Puzzles are fun, but are they math?

scott kim
5 min readJan 15, 2023

Those of us who love mathematics enjoy playing mathematical puzzles and games. And we think that if we share these experiences with young students, their interest in mathematics will blossom. Right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For years I’ve brought mathematical puzzles like Sudoku and Rush Hour into classrooms. The kids have a great time.

And when I ask them why we are solving puzzles in a math class, they say they are learning about problem-solving and logical thinking. They get it.

But then…everything goes back to “normal”. The class resumes its daily grind of lectures and worksheets.

You see, puzzles aren’t part of the official math curriculum, so they don’t count as real mathematics — for the teacher, or for the students. So any insights students gain from playing with mathematical puzzles get discarded as frivolous diversions from “real” mathematics.

What a disappointment! This sort of experience leaves us math reformers frustrated. We achieve what we think is a moment of success, but then it all evaporates, plowed under by the weight of conventional textbooks.

The problem:

What to do? I recently talked with Michaela Epstein, who leads math teacher circles in Australia, about this issue.

Here’s our analysis of the problem.

  1. Teachers are under strict orders to cover the conventional mathematics curriculum using prescribed methods so students can pass prescribed standardized tests. That’s why most teachers are reluctant to devote class time to activities that do not fit into their curriculum.
  2. Parents want to be able to help their kids with mathematics without being embarrassed or confused by unfamiliar lingo. That’s why math reform efforts like Common Core fail — parents’ eyes glaze over when they see their kid’s homework filled with unfamiliar terms.
  3. Kids want activities they can be successful at, without feeling like they have no idea what’s going on. When kids meet repeated failure, they lose interest and resign themselves to memorizing meaningless formulas that they promptly forget.

Possible solution: Math storybooks

Here’s a possible solution we came up with. It’s called “Math Storybooks”, and it’s the mathematical analog of Scholastic’s line of books for kids, which include such classics as The Magic Treehouse and Harry Potter.

Here’s how Math Readers work, and how they address the needs of all three audiences. See what you think.

Storybook format. We create a series of short entertaining storybooks, written for kids, that act as supplements for common units in the math curriculum, especially challenging topics like understanding base 10, fractions, or negative numbers.

>> This format makes it easy for a teacher to assign these books to students who need extra help with a concept, without taking up extra class time — a real need that teachers have. Books can be read in class or sent home to read with parents.

Parents read these books with their kids. Parents are familiar with the importance of reading with their kids; math readers fit right into this familiar format. This idea of course works best with students who are young enough to still be reading with their parents.

>> The book explains the math concepts and language in a story context, bringing parents along on the journey without them feeling lost. The story can also tell parents exactly what the problems in the story have to do with the mathematics they are familiar with.

The books present problems that the characters solve. We’re following the format of a mystery story here. Because students are watching other characters solve problems, they get the full excitement of encountering a hard problem, without the anxiety of having to solve it themselves. Furthermore, they get to see the characters make mistakes and head down blind alleys, which demystifies and humanizes the problem-solving process.

>> All students can feel successful, no matter what level of ability they are at. Kids who want to solve the problem themselves can stop the story at any time and guess what will happen next. Kids who don’t want to solve the problem themselves get to experience all the ups and downs of other people working through the solution. And they get to experience the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to problem solving.

Finally, Math Readers are relatively easy to develop. There’s no software to write, and we don’t have to build an entire curriculum. We can cherry-pick a few topics, write a few different books, and try them out quickly.

A variant of this idea that does not require fiction-writing skills is to create a book of progressively more difficult puzzles, starting very easy and gradually getting more difficult. A brief introduction addressed to parents explains what this has to do with mathematics.

Examples of Math Storybooks

So that’s our proposal. Before I end I want to acknowledge that there are a number of children’s storybooks that already fill this role. Some of my favorites are:

Anno’s Magic Multiplying Jar. A mind-blowing visual journey that explains the idea of factorials (1x2x3x4…) without a single word. A math book that makes young kids cheer. Includes a full written explanation written for parents. Anno and his son have written many picture books, many wordless, that address mathematical ideas with great imagination.

You Can Count on Monsters. A wordless book that explores prime factorization of the numbers 1 to 100 through…monsters. This is a great example of how advanced mathematical ideas can be presented to younger students by choosing the right visual representation.

Books by Greg Tang. Greg is a self-appointed poet of elementary math, who started by writing charming poems with colorful illustrations that invite young children to think flexibly and imaginatively about counting, addition, and multiplication. Visit his site to sample his expanding world of books, games, and manipulatives.

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, by Eric Berlin. Captivating young-adult mystery novels filled with a wide variety of imaginative puzzles, some solved in the text and some left as exercises for the reader, written by a master puzzle creator. For older students. Doesn’t focus on any one area of mathematics; many of the puzzles are word games. This is an invitation to become a better problem solver. Eric is now making new puzzles available by subscription, called Puzzlesnacks.

Open Middle problems. Here’s the book. No fiction here, just puzzles aimed at every topic and age level, from counting to calculus. Students can’t rely on rote methods to solve these open-ended imaginative puzzles, even though they use nothing but familiar mathematical operations. The website is a repository of problems, cataloged by age level and topic.

Mathical Books. Finally, there’s now an annual prize for the best math books for kids of all ages. The site is a great resource for discovering good math books for kids.

Conclusion

So what do you think? Do you have favorite math storybooks? If you’re a teacher, is the topic you wish you had a math storybook for? Let me know in the comments.

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scott kim

I’m an innovation coach at gamethinking.io, puzzle designer, ambigram artist, and math education evangelist. Connect with me at http://linkedin.com/in/scottekim