10 Ways to Play Math with Play-Doh

Today we have a guest post from Lucy Ravitch, author of the new Kickstarter picture book Trouble with Monkeys: A math concept story of place value. She’s sharing a few ideas from her Math Activity Thursday (M.a.Th.) video series. Enjoy!

Hello, math fans and enthusiasts! Each week I try to give you and your family a fun math activity to try. Two months ago I posted this video with ten ways to turn play dough into an engaging activity for lower and upper elementary math.

If you want to make your own dough from scratch here are a few simple recipes. I encourage you to let your children play freely at first, before trying these activities.

Below I have identified some of the math concepts that your kids will experience as they play.

1. Toss It

Practice counting. With older children, record your results and make a graph of the data.

  • How many times can you catch it in a row? What’s your average number of tosses?
  • Talk about attributes. Does the size or color of the play dough balls make a difference?
  • How high are you tossing it? Talk about measuring systems. Do you use feet and inches, or meters and centimeters?
  • If you know how to juggle, time how long you can keep the balls going.

2. Smash It

Make several small balls or pieces. Then play as you smash them.

  • Play a NIM game: Make 10-15 small play dough balls. Take turns. On your turn, you can smash one ball or two. Whoever smashes the last ball wins the game.
  • Or smash your math facts: Choose several equations for your children to practice. Write each answer on a 3×5 card. Lay out each card next to a play dough piece. As you call out the equations, kids smash the play dough next to the correct card.

3. Shape It

Have fun molding your play dough. Roll it out to cut shapes.

  • Try making 3D shapes while practicing your math vocabulary. MathisFun.com has a great section about solid geometry. Can you find three math terms that are new for you?
  • Roll out the dough and cut 2D shapes. Discuss their attributes. Can you cut your shape in half to be symmetrical?

4. Hide Things in It

Find small objects around the house and enclose them inside play dough.

  • Take turns hiding small objects in play dough. Optional: Give a one-minute time limit to guess before opening it. This gives you and your kids a chance to talk about size, shape, or other attributes.
  • Have challenges to use the least amount of dough to hide identical objects. Two players have two minutes to hide an object in as little play dough as possible. The object must be completely concealed within the dough. What methods will you use?

5. Make Imprints on It

Show off your design skills and observe textures.

  • You can practice counting as you poke and press your fingers or objects into the dough. Older children can discuss the distance between impressions and/or the pressure applied.
  • As you and your kids make designs, talk about what you notice: Is your design symmetrical? What tools did you use (toothpicks, pencils, marbles, fingers, toy cars)? Which objects make interesting textures?

6. Cut It

Use a butter knife or the edge of a ruler to cut your play dough. Discuss findings as you play and explore.

  • In the video, I posed the question: how many sections do you get if you make only three cuts? Try it and see.
  • Does the number of pieces change if you use a shape other than a flat circle?
  • Discuss making straight cuts that will intersect or be parallel. Bring in more geometry terms.
  • Experiment with a different number of cuts.

7. Weigh It

Pull out a kitchen scale or balancing scales to use with dough.

  • Older children can make conversions between ounces to grams. They can make calculations about doubling or multiplying the measured weight. With younger kids, try using balancing scales. Compare the weights between pieces.
  • Try making two pieces that weigh exactly the same. This is harder than it sounds! For small children, this gives them the opportunity to see that the mass (weight) of an object can come in different shapes.

8. Measure It

Use a ruler or measuring tape while you play. There are several ways you can measure your dough — height, width, and length.

  • How long can you extend one ounce of dough? Pick your own size/weight of play dough and see who can get the longest. What fraction of a yard or meter is it?
  • Discuss height and what it takes to make dough stand vertically. How tall can you get three ounces to stand? Can anything help make it taller?

9. Roll It

Make sure you have plenty of room for this activity. Playing outside or on smooth floors works best.

  • With one push how far does your play dough roll? Is there an ideal size for a piece? Is there an ideal weight for rolling?
  • Is the ground sloped? What effects does the rolling surface have?
  • Why do some shapes roll easily while others don’t? Can you create a not-round shape that will roll?

10. Compare It

Compare similarities and differences between dough colors and types. Consider comparing the previously listed activities

  • If you made your own dough, compare consistency between batches. Is homemade dough denser or lighter than store-bought dough?
  • What are differences between the dough you played with and the dough that has not been touched?
  • Which of these activities do you think will take the shortest amount of time? The longest? Or put the activities in order based on how much dough you will need — least to greatest.

May you and your students have fun as you play with dough!

