10 Tips for Teachers: How to teach maths creatively

29 April 2020

Looking for inspiration on how to set creative maths activities for your students? A New Direction Programmes Officer (and ex-teacher) Marina Lewis-King shares some useful resources & ideas

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Image credit: The Publication Plan

Most of the ideas suggested here will be suitable for primary school settings but could be adapted for EYFS or secondary schools, and are suggested with class-based learning in mind. If you are looking for activities specifically for home-based learning, some of these may be suitable, but do check out our LookUp platform for more resources.

1. Get problem solving

NRICH has free problem solving challenges which you can use in the classroom, including live problems where teachers or children can submit solutions to be published. They have suggested age ranges and stars for difficulty.

Check out their curriculum mapping documents for primary or secondary to find the right problem for your topic, from coded hundred squares to donut percentages.

Their latest Maths At Home features (for both primary and secondary) contain a wealth of age-appropriate tasks suitable for working on at home, with accompanying articles on how to make the most of the activities. Whether your learners have access to a tablet, or simply pencil and paper, they will find something to develop their problem-solving and reasoning skills. If you use Twitter, you can share learners' thoughts and ideas about these tasks using the hashtag #NRICHmathsAtHome.

NRICH’s sister sitewild.maths.orgwas created to provide opportunities for learners to develop their mathematical curiosity and creativity outside the classroom, and you might find them useful for extra-curriculum maths clubs in the future. While this page is useful as a starting point for maths clubs.

NRICH also has a professional development page and you can find out about upcoming free events here.

2. Play more games

It isn’t just complex maths ideas or problem solving that can be fun and creative - mental arithmetic can be too!

Numberfit offer physically active maths competitions and resources for primary, and a play-mat called Numbertots for fun maths delivered through story for EYFS.

Times Table Rockstars is a paid for app for students to practice their times tables daily, with an emphasis on encouraging speed. Students can compete against each other in competitions or practice individually. The more they practice, the more money they are awarded to buy outfits or instruments for their virtual band avatar. Some schools run whole year group competitions and celebrate the highest scorer with champion of the week.

Number Rumbler from Maths on Toast is a fun card game to practice times tables, whilst NRICH has a virtual Countdown game to play with the whole class. You can also find a list of maths board games on Doodle Maths.

YouCubed is another online problem-solving resource, with a range of fun and creative activities suitable to be done at home.

3. Read mini maths stories

Introduce mathematical concepts and structures through a mini story to contextualise them, or to set a problem for the students to solve. You might choose to read the story at the end of a lesson to consolidate learning. There are many picture books out there perfect for this across a range of topics, and they are suitable for KS1 to 3 - not just early years!

For example, One Is a Snail, Ten Is a Crab could be used to consolidate counting in EYFS but also to introduce partitioning and multiplication in KS1, or to contextualise algebra for KS2. The Sir Cumference series of books could be used for KS2 and KS3 for a whole range of geometry and shape related maths. How Many Jellybeans? could help younger children understand large numbers or support upper primary children in estimation.

For recommendations of books to use for various maths concepts and ideas for lessons visit Maths Through Stories.

Twinkl also list books by topic on their site, including numbers and counting.

4. Tell your own maths stories

As a teacher, I found that working out ways to see how maths topics could be applied to everyday life could sometimes be easy and other times near impossible. One idea to solve this is encouraging pupils to write their own maths stories or even create their own story picture books. This challenges the children to link abstract ideas to the real world in a way they understand, while consolidating their knowledge through ‘testing’ and ‘teaching’ others through their own invented problems related to their stories.

A verbal version for children with SEND or in EYFS could be to re-tell a well-known fairy tale as a class, with the teacher drawing the journey of the character on the board. Every now and then, the teacher poses a question e.g. ‘How many cakes did Red Riding Hood have in her basket?’ and draws the answer on the board. After the story is complete, the whole class say the story out loud again a couple of times (with added actions for extra fun) reading out the numbers of cakes carried, trees walked past or teeth the wolf has.

Other ways to link to literacy as a hook to interest your pupils could be making your own strange mixtures (and measuring them) – a great activity if you're reading George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl, or making an Iron Man to scale of real life body measurements. Fictional journeys such as Nation by Terry Pratchett or The Green Ship by Quentin Blake can be a great way of allowing the children to choose different areas of maths to practice through their story telling. You might even challenge children to write a pi poem.

5. Try some mathematical drama

Ensemble by theatre company Complicitéis a programme that centres on whole class drama as an alternative approach to moving through the curriculum together, and aims to reframe maths as a creative group endeavour.

The project brings together activities developed in Complicité’s successful school based maths/drama workshops and a number of body-based activities and approaches developed by mathematics educators. All activities align with the Primary Mathematics National Curriculum and there are free resources available online.

For more ideas on using performance art in maths, check out this list of activities from Artis.

6. Combine maths with visual arts

All primary teachers will likely have had their pupils draw a mandala or cut out snowflakes to understand symmetry, but how about exploring patterns in the work by artist MC Escher? Or looking at examples of the golden ratio?

Mathematical sequences can be explored visually too – you could depict pi as a skyline, or instead of spirals for Fibonacci, use a compass to make unique arrangements of coloured circles.

Check out Artful Maths for more inspiration.

7. Get model making

Get inspired to apply maths in architecture in primary school with a series of lessons from Collins, or in secondary school with resources from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Maths on Toast has a couple of how-to videos presented by KS2 children on how to make 3D shapes and sturdy structures.

8. Run a maths festival

Schools often already have weeks dedicated to certain subjects, such as science or art - how about a maths week? This can incorporate some big and fun learning points to make memorable moments and can be a chance to highlight some of the fantastic mathematicians in history and how their work contributed to how we live today.

Over one week there could be a series of classroom based creative maths activities for the whole school, culminating in a sharing event to which parents and carers could be invited. This would be an opportunity for all those fun maths activities that might not fit into the usual timetable.

Want ready-made supplies and themes? Maths on Toast offer a paid for pack to support you in running a Festival of Triangles.

9. Embed mastery

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) offer free mastery resources for both primary and secondary. They break content down into teaching points, include visual representations of problems to use with the students and provide guidance for teachers.

They are not designed to be directly lifted and used as teaching materials, but aim to support teachers in developing their subject and pedagogical knowledge along with existing schemes of work.

10. Don’t forget about STEM

For secondary schools, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) will be a key way to encourage creativity in maths. STEM Learning has many free resources, while NRICH has a page of resources for half a term of a STEM club.

In primary settings, engineering can be the perfect way to apply maths skills through investigating structures, exploration and global issues.

Are you a teacher who has more tips for teaching maths creatively and want to share them with us?

Get in touch

We are particularly interested in KS3 ideas.

If you have tried any of the activities on this list, we would love to hear about it too - tweet us @A_New_Direction