Quick Physical Games for the Math Classroom

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that kids need to move around, and creating opportunities to move during math class can pay off in spades.

Therefore, we have a collection of some of our favorite math/movement quick activities to share. These are especially good for K-4, though they’re adaptable to older and younger grades too. They provide a dose of movement, fun, and mathematical practice in an abbreviated time frame–perfect for station breaks and transitions.

If we’re missing any of your favorites, let us know! A PDF with Common Core tagging is available at our Lessons page.

Teacher-led Games

  • Groups (2-5 minutes)
    The teacher calls out a number (3), and the students have 10 seconds to get themselves into groups of that size. It might be impossible for everyone to get in a group every time, but each new number gives everyone another chance.In the basic game, just call out single numbers. Once students get the gist, you can call out addition or subtraction problems (i.e., “get into groups of 7-4.”)

    Don’t forget to call out a group of 1 and a group of however many students are in the entire class at some point in the game.

  • Stand Up/Sit Down (2-5 minutes)
    The rules are simple: if the teacher gives the number 10, students stand up. Any other number, they sit down. The trick is, the teacher will say things like “7+3” and “14 -5” (pick appropriate sums and differences for your students to solve mentally). This is a great game to try to “trick” the students by standing up or sitting down on when they should be doing the opposite.There are endless variations. For example:
    -stand when the number is larger than 5; sit if it is 5 or below
    -stand when the number is even; sit when it is odd
    -stand if the digit 1 appears on the number; sit otherwise.
  • Bigger/Smaller/Equal (2-5 minutes)
    If the teacher says a number greater than 10, students expand their bodies to take up as much space as they can (while keeping their feet firmly planted on the ground—no running around). If the teacher says a number less than 10, students shrink their bodies to take up the least space they can. If the teacher gives the number 10 exactly, students hold their body neutrally and make an equals sign with their arms.As before, the teacher moves to sums and differences once students get the rules.
  • Rhythmic Clapping/Counting (2-5 minutes)
    The teacher claps/counts out a rhythm. Students imitate the rhythm of the clap and the count.
  • Skip Counting with Movement (2-5 minutes)
    Make up a movement that comes in 2, 3, or more parts. Whisper the first parts, and call out the final move loudly.
    Example: Windmills. Whisper “1” and touch your right hand to your left foot. Whisper “2” and touch your left hand to your right foot. Call out “3” and do a jumping jack! Continue counting like this up to 30, calling out the multiples of 3 and whispering the numbers in between.Example: http://mathandmovement.com/pdfs/skipcountingguide.pdf
  • Circle Count (2-5 minutes)
    Stand in a circle and try to count off as quickly as possible all the way around the circle. Start with 1, then the student on your right says “2,” and the student on their right says “3,” and so on until the count comes back to you. Challenge the kids to go as quickly and seamlessly as possible.When everyone can do this proficiently, count by twos, fives, tens, or threes. You can also start at numbers greater than 1, or try counting backward.

Student-pair Games

  • Finger Speed-Sums (1-5 minutes)
    Students meet in pairs with one hand behind their back. On the count of three, they each put forward some number of fingers. Whoever says the sum first wins. Then the pair breaks up and each person finds a new person to play with. Advanced players can use two hands instead of just one.
  • Finger Speed-Differences (1-5 minutes)
    Same as speed-sums, except whoever find the difference between the two numbers first wins.
  • Five High Fives (1 – 2 minutes, or longer with the exploration)
    Students try to give a high-five to five different classmates. When they’ve gotten their five high-fives done, they sit down. This game is part mystery: sometimes it will be possible for everyone to get a high-five; sometimes not. The difference (which the teacher knows but the students don’t) is that it is only possible if there are an even number of people giving high-fives. Try this game at different times and let students guess whether they think everyone will get a high-five or not. Why does it only work sometimes, not always?If you make it four or six high-fives instead of five, then everyone will be able to get their high-fives every time.

Why we love these games

Getting kids moving is a win-win. Movement refreshes your students while giving them another take on math concepts. These games are super quick and super fun for everyone.

Tips for the classroom

  1. Make sure kids never feel ashamed if they don’t already know the right answer. You can also tweak competitive games to make them collaborative.
  2. You enthusiasm is critical in these games. Figure out your favorites, and expand on them, or get the students to come up with their own variations. If you’re into them and having a good time, the kids will have a good time too.

Comments 15

  1. mat

    Great games! The internet is flooded with online games. Makes sense to get kids moving and thinking at the same time.

  2. Brenda

    These are great ideas! I could play some of these games with the first graders I am currently working with. Sometimes, children have a hard time sitting for a long time through a math lesson, and these games can help in getting them moving for a little and then they will be ready to continue learning. Also, I really like the first tip of the Tips for the classroom, I think it is very important to not make children/students feel ashamed if they don’t know the right answer. Telling children/students they are wrong or simply giving them the correct answer is not as meaningful as guiding them to the right answer. With these games children/students can be having fun and learning new math concepts at the same time.

  3. Jesus

    Thanks for the ideas! Was put on the spot to think of a game to play with my sixth graders and immediately had to look it up. They loved it!

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  4. E

    Great games! My students love finger-speed-sum/difference.
    I was wondering if there’s an elegant mathematical explanation for the “five high-fives” game for why only an even number of students would work? And why four and six high-fives would always work?
    Thanks so much,

    1. Post

      There is indeed an elegant mathematical reason!

      Here’s the gist: you can count the high fives directly, or you can ask people how many high fives they were part of—call it their “high five number”. Since each high five includes two people, when you add up everyone’s high five numbers, the total has to be even, because each additional high five increases that total by two.

      If you have an odd number of students who each try to participate in five high fives, that leads to an odd sum when you put together all the high five numbers. And that’s impossible, for the reason in the last paragraph.

      I hope that helps!

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    2. Elana

      I plan to use a variation on the groups game in my discrete math class in college. Still working on the details but something to help them understand the quotient remainder theorem. Thanks!

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