About the Author

Lucy blogs at kidsmathteacher.com and is the author/creator of Kids Menu Books. The first book in that series is The Pancake Menu, an interactive book that lets kids practice math as they play restaurant.

And be sure to visit Lucy’s Kickstarter project! She’s teamed up with artist Trav Hanson to create the delightful picture book Trouble with Monkeys: A math concept story of place value.

Even a Math Workbook Can Be a Game

Homeschooling Memories…

My youngest daughter wanted to do Singapore math. Miquon Red was her main math text at the time, but we added a bit of Singapore Primary Math 1B whenever she was in the mood.

We turned to the lesson on subtracting with numbers in the 30-somethings.

The first problem was pretty easy for her:

30 − 7 = _____

I reminded her that she already knew 10 − 7.

She agreed, “Ten take away seven is three.”

Then her eyes lit up. “So it’s 23! Because there are two tens left.”

Wow, I thought. She’s catching on quickly.

Mom Always Talks Too Much

We went to the next problem:

34 − 8 = _____

“Now, this one is harder,” I said. “But you know what ten minus eight is, right? So we could take one of these tens and—”

She waved at me to be quiet.

I was just getting started on my standard speech about how to turn a tough subtraction like 34 − 8 into the easy addition of “2 + 4 + two tens left.” But her mind was still on the last problem, specifically on the two tens and the seven.

“If you have 27,” she said, “and you add three more, you get 30. And four more is 34.”

“Um, yes, but…” I interrupted.

She shushed me again.

“And then you can take away the four. And then you can take away the three. And then you can take away one more…It’s 26!”

Mom Learns a Lesson

She continued through the next page that way. For every problem, she started with whatever number struck her fancy, usually containing at least one digit from the problem before. She added enough to get up to the 30-something number in the book.

Only then would she deign to subtract the number in question.

I don’t think she ever saw the point of the mental math technique the book and I were trying to teach, but she did have a lot of fun playing around with the numbers.

In the long run, that’s much more important.

Feature photo: “Laughing Girl” by ND Strupler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Playful Math Carnival #106

Do you enjoy math? I hope so! If not, browsing this post just may change your mind.

Welcome to the 106th edition of the Math Teachers At Play math education blog carnival — a smorgasbord of links to bloggers all around the internet who have great ideas for learning, teaching, and playing around with math from preschool to pre-college. Let the mathematical fun begin!

By tradition, we start the carnival with a puzzle in honor of our 106th edition. But if you would like to jump straight to our featured blog posts, click here to see the Table of Contents.

Try This Puzzle

If you slice a pizza with a lightsaber, you’ll make straight cuts all the way across. Slice it once, and you get two pieces.

If you slice it five times, you’ll get a maximum of sixteen pieces. (And if you’re lucky you might get a star!)

  • How many times would you have to slice the pizza to get 106 pieces?

Click here for all the mathy goodness!

Visualizing Word Problems with Bar Model Diagrams

A friend emailed me, frustrated with her child’s math lesson on bar diagrams: “Why do they have to make it so complicated? Why can’t we just solve the blasted problem?”

I told her bar models themselves are not the goal. The real question for parents and teachers is:

  • What can you do when your child is stumped by a math word problem?

To solve word problems, students must be able to read and understand what is written. They need to visualize this information in a way that will help them translate it into a mathematical expression.


Bar model diagrams are one very useful tool to aid this visualization. These pictures model the word problem in a way that makes the solution appear almost like magic.

It is a trick well worth learning, no matter which math program you use.



“Visualization is the brain’s ability to see beyond what the eyes can see, and we can develop visualization in many ways.”

The Bar Model Explained


“A bar model is a way to represent a situation in a word problem using diagrams — in particular, using rectangles.”


“This is one of the ideas that children learn in mathematics: the use of diagrams to represent quantities, especially quantities which are unknown.”

Word Problems from Literature

I’ve written a series of blog posts that explain bar model diagrams from the most basic through to solving multistep word problems. Check them out:

I’ve started working on a book about bar model diagrams, and I’d love to hear your input. Have you tried using them? Do they help your children? What questions do you have?

CREDITS: Videos and quotations from Dr. Yeap Ban Har’s YouTube channel. “Girl doing homework” photo (top) by ND Strupler and “math notebooking equal fractions” by Jimmie via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

New Book: Multiplication & Fraction Games

It’s here! My long-awaited upper-elementary Math You Can Play games book has finally hit the online bookstores.

