November 16, 2017

Sheldon Soper

Using Card Games to Teach Basic Math Skills

Topics: STEM Education / Play, Learning at Home, Learning Through Play, Girls & STEM, STEM, Brainteasers


I have been playing games for as long as I can remember. Throughout my life, holiday get-togethers were not complete without a card game at the dining room table.

  Depending on the crowd, there were active games like Spoons or Nerts or more strategic games like Whist or Michigan Rummy. At the largest festive gatherings, it wasn’t uncommon to have a dozen people (or more) locked into an hours-long game of Uno.

It is probably no surprise that in my work as both a teacher and a tutor, I have regularly sought to use games as a way to help students make the learning process more fun and enticing. With younger students, one of my favorite go-tos for gamifying math practice has been my trusty deck of playing cards.

There are three reasons I love this approach:

  • Playing cards are cheap and readily available.
  • Card games are timeless, portable, and fun (read: way more fun than practice worksheets)
  • Card games incorporate family members and fellow students in the learning process making it collaborative and social.

I have several favorite card games both from my childhood and my teaching that have proven successful at rehearsing and reinforcing basic math skills. What’s more, there are ways to modify many of them to suit different skillsets and numerical concepts.




War is one of the most basic card games for children.

Setup is simple: shuffle a deck of cards and then divide it into two equal piles.

From there, players simultaneously flip cards off the top of their respective decks and compare the values. The player that turns the higher number and/or face card value takes both cards and adds them to the bottom of their own deck. If there is a tie, both players play three cards face down and play a fourth face up. The values of the fourth cards are compared and the player with the highest value takes all ten cards!

Once a player has acquired all of the cards, they are declared the winner.

Number of Players: Typically 2, but War can be played feasibly with up to four players. Be warned, depending on the shuffle, more players can also lead to a substantially longer game!

Mathematical Skills: identifying numbers, comparing numerical values

Official Rules: Bicycle Playing Card Rules

Modification Ideas:

  • Fraction War – each turn, players place two cards face up to represent a numerator and a denominator of a fraction. The player with the highest resulting fraction takes all four cards.
  • Subtraction War – Each turn, players play two cards each and subtract the smaller value from the larger. The player with the highest result takes all four cards. This can be easily modified into an addition or multiplication game as well.


Go Fish

Go fish is another simple game that is both appealing to younger players and helps establish basic number identification skills.

Gameplay is simple. To start, cards are shuffled and a set number of cards (typically 4-7) are dealt to each player. Players then pair cards in their hands in order to remove them.

Each round, participants turns asking other players for specific cards they need to complete pairs in their own hands. If a player has the card value that is requested, it must be surrendered. If not, the requesting player is told to “Go fish!” and take a card from the draw pile.

The object of the game can be either to accumulate the most pairs or to be the first player to have no cards left.

Number of Players: 2-6

Mathematical Skills: Identifying numbers, equivalency

Official Rules: Bicycle Playing Card Rules

Modifications: Custom card decks containing things like geometric shapes, fractions, or basic math facts can be used instead of traditional playing card decks to target advanced mathematical skills like equivalent fractions or geometric similarity.




I can say that, without a doubt, Cribbage is the reason I was able to learn mental addition and skip counting quickly and reliably in my elementary years. I have fond memories of playing series of cribbage games with my dad, my uncles, and both of my grandfathers throughout my childhood.

The object of the game is to reach a finishing score of 121 points before your opponent. To do this, players take turns playing cards and adding up the total aloud until they reach the number 31 (or neither player can play a card without going over 31). Along the way, points are awarded for things like reaching the totals of 15 or 31 exactly, matching the previously played card, or completing a run.

Younger players may need to count the spots on the cards to do this, while more experienced young mathematicians can keep the total by doing the mental calculations.

Once each player has run out of cards to play, players retrieve their played cards and score points for certain combinations. The dealer gets to do this again with a separate hand called “the crib” that each player contributes cards to at the beginning of the hand.

Often times, cribbage is played with a specifically designed peg board, but keeping score with pencil and paper is a way to add in even more mathematical practice!

Number of Players: Typically 2

Mathematical Skills: addition, skip counting, mental math

Official Rules: Hoyle’s Book of Games; wikiHow (with video tutorials and printable helps)

Modifications: Cribbage can also be played with three players or with two teams of two players. The game progresses in exactly the same fashion except for modifications to how cards are contributed to the dealer’s crib.


sheldon.jpgSheldon Soper is a ten year veteran of the teaching profession and currently serves as a junior high school teacher in southern New Jersey and as a writer for The Knowledge Roundtable, a free tutoring marketplace. His primary focus is building reading, writing, and research skills in his students. He holds two degrees from Rutgers University: a B.A. in History and a M.Ed. in Elementary Education. He holds teaching certifications in English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Elementary Education. Sheldon has also worked as a tutor for grades ranging from second through high school in a wide variety of subjects including reading, writing, calculus, chemistry, algebra, and test prep. His core educational beliefs stem from the notion that all students can be successful; it is the role of educators to help facilitate growth by differentiating and scaffolding student learning on a personal level.


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