Math Enrichment for 1st grader who doesn’t love math

We have a delightful, artistic 1st grader who is at a critical moment in her life where she will come to love the productive struggle of math or hate it forever. She’s in BUSD and is getting subpar math instruction (teacher is awesome but there is limited coaching for teachers on math instruction).

I’d love to find a place where she can get grade level/developmentally appropriate math tutoring in the form of fun math games.  I want her to build her confidence. I can’t underscore this enough: it needs to be engaging. I fear if it feels too hard and/or boring she will hate math. 

We had her in Firecracker math after school but that was a bust (she said it was boring, the math was too hard, she never remembered what they covered and it turned out the other kids agreed).

I don’t want to put her into Kumon because it sounds like explicit instruction...but maybe I’m wrong?

Parent Replies

New responses are no longer being accepted.

I've taught in the math enrichment classes at Lawrence Hall of Science, and also enrolled my daughter in those classes. The goal was to have fun while learning and thinking about math. Games like Set, Apples to Apples, and Mancala, as well as building materials like origami, pattern blocks, and Zome are good ways to develop mathematical thinking. Classroom math tends to focus narrowly on computation, and students don't spend enough time on problem solving and patterns.

Our 5-year girl old loves math apps - right not she's into DragonBox apps (Numbers/Big Numbers), but they get much harder than this. The website common sense media has a wide range of recommendations. I've found this to be win-win-win. That is, our daughter will "work" to be allowed to play on the apps - she'll put on her clothes/take a shower without complaint/tidy up, then play the math app for the allotted minutes and improve her number sense, all while I get a bit of time for myself!

At the first grade level, my kids seemed to enjoy interacting with adults at least as much as with their peers.  If you can find the time, there are plenty of family-oriented games and manipulatives that help develop logic and arithmetic skills.  Many of the games are targeting older children but otherwise you can't go wrong with this kind of quality play time.  It might be easier to find a 20 minute slot in the day to play than chauffeuring kids around.  Let me know if you'd like a list of what we've got in our arsenal.

As part of my work, I have spent the past four years immersed in the latest research and innovative practices in math education. I also have grade school kids (grades 2 and 5), and my 5th grader was a lot like your 1st grader. So I have LOTS of thoughts on this! 

It's not surprising to hear that your first grader is not getting engaging math ed in school. But please do not conclude that if she doesn't turn around in first grade, it's over for her. She has many years left to be hooked by math!

The very best, most important thing you can do at this age is engage your child in mathematical play. Kumon and the like are a waste of time if they are just reinforcing what happens in school. And they often have a negative effect on a child who has already decided she doesn't like math. There may be some freelance tutor out there who can help you with this, but the world is full of people who think math is worksheets and spitting out a number, so proceed with caution. I have just wound up taking this on myself. And it has been fun for me too. Here's what's in my toolbox as their math cheerleader.

(Some of this won't sound like math, but the thing to keep in mind is that when they get to higher math they will be best served by four things: experience with pattern recognition, numeracy skills, experience solving problems using logic, and a belief that they can do it.)

1. We play a ton of board games. Some that are fabulously mathematical and really fun are: Blokus, Qwirkle, Dragonwood, Prime Climb, Set, and Backgammon. For a first grader, a big part of what she needs is just practice adding numbers, so any game that involves rolling and counting will help with that (e.g., Sorry, Trouble, Parcheesi). Dominoes is fabulous as well. There are so many! At various seasons with both kids, I have set aside weekly time to sit at a coffee shop, eat a cookie, and play games together. It is fun and great bonding too.

2. Some kids get hooked into math through puzzles. Sudoku can be really fun, and there are variations that use symbols or colors instead of numbers. There are also a bunch of one-player logic games like Rush Hour that are terrific as well. The puzzles in the New York Times are fabulous too. (My kids love Tiles.)

3. Not all kids are into this, but some kids eventually get really into the beauty of math. There are a few books out there that tap into this really well. (Our latest discovery is this book called This is Not a Math Book, which is full of beautiful art projects that are geometrical in nature and just fun and pretty to work with and look at.)

4. I am super opportunistic about using math to look at the world. Recently, my 2nd grader declared that he didn't think Santa was real. When I asked him why, he said, "because there's no way that Santa could get to all those houses in one night." So we tackled that problem. How many houses? How many hours in a night? Average time Santa might spend at each house? The computation involved was quite simple, but knowing which questions to ask is a lot harder and something kids don't get nearly enough practice on in school. So... we do it at home, every chance we get. If it comes out of something they are already curious about, they will be really into it, I promise you. And then you can go further and debate the meaning of your data/conclusions, which is also really important.

5. has some great resources for parents.

Good luck!

I so appreciate all of the excellent responses I'm seeing on here. I had the opportunity to read the question to our 19 year-old, who is home from college for winter break, and to ask them what they thought. This is essentially affirming what others have already posted, with a little bonus stuff from our kid's perspective.

Our kid loathed "math" all through elementary school. A friend gave them Set for a gift in Kindergarten, which they didn't break out and start to play until perhaps 3rd or 4th grade, and that was pretty eye-opening. Turns out that is exactly what you need to do; play games like that with them, which develop pattern recognition. Don't push them and try to get them to "love" math - give them some space to have their own opinions. With games, they'll develop all the useful parts which contribute to advanced math, in a fun way. Demonstrate that it is fun through playing things with them, rather than turning it over to an outside enrichment person.

And if they turn out not to "love" math in the end - that's okay, too. I don't love math, and that's okay. My kid does. I'm glad they do, but there are plenty of other talents and gifts to enjoy and develop; they don't all need to be good at all things all the time. The pressure they're under is super intense, and they know it. Let's give them a little breathing space to play and be themselves.

 I highly recommend Jane Molnar who has an unusual gift for getting young children to love math and many years of experience.  She worked wonders with our son who was struggling with math in 4th grade and had begun to dread math and think he would never be able to master it.  By the time he entered middle school, he was getting A's in math and science and was no longer intimidated by it.  She offers private tutoring in North Berkeley.  You can read about her philosophy and methods on her website


In addition to my previous post, I'd also like to recommend Jane's book.  She recently published a book called, " Math Class Redesigned: How to Teach Children to Love Math", which is full of interesting accounts of her teaching children from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s on amazon.