Multiplication & Fractions features 25 kid-tested games, offering a variety of challenges for school-age students. Children master several math models that provide a sturdy foundation for understanding multiplication and fractions. The games feature times table facts and more advanced concepts such as division, fractions, decimals, and multistep mental math.

Free Online Preview

Click here to find Multiplication & Fractions at your favorite bookstore.
170 pages, ebook: $5.99, paperback: $17.99.

Multiplication & Fraction Games

multfrac-300Maybe you never really understood what multiplication means or what fractions are? As long as you start with an open mind and are willing to engage playfully, the activities in the book can help you as you help your kids.
Anecdotally, these two areas are the first major stumbling point for students in their math studies. The sequencing in the book will help kids develop a strong foundation.
Kids (and parents!) find these games fun. I’ve been field testing math games for the last 18 months and keep seeing how engaged kids get when playing math games.

— Joshua Greene
Multiplication & Fractions Math Games from Denise Gaskins (a review)

Chapters include:

  • Mathematical Models: Learn the basic pictures that help support your child’s comprehension.
  • Conquer the Times Tables: Enjoy practicing the math facts until correct answers become automatic.
  • Mixed Operations: Give mental muscles a workout with games that require number skills and logical thinking.
  • Fractions and Decimals: Master equivalent fractions, work with decimal place value, and multiply fractions and decimal numbers.

If you are a parent, these games provide opportunities to enjoy quality time with your children. If you are a classroom teacher, use the games as warm-ups and learning center activities or for a relaxing review day at the end of a term. If you are a tutor or homeschooler, make games a regular feature in your lesson plans to build your students’ mental math skills.

So what are you waiting for? Clear off a table, grab a deck of cards, and let’s play some math!

Check It Out

It starts with models that are visual explanations of the concepts. Gaskins also breaks learning these concepts into comfortable steps that emphasize patterns and relationships, the real ideas that are behind properly understanding multiplication and fractions (indeed, math generally).
The sequence of games in each section starts by building familiarity and then fluency (speed) to solidify all of that work.

— Joshua Greene
Multiplication & Fractions Math Games from Denise Gaskins (a review)

Multiplication & Fraction Printables

Multiplication & Fraction Printables

Most of the Math You Can Play games use materials you already have around the house, such as playing cards or dice. But this book introduces multiplication and fractions with several games using two special mathematical model card decks.

Click here to download the Multiplication & Fraction Printables, featuring all the math model cards, hundred charts, and game boards you will need for any game in the book.

The Value of Math Games

From Peggy Kaye’s classic book Games for Math:


“Games put children in exactly the right frame of mind for learning difficult things.

“Children relax when they play — and they concentrate. They don’t mind repeating certain facts or procedures over and over, if repetition is part of the game.

“Children throw themselves into playing games the way they never throw themselves into filling out workbook pages.

“The games solidify the achievements of children who are already good at math, and they shore up children who need shoring up. They teach or reinforce many of the skills that a formal curriculum teaches, plus one skill that formal teaching sometimes leaves out — the skill of having fun with math, of thinking hard and enjoying it.

“If you play these games and your child learns only that hard mental effort can be fun, you will have taught something invaluable.”

Peggy Kaye
Games for Math

Sample Peggy’s Games for Math

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Number Game Printables

One step closer to getting my long-awaited Multiplication & Fraction Games book out — I finished the printables file! At least, I hope I’ve finished. Sometimes it seems like whack-a-typo never ends…

Multiplication & Fraction Printables

Multiplication & Fraction Printables

Click here to download the Multiplication & Fraction Printables, featuring mathematical model cards, hundred charts, and game boards to accompany the upcoming Math You Can Play: Multiplication & Fractions book.

The Multiplication & Fractions ebook will come out sometime in November, and the paperback should follow in time for Christmas. If you’re interested, my newsletter subscribers will get a special introductory sale price whenever the book is published. Join now!

You may also want to check out:

Number Game Printables Pack

Number Game Printables Pack

Click here to download the Number Game Printables Pack, featuring hundred charts, graph paper, and game boards from the first two Math You Can Play books.

Also, 0–99 charts, and bottoms-up versions, too. (See my blog post Math Debates with a Hundred Chart.) And a fun cut-and-fold game board for playing Shut the Box.

Permission to Use These Files

You have permission to copy and use these game boards and worksheets in your own local classroom, home school, math circle, co-op class, etc. But you may not post them on your own website (though you can link to this post, if you like) or sell them. If you’re not sure how copyright works on the Internet, check out Daniel Scocco’s Copyright Law: 12 Dos and Don’ts.

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