[How-To] Make Math Fun

The minds behind Stevens’ Math Olympiad and Math Circle Initiative advise on nurturing a love of the subject in children.

Against a troubling backdrop of math learning loss among U.S. schoolchildren,* there are bright spots at Stevens, where faculty leaders are deeply invested in nurturing a love of math.

Since 2017, the Stevens Math Circle Initiative — building on a model that originated in Eastern Europe — has offered free math enrichment to local elementary and high school students with grant support, including a recent grant from the National Science Foundation. The Stevens Mathematical Olympiad has held its annual math competition for grades 3–12 since 2016. Together, these programs designed for students who have an interest in math have reached well over 1,000 children.

Math Olympiad Committee chair Pavel Dubovski and Math Circle co-organizers Jan Cannizzo and Andrey Nikolaev — Stevens math professors — agree that parents and caregivers play an important role in nurturing a love of math in kids. The experts’ advice:

1. Embrace positivity, and wrong answers.

Countries whose children test well in math revere — not fear — math, Cannizzo says. Embrace a “no-fear” zone and reassure kids that wrong answers are OK and utterly important. “You have to go down many, many dead ends before you arrive at real understanding,” Cannizzo says.

2. Have a conversation

Ask questions to spark math discovery: Why is a negative times a negative always a positive? Have relaxed discussions and perhaps explore a “Math Problem of the Week,” such as one by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Dubovski advises. “The most important part is that the child develops into a person with the ability to think for themselves,” Nikolaev says.

3. Stamp out stereotypes.

Some stereotypes about girls being less successful in math persist. Cannizzo urges that all students be reassured that math success comes through hard work and perseverance, not a “fixed” talent; that math can be a fun, communal activity, not a lonely one; that math careers make the world a better place.

4. Seek fun, high-quality resources.

Entertaining, effective math videos have blossomed on YouTube: Numberphile, 3Blue1Brown. Other top picks: the MSRI Mathematical Circles Library, a book series; SmartGames.com; Sudoku and KenKen puzzles, which train logical reasoning; books, e.g., by Martin Gardner and Raymond Smullyan. Many activities can be adapted for struggling students.

5. Advocate.

Math enrichment and tutoring programs play an important role in fostering math achievement and interest but can be costly. Ask about scholarships. The Global Math Circle — an online program — offers some scholarships and sliding scale payments. Parents can also unite to advocate for a Math Circle or other math enrichment at their school.

— Beth Kissinger

* Among U.S. 13-year-olds, the average math score declined 9 points between the 2019–2020 and 2022–23 school years. Declines were seen across lines of race, class and geography. Most states also saw declines in fourth- and eighth-grade math scores from 2019–2022.

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress; The New York Times

Making Math Fun for Children — A Resource Guide

Parents and caregivers seeking fun, high-quality resources that nurture a love of math in their children are in luck — entertaining and effective videos, books and games abound. Stevens Math Circle Initiative organizers Jan Cannizzo and Andrey Nikolaev and Stevens Math Olympiad Committee chair Pavel Dubovski — all Stevens math professors — have gathered some recommendations for math enrichment. Many of these games and activities can also be adapted for struggling students.

Recommendations for Math Enrichment

Books by Raymond Smullyan and Martin Gardner

Mathematicians/authors Raymond Smullyan and Martin Gardner have published a number of popular, recreational math books. Some suggested titles include:

By Raymond Smullyan:
By Martin Gardner:

More Suggested Books

Recommended Online Resources

  • The National Association of Math Circles is a national network of local math communities dedicated to student engagement and teacher professional learning. This website includes a map of Math Circles across the country, resources and more.

  • Parents can enroll their children in an online math circle via The Global Math Circle, founded by math educators Robert and Ellen Kaplan — two major Math Circle proponents in the U.S.

  • The website for the University of Texas at Austin’s “Sunday Morning Math Group at UT” publishes many links to a number of math games, organizations and programs.

  • Math educator David Pleacher — a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching — publishes an online collection of math games; Contig is a popular one.

  • Math Pickle is an online resource for teachers and parents; its collection of puzzles is notable.

Other Recommended Math and Logic Games

  • Set, a math card game

  • Prime Climb, a game of strategy and luck that explores mathematical structure in multiplication, division and prime numbers

  • Smart Games, a producer of multi-level logic games and board games for players of all ages

  • Rush Hour, a traffic jam logic game with sliding blocks

  • Krazy Dad, a large variety of Sudoku-style puzzles

  • Cross+A, a giant collection of a variety of puzzles.