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Great ideas for hands-on maths lessons

Updated on July 12, 2014

Great ideas for hands-on maths teaching

As a maths graduate and maths teacher, I love maths and would happily sit for hours attempting maths problems with pen and paper. However, not everybody is like me and to maximise learning in lessons, a mixture of approaches is required. In this article, I will describe some ways of making maths more hands-on, giving you some activities that don't require pen or paper and will help to make lessons more interesting for even the most disengaged pupils.

Photo of hands-on maths lesson courtesy of Blue Plover - wikimedia commons

Tarsia Probability puzzle
Tarsia Probability puzzle


Tarsia is a fantastic program that I use across many topics as it really gets the students thinking. It is essentially a jigsaw puzzle creator; you choose the finished shape of the jigsaw (ranging from a giant triangle to a hexagon) and input values, and the computer creates a jigsaw consisting of triangles that need matching up.

For example, you might want to make a puzzle on simplifying fractions. You add the questions and answers in pairs (e.g. 1/2 and 2/4, 3/10 and 9/30 etc.) and Tarsia takes these values and jumbles them up across the puzzle giving you a printable puzzle which can either be cut up ahead of the lesson or given to the pupils to cut themselves (the printout sheet is already jumbled up). The pupils then try to match the equivalent fractions and join together any edges which contain matching answers until all of the pieces are connected.

I love the way that Tarsia is fully editable and you can create your own puzzles on any topic you like, at any level of difficulty you like. It can be used as an end of topic challenge to test what pupils have learnt, or as a topic starter to revise the pupils' previous learning.

Tarsia is free to download, follow the link below. There are also many pre-made Tarsia puzzles available online, including the probability one I made shown here.

Picture is a screenshot of my own Tarsia probability Puzzle.

Maths Masterpieces
Maths Masterpieces

Maths Masterpieces

Maths Masterpieces is a selection of books each featuring art/maths based puzzles. The pupils are given a page with different clues on it e.g. 500g = ____ kg. They are then given separate pieces containing potential answers which they then need to match to their questions. When completed, the pieces form a famous masterpiece. The paintings range from Van Gogh to Bruegl, Rennaisance to Modern.

The books also contain hints for ways to approach teaching a subject as well as information on the painting and the artist.

I find Maths Masterpieces to be useful because they're so different to anything else I've used before. The pupils are doing a puzzle instead of working from a textbook, so are instantly engaged, it's great practice for the end of a topic or as a recap on a previous topic and it's also cross-currlculur. I always make sure to give the class information on the painting and the artist at the end of the lesson as well as showing them a picture of the original painting.

I tend to laminate the pieces before cutting them out, allowing the puzzles to be used several times. Alternatively, unlaminated copies can be coloured in by pupils and used as part of a cross curriculur display.

Photo of Maths Masterpieces courtesy of

Maths Masterpieces on Amazon

Math Masterpieces, Grades 6-7
Math Masterpieces, Grades 6-7

This version of the book contains topics such as basic arithmetic, the calendar and fractions and features paintings by Millais, Hogarth, Van Gogh and many more. Not only is it fantastic for children in grades 3-5, but also as a recap for older pupils.

Didax Math Masterpieces, Grades 3 to 5
Didax Math Masterpieces, Grades 3 to 5

This book features more complicated topics such as equivalent fractions, place value and geometry and artists such as Da Vinci, Cezanne, Rembrandt and many more. This book especially is stlll extremely useful with older pupils and is the one I use most often.

1-100 grid
1-100 grid

Multiples 4 in a row

This is a great game for practising times tables and multiples and brings a competitive element to learning maths.

Working in pairs, each pupil is given their own coloured counters, two dice and a 1-100 number grid between the two. The aim of the game, as the title suggests, is to get 4 counters in a row. To do this, the pupils take it in turns to roll the dice and work out the total of the two numbers shown. The pupil can then put one counter on a multiple of that number. If both dice show the same number, pupils can either choose a multiple of the total as usual or place a counter on a prime number.

For example, suppose I rolled a 4 and a 2. The total is 6, so I can place one counter on any multiple of 6 (6, 12, 18, 24 etc.). If my partner then rolls two 4s, he can then put a counter on either any prime number or a multiple of 8 (4+4). Each of us needs to keep in mind the need to get 4 counters in a row in order to win the game.

For less able groups a smaller number grid can be used e.g. 1-50.

Photo Courtesy of

Problem trail/ maths trail

Why not create a problem trail for your class to solve. Simply put up numbered questions around the room for the pupils to answer. The answer to one question should then tell the pupil which is the next question they should answer and so on. The questions need to link around in a big circle i.e. once you have completed all of the questions, you should be directed back to the first question you answered.

Watch the video below to see AmazingMathGuy describe how to make a maths trail.

AmazingMathGuy describes how to use a maths trail in lesson.

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