The ability to do math “in your head” is an excellent practical skill with benefits in every area of life. Quickly calculating a sale price or tip, determining the correct change, or comparing unit prices makes everyday adult jobs easier and more efficient, and it is a skill that can be learned and practiced. Let’s learn more about mental math and games to improve mental math skills.

**Benefits of Mental Math**

While adults can reasonably be expected to always have access to a phone, calculator, or spreadsheet for performing complex math, the ability to do mental math has a lifetime of benefits. Learning how to do math “in your head” when you are young has many special rewards, including:

- Speed mathematical decision-making. Every day, we are asked to make mathematical decisions, including how much to tip, whether a sale price is really a bargain, how much we can spend at the grocery store, the cost of gas for an errand, etc. Making these kinds of calculations and estimates quickly in your head allows you to make better decisions in all your day-to-day tasks and live more efficiently.
- Improve understanding of mathematical concepts. The ability to do mental math requires a deeper understanding of math and mathematical concepts than with a calculator or device. This greater understanding makes advanced mathematics, and even logical tasks like computer programming, easier to learn and apply to daily situations.
- Boost the brain. Math has particular benefits for our brain health and cognition. Mental math helps to improve working memory and mental fitness, and studies even suggest that it can improve mental and emotional health, reducing depression and anxiety.

The fundamentals of mental math can be practiced from a very early age, beginning with counting and carrying all the way through to algebra. These mental math games can be increased in difficulty and complexity over time as students learn and develop more skills. Mental math games are a fun and engaging way to provide a lifetime of rewards.

**Mental Math Games**

**Game: Math Bingo**

- Number of players: 2 or more
- Skills practiced: Number identification, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division

**How to Play**

- Make a 3×3 “bingo” card
- Fill out the grid with numbers 1-9 in random order
- Ask young children to identify numbers and mark them off on their cards. As they progress, ask mathematic questions like “what is 2+3” and have the child mark off the answer
- The first player to complete a straight line and yell “bingo” wins

**Increasing Skills Development**

Over time, this game becomes more complex by increasing the difficulty of the math questions, including additional math skills like multiplication and division, and increasing the size of the bingo card/grid to become 4×4, 5×5, etc.

**Game: Evens**

- Number of players: 1
- Skills practiced: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division

**How to Play**

- This game requires a deck of cards with all the face cards removed
- Lay out all the cards face up in one long line
- The game is to eliminate all cards by removing pairs of side-by-side cards that add up to an even number. For example, if the cards are laid out as 9, 8, 6, 2, 7, 2, etc., a student could remove the 8 and 6, or the 6 and 2, since their respective products are even.
- Then, all the cards are slid to close the gap, with a number line now 9, 2, 7, 2, etc., none of which can be removed. Over time, the student might strategically make pairs to put numbers beside each other.

**Increasing Skills Development**

This game can become more complex by inserting face cards with values of 10 or face cards with values of 11, 12, and 13. The student might practice multiplication or subtraction instead of addition. The game may aim for odd numbers instead of even or double-digit numbers.

**Game: Math Ping Pong**

- Number of players: 2 or more in even numbers
- Skills practiced: Counting

**How to Play**

- Two students are paired into a team. Even numbers of students can form as many teams as necessary
- Each player in a team alternates, counting out loud to a designated number. For example, the pair counts out loud to 100, each saying the alternate numbers out loud

**Increasing Skills Development**

Over time, players can count down backward from the assigned number, count in twos or threes, or count backward in twos or threes

**Game: Addition War**

- Number of players: 2 or more
- Skills practiced: Addition, multiplication

**How to Play**

- This game requires a deck of cards. Remove face cards, or assign a value of 10 to each face card
- Each player draws two cards
- Each player turns over their cards, adds the two values together, and says their total
- The player with the highest total number takes the other player’s cards
- The dealing and adding continue until the deck is exhausted, and the player with the most cards wins

**Increasing Skills Development**

This game can be made more difficult by using multiplication instead of addition, dealing three (or more) cards instead of two, or including face cards with values of 11, 12, and 13.

