As a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, I’ve found that using puzzles in the classroom has benefits for students of all learning levels and abilities. Solving puzzles adds variety to daily lessons, helps children practice math concepts, and develops mathematical thinking—not to mention that puzzles are a fun and engaging way to bring math “to life”!
Puzzles serve as a great motivator for all types of math learners because they promote creativity, perseverance, and strategic thinking. Students who are struggling in math may find a new route through puzzling. At the same time, students who are comfortable with (or even proficient in) mathematical concepts can be challenged to think about learning in a different way. Puzzles can help solidify concepts and encourage deeper understanding, and they also provide the opportunity to manipulate, problem solve, and promote creativity.
Types of Math Puzzles
I have used a variety of puzzles in my classroom that have helped my students learn a number of different math skills:
These puzzles offer students practice with their visual and spatial skills. Mazes also help develop this skill set.
Pentominoes are a fun way to practice geometry skills as well as visual and spatial skills. Here’s how I use them: First, my students learn about what makes a shape a pentomino and how a set of pentominoes can be manipulated into larger or more complex shapes. After becoming more comfortable, students learn how to put several pentominoes together to create their own puzzles. Once their pieces are arranged, they trace the outside of the new shape, remove the pentominoes, and challenge their peers to solve their puzzle. It’s a great example of bringing math to life for students, and giving them the opportunity to develop their own ideas and spatial understandings.
These popular puzzles are ones that give children an opportunity to practice using their deductive reasoning skills and problem-solving skills.
There are all kinds of logic puzzles, but I use grid logic puzzles most often. Each puzzle has a series of categories and a number of options within each category. Each option is used once, and the goal is to figure out which options are linked together based on a series of clues. Each puzzle has one solution and is solved using simple logical processes.
Just like their previous work with pentominoes, after giving my students several logic puzzles, they are now creating their own! Many of the students choose to create puzzles with a classmate, which provides opportunities for collaboration and discussion about the puzzle. This helps to build classroom community. In addition to learning how to problem solve, students are learning about the importance of being specific, composing clear clues and directions (algorithms), and reviewing their work.
Math riddles are another type of puzzle that challenges students to think critically, logically, and creatively. Examples are polygon riddles and other brainteasers.
Math riddles are an excellent tool to help students think critically and to practice their problem-solving skills. One example of how I use math riddles is during our geometry unit, when the students are learning about polygons. I give the students one clue at a time, and they remove possibilities from their shape cards. An example of a polygon riddle: Clue 1: This polygon is not a parallelogram. Clue 2: This polygon does not have any right angles. Clue 3: This polygon does not have any obtuse angles. Clue 4: This polygon has exactly 2 congruent sides. What is the name of the polygon? Answer: Isosceles triangle. These riddles reinforce the students’ understanding of shapes and geometry vocabulary like parallel sides, perpendicular sides, types of angles, and lines of symmetry. After solving several riddles, the students create their own puzzles to share with each other. Another type of puzzle that challenges kids to think creatively is brainteasers, such as: What occurs twice in a week, once in a year but never in a day? Answer: The letter e.
Puzzles are a wonderful way to draw kids into math learning. After all, solving math problems is, in a way, just like solving puzzles. When kids see mathematics as puzzles, they are more engaged and have a more flexible approach to learning math.
Jackie Metcalf is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Falk Laboratory School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has been teaching for 19 years. She is married and has two children who enjoy puzzles.