Go Retro - Family Math Games to Play On The Move

Go Retro - Family Math Games to Play On The Move

Just twenty minutes into a six hour road trip and a small voice pipes up, “Are we nearly there yet? I’m booooored.”  

Although it is oh so tempting, don't immediately reach for the devices to entertain the kids. This summer, give these math games a go instead. 

Encourage everyone to get involved (yes, even grown-ups) for some healthy competition. It may seem rather retro, but we guarantee you more fun than you imagine!

License plate games

You can hardly look out of a moving car window without seeing a number — whether it’s on a road sign, an advertisement board or, most reliably, a passing car’s license plate. The resourceful parent with restless passengers can use these as a sort of random number generator for several math games.

Odd or even

“Odd or even” is good both for practicing recognition of numbers and for counting. The game is to predict whether the passengers will spot more even numbers or odd numbers on license plates before a time of your choosing — and then test that hypothesis!

One player counts the odd license plates, the other the even. As a car goes by, someone — either one of the players or a neutral — should call out the number on its plate; the player who just ‘scored’ then calls out their new total.

Odd or even can be played to a time limit or until someone reaches a given score, depending on what the players prefer!

Reach 100

It’s not very practical to play cards in the car (especially if you’re driving). However, you can play a variation of twenty-one without having to worry about shuffling and dealing, while still getting the mathematical benefits! Each player’s goal is to get their total to 100 — or as close to it as they can.

Each player starts from zero, and take turns to ‘add a card’. When a vehicle passes, add up the digits on its license plate and adds the total to the running total: if they have 47 and a car with the number ‘194’ on its plate passes, they would add 1+9+4=14 to their score and say “61”. They can then choose to ‘stick’ and make that their final score, or twist and add the next number plate to their total. If they go over 100, though, bad luck! They score nothing.

Whoever ‘sticks’ closest to 100, wins the round. It is traditional for the loser to request “best of 3”, then 5, then 7…

* There’s nothing special about 100 — if you want to pick a higher or lower target, feel free!

Multiplication fact practice

If multiplication is an area you're keen to work on, use license plates for practice. When a car passes, call out the digits on the license plate; the players race to multiply.

If the number on a passing license plate is 352, the first person to work out 3 × 5 × 2 and say “30” gets a point; set a winning target depending on how long the journey is and how busy the roads are.

* For younger children you can try adding the digits rather than multiplying.

Spotting games

License plates aren’t the only math tool at your disposal on your travels. If the kids can keep their eyes peeled, there are plenty of other ways to use the features they can see out of the window as a source of math practice games. Spotting games are also useful for train journeys, where you tend not to see so many license plates.

Spot the shape

“Spot the shape” combines shape knowledge, observation and a little bit of creativity! The game is to be the first to spot a named shape: for example, if the shape is ‘circle’, someone might point out the wheel of a lorry; if it’s ‘triangle’, a road sign might fit the bill.

Only the most competitive families (like mine) keep score in this one.

* Be prepared to make rules about what’s allowed — can a triangle have rounded corners? Does a rectangle count as a square?

Games you can play in the dark

Observation games are great for passing the daytime hours — but what about at night, when it’s too dark to spot bikes on roofs? We’ve got some ideas for that, too!

Number Guess Who?

You know the game Guess Who?, where you have a board full of flipped-up faces and you have to deduce which of them your opponent has chosen using yes/no questions? Again, that’s not really practical for the car. However, you can do something similar in your heads using numbers instead of faces!

The hider picks a number — let’s say between 1 and 50, but you can choose different limits. The guesser asks yes/no questions, such as: is it odd? does it have a 7 in it? is it a prime number? — and the hider answers truthfully. Once the guesser has successfully guessed, the roles switch and the game goes on as long as there’s interest in it.

Think of a creature

This car game doesn't have any math but it's a great way to pass a half hour on the highway. Better still, it's super-easy so young kids, old kids and moms and dads can join in. One person in the car thinks of an animal ( or fish, bird, insect, reptile...) and the others have to guess what it is with questions such as:

  • Does it have four legs?
  • Does it have fur?
  • Does it live in water?

The answer to any question can only be "yes" or "no". With some clever questions it's amazing how quickly you can narrow down the creature - that's unless it's a really obscure critter like the Aye-aye. (I bet you've never heard of it!)

Are we nearly there yet?

There are dozens of ways to ask questions about the journey itself to add some mathematical interest to the never-ending tedium of travel. Get the children to estimate things and see, later on, how close they were. How many miles are there still to go? How long will that take? What time will that be? How much gas will it take to fill the car up? How much will that cost? You could go on for hours… and you probably will!

Spending long hours on the move with unhappy passengers is most people’s idea of hell — but with a little inventiveness and a sprinkling of math, the journey can turn into something that seems to pass just a little more quickly, while building their math skills.


I’m Ged, Co-founder of Komodo, ex-math teacher and dad. If you have any questions please get in touch.

About KomodoKomodo is a fun and effective way to boost K-5 math skills. Designed for 5 to 11 year olds to use in the home, Komodo uses a little and often approach to learning math (15 minutes, 3 to 5 times per week) that fits into the busy home routine. Komodo users develop fluency and confidence in math - without long periods at the screen.

Find out more about Komodo and how it helps thousands of children each year do better at math – you can even try Komodo for free. 

And now we've got Komodo English too - check it out here.

Related Posts

How Wordle Can Help with Math Anxiety

Wordle, which you might think is simply a word game, is actually a mathematical puzzle. Yes, it may use words and letters instead of numbers, and a wide vocabulary doesn't hurt, but the logic, strategy, probability and elimination processes we use to solve it are actually math skills.

Favourite story books for introducing kids to math

Children's story books are not just good for developing reading and literacy - they can help foster a good understanding of math