**Game: Math Duck, Duck, Goose**

- Number of players: 3 or more, but best done with a group
- Skills practiced: Counting

**How to Play**

- To play this game, students are seated in a circle
- The players count out loud, one at a time, around the circle, to a designated number
- The first player who exceeds the number is eliminated. For example, if the group is counting to 15, the student who must say 16 is eliminated.
- The cycle repeats until there is only one player remaining

**Increasing Skills Development**

Have the students count in twos or threes to make the game more challenging. Have the students guess ahead of time which player will be eliminated every round based on the assigned number

**Game: Math Yahtzee**

- Number of players: 1 or more
- Skills practiced: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals, basic algebra

**How to Play**

- This game requires two or more dice and a small whiteboard or piece of paper
- The student is given a target number (for example, 11)
- The student rolls the dice and needs to arrange the dice on the whiteboard, with the necessary mathematic symbols between them, to reach 11 or get as close as possible (for example, if 11 is the target number, and the student rolls a 2 and a 6, they may use the dice and a pencil to write out “2 x 6 = 12,” which is closer to the desired total than “2 + 6 = 8”)

**Increasing Skills Development**

This game can be increased in complexity by adding more dice, using fractions or decimals, or including algebraic concepts and symbols

**Game: Math Pyramid**

- Number of players: 1 or more
- Skills practiced: Addition, multiplication

**How to Play**

- This game requires a deck of cards and a whiteboard or piece of paper
- Remove face cards or assign face cards a value of 10
- The student deals two cards face up side by side onto a whiteboard or piece of paper
- The student writes the sum of the two numbers on the cards above and between the cards (forming a triangle shape)
- For the next round, the student deals three cards. They write the first sum above and between the first two cards, then the second sum above and between the second two cards. For example, if the cards were 3, 5, and 2, the student would add a row above the cards that says 8 and 7
- Then they write the sum of both products above and between the second row, completing the pyramid. In this case, the top row would say 15

**Increasing Skills Development**

Over time, the bottom row of the pyramid can include more cards, making a larger pyramid with more rows. The student can multiply numbers instead of adding them. Face cards can be assigned values of 11, 12, and 13. You could also “invert” the pyramid by subtracting numbers instead of adding them.

**Game: Math Dominoes**

- Number of players: 2 or more
- Skills practiced: Addition, multiplication

**How to Play**

- This game requires a set of dominoes
- The dominoes are placed face down, and each player draws one
- Each player adds both numbers on their domino, and the player with the higher number wins

**Increasing Skills Development**

Over time, increase the difficulty by having players draw two or more dominoes or calculate their total using multiplication instead of addition

**Game: Guess the Secret Number**

- Number of players: 2 or more in pairs or a single student can be paired with a teacher
- Skills practiced: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals

**How to Play**

- A number is written on a card and shown to only one player in a pair
- The player holding the card gives “clues” to the other player until they guess the number
- Clues can be simple, like “The secret number is equal to two plus three” for beginners

**Increasing Skills Development**

This game becomes more difficult and complex by restricting clues to only use multiplication or division, including fractions or decimals, or requiring clues to use two or more mathematical operations

**Game: How Many Ways?**

- Number of players: 1 or more
- Skills practiced: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals, basic algebra

**How to Play**

- Numbers are written on cards and given to the student(s). Start by providing the student with three number cards.
- There is an assigned total number
- Students need to figure out how many ways they can reach the assigned total using the numbers they have. For example, if the assigned total is 44, and the student is given cards that say 3, 4, and 8, how many ways can they combine those numbers with different mathematical operations to reach 44?
- If the game is being played competitively, the student who finds the most different ways to reach the total wins

**Increasing Skills Development**

This game becomes more complicated by introducing fractions or decimals, using negative numbers, using more number cards with higher numbers, etc.

**Game: Fraction War**

- Number of players: 2 or more
- Skills practiced: Fractions

How to Play

- This game requires a deck of cards or a set of dominoes
- If using cards:
- Each player draws two cards and lays them one over the other, face up, as a fraction
- Players may choose which card is on top or bottom
- The player with the highest number wins
- If using dominoes:
- Each player draws a domino and places it face up, turned vertically so that it expresses a fraction
- Players may reverse their dominoes
- The player with the highest number wins

**Increasing Difficulty**

This game becomes more difficult when players draw four cards or two dominoes each and need to add (or multiply) their fractions together to reach their total

**Conclusion**

Finally, completing verbal math exercises is the best way to practice mental math skills. Say math problems out loud, with pauses for mental calculation. For example, say, “Take the product of six and eleven.” Pause. “Divide that by three.” Pause. “Add four.” Then check the answer. Doing these kinds of verbal math problems intermittently throughout the day is a fantastic way to develop mental math skills.

Mental math is a skill with a lifetime of rewards, and many mental math games and activities are fun and challenging. Whether you are playing mental math games with a single student or a whole group, these games can be played cooperatively or competitively, with increasing difficulty as students learn and their skills grow.