Math is a foundational subject. Students apply the lessons they learn in second grade to their third-grade class. They apply their third-grade lessons to their fourth and so on. This places a significant amount of pressure on teachers who need students to master certain areas before they can move on. One way to make math fun is by using kinesthetic activities in your classroom.
There are so many ways to make your lessons more hands-on while incorporating movement and games. Here are a few ideas to get you started, along with some of the benefits of doing so.
Benefits of Visual and Kinesthetic Math
There are many reasons to use kinesthetic lesson plans and activities for your math students. You have the power to bust math anxiety and teach students concepts they will remember well into adulthood.
“Creativity is the most effective way to draw attention, which makes children retain information and understand the concepts in an effective manner,” says Andrew Scholl at SplashLearn. “If a topic seems difficult for them, use material they can manipulate, like blocks to visualize mathematical concepts.”
Creative challenges and games also allow students to discover the problem-solving areas of their brains. This helps them view math as a useful tool.
Additionally, kinesthetic activities and games are fun. You can tap into the happy brain chemicals that make students laugh and feel confident. You can literally reprogram how students feel about math.
“The brain is stimulated by endorphins released from playing games, giving children a feeling of euphoria,” says education writer Amina Reshma. “Children experience great joy and excitement due to this euphoria, which can foster a positive learning environment and a passion for math.”
If you are just starting out with kinesthetic activities, you don’t have to completely overhaul your math lessons. You can start with a few math warm-ups that encourage creative thinking, group participation, and movement.
Curriculum developer and former elementary school teacher Shelley Gray describes a math game called “High, Low” that doesn’t feel like math and requires no preparation. You simply create two columns on the whiteboard: one called “too high” and another “too low.” Then you pick a number and your students try to guess what it is.
When their guess is lower than the number you picked, you write it in the “too low” section (and vice versa). Students keep guessing until they know the correct number. This is a great warm-up that teaches number sequencing and can be used to introduce averages and probability. You can also let your students lead the game once they get the hang of it.
You can also use warm-up team activities to review materials and get students excited about the lesson ahead of them.
For example, in a game called “Math Fact Fluency” races game shared by second grade math teacher Marcy Bernethy, students work in teams to complete a numbers circle on the whiteboard. Each student has to solve one number problem and they don’t have to go in order. This gets your students in a math frame of mind and allows them to move around before a lesson starts.
“Working with peers is a great way to consolidate understanding, encourage peer mentoring and develop fluency,” writes the team at Rainbow Sky Creations. “It is always important that we mix up how students work with each other and what they do so all learning styles are considered.”
If some of your students feel nervous about a math concept, team activities can make them feel safer. They can build up their confidence during these warm-ups so they are better prepared to learn new material in the class ahead.
Main Lesson Activities
Games and kinesthetic lessons aren’t just for reviews and reinforcement. You can build movement into your main lesson plans to help students better understand new material.
“So much of math instruction is learning and mastering vocabulary,” says Elizabeth Peterson, teacher and founder of The Inspired Classroom. “Parallel lines, isosceles triangle, rotations, 180 degrees: Students can learn all of these terms and more through movement.”
Peterson uses the example of the mountain position in yoga to teach different triangle shapes. Students can literally create angles with their bodies to learn the different types of triangles. They learn the concept and the application before the vocabulary is introduced.
The Child 1st team has several examples of students learning through movement and touch. For example, letting students hold beads or coins allows them to physically touch and arrange numbers related to the math lesson. Clapping, beating a drum or singing can also make complex discussions more engaging. These activities can enhance lessons without disrupting your plans or costing more than your classroom budget can handle.
“Use a variety of teaching methods with kinesthetic learners,” writes special education advocate Lisa Lightner. “This might include using demonstrations, telling stories, or creating games. Try tossing a beach ball, tennis ball, or stress ball around the room while you are working on reviewing the material.”
Employing one of the five senses adds kinesthetic elements to your lessons. “Touch and feel learning can be great with many types of concepts, especially numbers and letters,” says Stacy Ransom at Experience Early Learning. “Shaving cream sensory spelling is another way to incorporate hands-on learning.”
Shaving cream is a favorite tool used by math teachers. Students can draw numbers and work out formulas in the shaving cream and easily “erase” their boards with a wave of their hands. Shaving cream is also cheap (which is great for teachers on a budget) and secretly allows you to clean student desks and hands during the germiest parts of the year.
Kinesthetic Review Games
Once your students have a grasp of the new material you need to cover, you can reinforce the concepts and make sure all of your students are on the same page. There are many creative ways to do this.
One of Asia Hines favorite review games is “Ghosts in the Graveyard,” which she shares at The Sassy Math Teacher. Students solve problems (and show their work) in small groups, then bring the problems up to the teacher to review. When they get a set of problems right, they can choose a cut-out ghost and put it on one of three gravestones on a whiteboard.
At the end of class, Hines reveals the points associated with each gravestone (and has even been known to assign negative points to a stone). Students add up their scores based on the number of ghosts on each gravestone and the team with the most points wins a prize.
You can get more ideas from Candice McDaniel at the How Do I Homeschool blog. One math review that stands out is running a shop with fake money. Students purchase or return certain products using printed money.
McDaniel highlights how this game can be scaled to cover more advanced concepts. What is the cost of a product that is 20 percent off? How can students use exponents to buy items in bulk? You can consider offering rewards to students who use their fake money wisely.
Math games don’t have to be complicated or expensive. The team at Mama Teachers write that students can play multiplication war with a deck of cards. Instead of flipping two cards and seeing which one is higher, students flip two cards each and multiply (or divide) them together. The higher number wins.
You can also get really creative with war fractions: This is where students choose the higher number and convert it into decimals and percentages.
Don’t Neglect Older Learners
Kinesthetic activities are usually reserved for younger classrooms where kids play and move around throughout the day. By the time students reach middle school, they are expected to sit in one place and learn through conceptual thinking.
Sarah Dees at Frugal Fun for Boys and Girls has activities for students ages 11 and up, which can be modified based on the grade levels you teach. One example is to teach exponents and square root formulas using Lego blocks.
Another list of math games you can play with older students is from Sananda Bhattacharya, CEO of TheHighSchooler. Just because your classroom is full of teens learning to drive and getting their first job doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in games and activities. Math baseball, a game that improves decision-making skills, might be the best way to get your class excited about mathematical calculations.
Then there’s Rebecca at Hoff Math. She teaches high school math and says she’s created more than 100 “Trashketball” game variations over the years. That’s when students solve problems and use wadded-up paper and a basket to score points as teams. When students show their work and have the correct answer, they can shoot to the basket from the one-point or two-point line.
This game isn’t a race, which means students can take their time solving problems and avoid peer pressure. Also, the pressure isn’t on the students to get the question right. The points come from making or missing the basket, creating friendly competition over something that doesn’t matter.
If you aren’t sure where to begin with kinesthetic activities, start small. Add an active warm-up to a lesson or use beads to teach a new concept. See how your students respond and how you feel about the activity. You can keep building more movement into your math classes until each lesson has something new and exciting to challenge your students.