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2020 Holiday Gift Guide

December 13, 2020

Looking for the right gift for a young kid you know? Try one of our gift ideas below to add some joy AND build mathematical skills! These gifts can support math learning with engaging stories, build confidence and motivate through games, and help kids explore and learn through play.

Books

Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light

Taking place in New York City, a young boy searches for his lost dragon. On each page of pen-and-ink illustrations, the boy searches on, while also counting various objects, like buses, taxis, ships in the harbor, and hot dogs. Quite helpfully, the objects to be counted (numbers 1-20) are the only splashes of color on each page. And with so many details on each page, there is always more to discover with each reading. See if your child can find the author and illustrator himself in one of the pictures, or if they can find the escaped monkey later on in the book!

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin

This is a humorous diary from the perspective of a worm, with amusing entries about his everyday life, like needing to dig deeper into the ground during fishing season and avoiding hopscotch games. Each entry is labeled with the date, so you and your child can calculate elapsed time as you read.  

A Cloak for the Dreamer by Aileen Friedman

A tailor has three sons—two who want to grow up to be tailors just like their father and one son who wants to travel the world. Each son is tasked with designing and making a cloak for the Archduke. Two of the sons use pieces of cloth in the shape of rectangles, squares, and triangles, while the third son uses circles to create a cloak, leaving spaces between the shapes. This beautiful book is excellent for exploring angles and tessellations. Have your child experiment with different shapes to make tessellations, challenging them to make a tessellation involving more than one kind of shape.  

Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

The main character, a young girl, hears her teacher announce that everything can be thought of as a math problem, and suddenly feels she is under a math curse. She now sees everything in her life as a math problem. Some of the problems she encounters involve real math, like asking how many quarts are in a gallon, while others are there for humor like asking whether tuna fish + tuna fish = fournafish. This is a fun, energetic book filled with numerous references to different math concepts (measurement, multiplication, addition, subtraction, fractions, estimation, and data) that kids would enjoy as both a read-aloud and for revisiting on their own.

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet

Two sixth graders, Petra and Calder, have a mystery to solve. A thief has stolen a valuable Vermeer painting en route to Chicago, where they live. The two friends follow the trail of clues that the thief has put in the newspaper in an attempt to recover the painting. The book involves pentominoes (mathematical puzzle pieces), probability, and codes. This is a fun, interesting book reminiscent of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The follow-up to this book, The Wright 3, also includes pentominoes and codes, but adds a component of architecture as well. And the third book in the series, The Calder Game, again involves pentominoes and codes to solve the mystery, but this story involves mazes and the work of artist Alexander Calder.  

Toys

Inchimals

Inchimals is a set of 12 wooden blocks, measuring from 1 inch to 12 inches in height. However, these are not just boring wooden blocks—each one is a different animal, ranging in size from the 1” ladybug to the 12” giraffe. The different Inchimals can be combined to have fun with measuring, and the set comes with a small book of math puzzles for kids explore counting, measuring, numbers, and scale.

Magna-Tiles

These blocks are fantastic—they come in several shapes and colors, and each piece is a polygon (so no curved sides). There are magnets along the edges inside the blocks that allow them to easily stick together. Your child can build towers and towns and whatever else comes from their imagination, and you can also support them learning about polygons and polyhedrons, using vocabulary that they have learned in school like “vertices”, “angles”, “faces”, and “edges”. While I use these in class in our study of geometry, I’ve found that students will happily go grab these any time we have indoor recess, they just love playing with them so much. And clean-up is SO easy—since they each have magnets in them, all you have to do is stack the same shapes together and they stick together easily and fit nicely in the box.

Tangrams

Tangrams are always a great way to play with shapes and build spatial reasoning. But I especially like this set because it is so kid-friendly, even when you’re on the go. It’s a small, spiral bound book containing 240 different puzzles, along with the solutions to look up if you get stuck. Each of the seven tangram shapes is a different color AND they are magnetic, so your child won’t struggle with trying to keep shapes in place as they figure out the rest of the puzzle.

Tower of Hanoi

An ancient puzzle, the Tower of Hanoi is a test of logic and strategy. The object is to move all 8 discs from the peg farthest to the left to the peg farthest to the right. You must stack them in order from largest at the bottom to smallest at the top, BUT you can only move one disc at a time and you cannot put a larger disc on top of a smaller disc. This has been a favorite puzzle in my classroom; they love the challenge as well as the perseverance that it requires. And once they solve it, they love it so much that they keep going back to it in order to try to get faster and more efficient in solving the puzzle.

Shape-O-Metry

Shape-O-Metry allows kids to play with tetronimoes to develop spatial, abstract, and quantitative reasoning skills. The set of 20 shapes also comes with 50 puzzle challenges to push your child’s thinking. There are several levels of difficulty, as well, so your child won’t get bored with the puzzles and can continue to challenge themselves. They can move from beginner all the way up to genius level.

Games

Mancala

This is a great game that I really enjoyed playing as a kid. It is simple enough that younger kids can play it, but has enough strategy and combinations to keep older kids interested. On another note, if you would rather DIY, it is simple enough to make a project out of making your own set over the holiday break. All you need is an egg carton, and some paint or markers to decorate it with your kid. Then, together you can decide what objects you want to use as the “stones”—this can be large beads, dry pasta, pebbles, or small shells that you find together.

Shut the Box

This game can be simple enough for the little ones to play, but variations can give it enough complexity to keep it interesting for all ages. The premise of the game is to keep rolling the two dice, adding up the total, and then knocking over numbers that make that total. At the end of your turn, you add up all of your remaining numbers and that is your score, with the object to have the lowest score each round, or ideally to “shut the box”, meaning you were able to knock down all of the numbers. We played with a variation that each player could choose to either add the two numbers on the dice or multiply them, making the game great for reinforcing addition and multiplication facts, aiding in thinking about numbers flexibly, and even getting kids thinking about probability and using that in their strategies.

Mastermind

This is a quick, simple strategy game for two players. Players must use deductive reasoning and logic to figure out the other player’s “code”. I have played this game a number of times with third graders during rainy day recesses, but I would also recommend it for older kids as well.

Rat-a-Tat Cat

This suspenseful card game helps to teach both addition skills and strategy, and is fun to play for children and adults alike. The object of Rat-a-Tat Cat is to get the lowest score by trying to get rid of the rat cards (high) and go for the cat cards (low). Players are dealt four cards face down, but you can take an initial peek at two of the cards. At each turn, a player pulls a card from the draw pile to replace one of their four cards. But with only that initial peek, you must remember what cards you have and keep track of those values. Throughout the game you have options to sneak a peek at another’s cards, draw two, or swap cards with another player. To do well in this game, you need good timing, memory skills, and awareness of others (particularly poker faces!). This game is even a great way to start developing probability skills.

Prime Climb

Not only is the game beautiful and colorful, but it’s also fun and mathematical at the same time! Each player rolls the dice and uses addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to make their way to the center of the board. Adding to the excitement is the ability to bump other players back to start as you go. The first player to land both pawns on 101 wins the game. It’s a great way to practice arithmetic as well as build understanding of factors and prime numbers.

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This list represents some of our favorite books, games, and toys that are great gifts year-round, but can help ring in some holiday cheer this season!

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