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Card Games for Math: Teaching Basic Math Skills

Updated on March 29, 2012
My students playing Set.
My students playing Set.

The Learning Benefits of Card Games

There are so many great reasons to play cards. First there is the fun. There are not many better ways to have a really great social interaction with friends and family. I remember as a child going to my parents' friends houses where they would get together to play euchre or poker. Even at our family gatherings, there was always a poker game that was taking place. I can still hear the laughter and fun that was shared around those tables.

Card games hold a different yet very important attribute for children, that is one of learning. There are several games that you can play with just a regular deck of cards that will greatly enhance your child's learning of basic math skills. However, the first card game that I will share requires a special deck of cards. The game is called Set.

An example of a set match.
An example of a set match.

Set Game: A Math Reasoning Game

I was first introduced to Set when I was attending professional development training for teachers. In a series of math workshops, we explored what makes a good math game. There are many things that are included in this list such as, it involves thinking and reasoning, all participants are actively engaged at all times, it employs more than one of the standards of mathematical practice, and is of course fun all at the same time. Set is one of those games that easily lends itself to these. In fact it was around the holidays when I learned of this game and it became a "must give" on my list to everyone with kids.

One of the great things about this game is that it can be modified to fit ages 5 and higher. Take one or two attributes out and it becomes the perfect game for younger children. Leave all attributes in and it will even challenge adults.

Does Set sound like a game that you would enjoy playing with your children?

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How to play Set.

It's easy, well sort of. First you place twelve cards face up on the table. The goal is to find a "set." There are four attributes to create a set. A set is a match of three cards that have all the same or all different attributes. The four attributes are: shape, color, number, and inside filling of the shape. All players are looking to make a set at the same time. When you think that you have found a set, you call out set and then take your cards. You state why you believe that you have made a set and the players either agree or disagree with the match.

An example of a set would be all diamonds (shape); one is red, one is purple, and one is green (color); there is one diamond on one card, two on the next, and three on the last (number); and they are all empty inside (filling). Each attribute is either all the same or all different.

My students absolutely love this game and literally cheer every time that we play it. It's great because everyone is involved in finding a set at the same time and no one is waiting for a turn. They even help each other find sets and are very patient in explaining to another student why it may not be a set. There is also a daily set puzzle at

Multiplication, Addition, and Place Value Games

A deck of cards is a great math learning tool. There are some fantastic games that you can play with very little monetary investment. Simply head to the dollar store and pick up a regular deck of playing cards. Here are some games you can play.

  1. Multiplication or Addition War If you know the card game war, you know that you and your opponent each place a card down and the card with the highest number wins and takes both cards. Multiplication and addition war work the same way, except that each player places two cards down and finds either the product or sum of the two numbers. The highest product or sum takes all of the cards. In the event of a tie, you play another two numbers and the highest score takes all. The player with the most cards at the end wins.
  2. Greater than, Less than, or Equal too This game is great for little ones just learning their numbers and values. Similar to war, you each place a card down. Instead of just taking the cards, you say: four is greater than two. And the person with the highest number wins. You could vary it by finding the "less than" number and the person with the least value wins.
  3. Place Value Challenge Place value is always such a tough concept for kids to get. Make a mat for each player and label the place values for as high as you want to go to. Depending on the child and his skill level you can go into the millions. Shuffle and place the deck in the middle. Each player draws a card and places it under one of the values on the mat. Turns rotate until all of the places on each mat are filled. Then each player reads the number. Who ever has the highest number wins. Eventually the kids will figure out that there is a strategy involved in placing the cards on the mat. The nice thing is that you can play with several players and the children not only learn the place value of the numbers but also how to read them.

Place Value Challenge Mat

Player A
Player B

Player A would read, five hundred seventy three. Player B would read, four hundred sixty-two. Player A wins.


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