who have those skills have to be able to share information (not protect it), participate in brainstorming as an equal with others on the team (no prima donnas allowed), and communicate their ideas to people who have different skills and communication styles.

How do we teach teamwork skills to children? We look for every opportunity to let them learn and practice as part of a collaborative group. At the library, the kids don’t compete against each other. In pizza fractions they work together to make as many pizzas as possible in 15 minutes, so they’re racing the clock, not each other. In multiplication bingo, we keep going until everyone has bingo, and the kids are encouraged to ask each other for help if they need it. So in addition to learning math, they are learning to be good team members.

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I hope you find ways to mix up your own magic potion. Your kids will thank you for it!