I made a game with my daughter to help get her excited about math…

…and here it is… Pirate Addition!


I’m a believer that kids should learn because it’s fun, not because they “have to.” BUT, I also believe that people have to practice boring stuff and fight through it in order to get to the value on the other side.

When your kids are 4 and 2 that creates a problem because they simply don’t understand the “long term value” of pushing through. So often I just have to kind of “force” my daughter to write a bunch of A’s or practice adding, or whatever fundamental stuff we all have to learn.

But math has just been harder, so I thought I’d try something creative.

Lily loves pirates, she makes up little games where we run around the house going on treasure hunts. So I thought “hmm… is there any way to combine pirates with math so that I can trick her into thinking math is fun.”

Limitations are legion. I don’t have anything to “make” a game with. She will be awake in an hour. I am not a game designer, etc etc. I think this was successful because I didn’t overthink it. Kept it simple.

Here’s the components:
1) Each person is a pirate ship (I printed out a pirate ship picture, taped it to a coin and used a plastic alligator clip to make it stand upright.).
2) There are cards that have “easy” and “hard” questions (green x and red x).
3) The board is a piece of paper printed to look like a parchment and 6 islands I taped to it.
4) There are black squares between the islands that indicate where the ship sails to.
5) There’s a big black “X” at the end where the “treasure” is.

That’s it.

The game is simple. You oscillate turns and you pick an “easy” or “hard” card. If you answer the question right you move one space for each easy question and two for each hard question. (easy are 1,2,3 addition, hard is 4 and 5).

There’s a special “Lava” square. note this is cause I screwed up and accidentally drew a red square and Lily asked me if that was “hot lava.” I said “uhh…. yes….” and then made it a “2 turn” square. Turns out this breaks up gameplay nicely.

The first person to the “X” wins.

Shockingly… yes. Lily and I have played about a half dozen games and during that time she does about 6-10 math questions per game. I gave her a “pirate notepad” to allow her to figure out the problems on her own. I also have her “help me” answer my math questions.

Frankly I’m surprised that it worked and I wish I would have tried this earlier. Now I’m tempted to tinker and iterate, but I suspect that I will most likely ruin the simplicity and she won’t like it as much.

There’s no REAL treasure, there’s no benefit to winning and there’s nothing really complex going on.

I think the key lesson here is that if you just try something simple with what you have in front of you to try and solve a problem, it’s amazing how far you can get; and if you spend forever thinking about it, it’s amazing how long you can procrastinate.

Give it a try!