There are many cool, fun and exciting things you can do that are mathematical.

However, parents can be a bit scared of maths because of bad experiences that left them thinking they were not mathematically inclined. Other parents may be very happy about maths, but not know what to do with their children to help them also enjoy maths. Like reading to children, doing fun maths with children can help build learning and positive feelings for life.

Here is a rule: If it isn’t fun, you are doing it wrong. Do not make maths a chore or, worse, a punishment.

At the primary level, much mathematics is easily learned and practised through play. Here are some ideas of things you can do as a parent and child, or other family member. It is only a taste of fun mathematical things you can do at home. Just choose one and have a go. And talk about it, making sure you pause long enough for the child to think and make their own contributions to the discussion.

What makes something belong to one category and not another? Sort clothes – we can sort by type (socks or undies), who owns them, size, age, colour. Sort cutlery, leaves, LEGO bricks, rocks, toys, towels etc. Buttons are particularly enjoyable to sort. Collect plastic lids and sort them. There is something innately satisfying about sorting things. Some things are easier to sort than others. Some things seem to belong to multiple groups. This is all good brain exercise.

Ordering is a natural step up from sorting. We start with stacking cups and rings for pre-schoolers, and progress to objects in everyday use. Most of the objects listed for sorting can also be ordered. There are some very important words around ordering, that help with reading as well as maths. These words include first, last, bigger, biggest, longer, longest, older, oldest, more, less, fewer, heavier, lighter etc. Any kind of comparison requires both the concept of comparing and the words to describe it. For older children it can be a challenge to know how to order things with more than one characteristic. For example how do you order books? By length, number of pages, height on the shelf, thickness etc. LEGO bricks have multiple dimensions, so ordering them can provoke interesting discussions.

Counting is one of the most obvious things that we like to teach our children. Once they have learned counting to ten, remember to count backwards as well. Make up a story about a monster eating all the forks, starting with 6 forks and working down to zero. Kids love zero. Then there is skip counting. A popular teaching activity is called “counting collections”. Get a pile of something – maybe milk bottle tops. Guess how many there are. Then start counting in ones. Teach how to put them into piles of ten, and then count them. Have a game to see how well you can guess how many things there are. A favourite game for our family involved a jar with 11 pieces of paper, with the numbers 0 to 10 on them. We drew out a number at random, and then we each ran off around the house looking for that number of items. Then we would line them up and see what everyone had collected. Collections would include clothes pegs, toy cars, spice jars, stones, socks… It seems a bit pointless to adults, but the boys loved it. It was pretty fun talking about what we had collected zero of.

My four-year-old grandson loves finding numbers as we drive around. Recently we visited Travis Wetland in Christchurch, which has numbered posts indicating things to see. We had fun finding all the posts and taking photos of them – while getting exercise and fresh air. You could have a treasure hunt around a mall or street to find and take photos of different numbers.

Measuring is a fun and active mathematical activity. You start with comparing which things are longer or heavier or thicker – and again there are lots of words to learn. Get some coloured water and tip it into different containers. Children will find it amazing that the same volume of water can look so different. Who can guess how high the water will go in a different container? For older children you can teach them how to use the scales on the side of a measuring cup and other measuring. This is much easier for children to learn at home, where there is one-on-one attention and some equipment. See if you can put objects in order of weight, and then check using the scales.

Posting boxes are the beginning of shape recognition for children. We had games seeing who could post the fastest. Then we did it with our eyes closed. It is interesting to discuss which are the easiest shapes to post because of the different orientations they can have. There is a great little book called “Which one doesn’t belong?” which gets people talking about similarities and differences between shapes.

As children get older, they like to play games – board games and card games. These games do not need to be labelled as educational for there to be mathematical benefits. Roll and move games like snakes and ladders and Ludo provide practice subitising (recognising the number from the dots) and counting. Dice games also help develop an understanding of chance and probability. Most games have mathematical underpinnings. It is important for the games to be fun! Knucklebones encourages manual dexterity as well as having strong mathematical concepts

Children love to move and there is great opportunity for mathematics in movement. Estimate how many steps it will take to get to the next lamp-post, then check. Is it the same for the child as for the parent? Why or why not? How far can you jump? How many swings can you get without pumping again? Give directions – go ten steps forwards then turn right, then ten steps forward etc. Play hopscotch. Draw numbers on the ground with chalk and jump from one to another.

One of the main habits of mathematicians and scientists (probably artists as well) is noticing and wondering. You notice that the numbers on your side of the street are all even numbers. You wonder if that is always the case. You notice that it is easier to put a round shape into a round hole and wonder why that is. You notice that egg cartons only come in certain numbers, and wonder why, and which numbers are used. With your child, get in the habit of noticing and wondering.

These are only a tiny fraction of activities you can do with your child, grandchild, family member. Sometimes it is better just to get a few ideas and act on them, rather than being swamped with too many. This is why we have Family Creative Maths.

We send out weekly family fun maths activities. You get the first month free, then after that it is $5 a week. Sign up here for your free trial – and do share this post with friends.