Mathematical Magic


It is a bright, sunny morning in the last full week of the 2012/2013 school year. The library is tidied, the hallway bulletin boards have been stripped and the big year-end clean up is almost complete. As I head down the hallway towards Cindy Haack’s grade five classroom I am greeted by several students who are eager to share their holiday plans with me. Yes, summer is definitely in the air!!

I open the classroom door just in time to hear Cindy give the signal to a number of grade one students to leave the games they are playing and move clockwise around the room to the next set of activities. Within moments the switch is made and the young children, with the help of their grade five buddies, are all engaged in their new tasks. What kind of magic is keeping these students so focussed a mere four days before the summer break? It is a Math Fair!


A Math Fair provides an opportunity for primary children to practise their math skills by engaging in math games and puzzles with their intermediate student buddies.


A Math Fair enables students to:

  • show what they know in a variety of ways
  • engage in peer coaching experiences
  • practise their math skills
  • develop confidence in their abilities
  • develop organization skills
  • enjoy math!!


By arranging student desks in a U shape around the perimeter of a classroom, a smooth transition can be made by the primary students as they move from station to station. A gym, library or multi purpose room will also work well if tables are set up to facilitate the traffic flow.


Cindy tells me that her grade five students independently handled most of the organization for the fair that I visited on that warm day in June. The steps that they followed are listed below.

Each student:

  • learned a variety of math games during their regular classroom Math classes (this took about two weeks).
  • selected two games that s/he wanted to teach to the younger children (one game had to be higher and the other lower in skill level).
  • stored the written instructions and supplies for each game in a zip lock bag.
  • labelled the bags with the names of the games and their own names.
  • created a poster to tape to the front of his/her desk (the information on the poster included the student’s name, the name of the two games or activities and the station number in the circuit sequence).

The class:

  • wrote invitations and sign up sheets that were left in the primary teachers’ mailboxes.
  • created blank graphs (bar, Venn, circle, etc.) on chart paper and posted them on the classroom walls. The intermediate students planned to graph the data that they collected from their younger buddies as they visited each station (age, gender, favourite sport, favourite ice cream flavour, odd or even address numbers and eye colour are just some of the data that could be collected and recorded in this way).


These are the events that I witnessed:

  1. Cindy welcomed the primary students into the grade five classroom.
  2. The primary students were assigned, in pairs, to a starting place in the circuit of games and activities.
  3. At Cindy’s signal the play began (the intermediate students quickly adapted the choice of game to the ability level of the players).
  4. Cindy timed the play for five to seven minutes and then prompted the primary children to move to the next station to their right.
  5. At the end of the 45 minute time block the primary students were asked to stop playing and to line up at the door, ready to go back to their own classroom (the grade one children did not visit all the stations in this time frame).

Resources / Games / Activities

There are many commercially made games and game pieces available at toy shops and teacher stores but intermediate students are also capable of inventing some interesting game boards and game pieces of their own. There are also several good teacher resources that provide game ideas.

Books by Kim Sutton, such as Place Value with Pizzaz and Dynamic Dice, contain a multitude of reproducible game boards to support the games and activities that are described in the books. These are available at

Many other math games are available

From observing the Math Fair in progress, and from the feedback that I received from the students and teachers, it is obvious that the primary students loved working with their older buddies and that the intermediate kids enjoyed being the teachers! Cindy tells me that she has also tried several successful variations on the Math Fair idea in the past. Here are just few:

  • When hosted in a larger space, such as a gym or library, parents can be invited to participate with their primary children. This idea would be a great addition to an after school event such as a Science or Literacy Fair.
  • A Math Fair could become a regular event — perhaps at the end of each term.
  • Literacy games and activities could be substituted for the math games.
  • Pairs of intermediate students could be coached to make classroom visits to teach a Math game, or to share a book that is particularly useful for teaching a math concept. Some picture books with a Mathematical theme are:
    • Counting on Calico by Phyllis Limbacher Tildes
    • Pigs Will Be Pigs: Fun with Math and Money by Amy Ayelrod
    • Jim and the Beanstalk by Raymond Briggs
    • Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Biorst
    • Amanda Bean’s Amazing Dream: A Mathematical Story by Cindy Neuschwander


Brenda Boreham
Brenda has 35 years of classroom experience. She has presented workshops on literature-based themes and literacy strategies, and has written a number of resources for teachers. She remains passionate about matching up kids with books.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2013 issue.

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