Skip to content Skip to navigation

10 Family Card Games That Support Early Math Skills

Oct 24 2019

Posted In:

Parents, Teacher Educators, Teachers

Updated Nov. 19, 2021: Go to the DREME Family Math website for digital versions of the card games, including video tutorials.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this blog post focused on a series of four family card games that support early math learning. This fall, the creators of the card games developed a booklet of 10 family card games, which include the original four games. This post has been updated to reflect the full set of 10 family card games and expanded instructions.

By Beth Casey, Boston College, and Alana Foley, University of Chicago

Families play an important role in helping young children learn about numbers, counting, and other math skills. With their families’ help, children can learn to enjoy math from an early age. And the best news is that one way of learning about math at home is through playing games. Card games, for example, are a great way to have fun with children while learning math—and all you need is a deck of cards!

In this blog, we introduce you to a set of 10 card games we’ve designed for young children between the ages of about 4 to 7 years old, but older children will enjoy these games too. We hope that families will use our games as a starting point for creating their own games and discovering other ways to have fun with math at home.

What's Special About Our Card Games?

The Family Card Games for Building Young Children’s Math Skills booklet was created by educators Beth Casey and Eric Dearing from the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, and in collaboration with the San Francisco-based organization, Tandem, Partners in Early Learning

The math concepts in these card games are designed to help children begin to understand the meaning of numbers and how they relate to one another. The games are ordered from easier to more advanced in a way that helps children work on math concepts that have been shown to be critical for the development of arithmetic skills. [1, 2, 3]

What Math Skills Are Taught Through the Card Games?

In the card games presented here, children will be learning more about the following math concepts:

Identifying which number is larger or smaller. “Which number is larger, six or four?” Answering this question involves comparing the magnitude of numbers in relation to one another and helps children to understand that numbers are not only symbols but also represent a certain quantity that can be compared in size with other number symbols. This understanding gives them a toolbox for a host of more advanced math skills leading to addition and subtraction. [3] Comparing numbers can be tricky for young children, especially when larger numbers are very close together. [4] For example, it takes a young child longer to decide whether eight is larger than seven than it does for them to decide whether eight is larger than four. 

Ordering numbers between one and 10 from small to large“Can you put these numbers in order from smallest to largest: 4, 9, 6, 2, 7?” Putting number symbols in order from smallest to largest provides another way of thinking about the magnitude of numbers in relation to one another. Again, this is an important foundation for learning and doing addition. [5] Research has shown that even infants have a basic sense that there is an order to numbers. [6] However, being able to put numbers in order takes time and practice to develop. [7] One reason is that it can be hard for young children (and even adults!) to keep track of a lot of information at once. [8]

Adding with small numbers."If you have seven cards and I have five cards, how many cards do we have altogether?” Learning to add represents a major milestone in mathematical learning. It takes children years and lots of practice to master simple addition. [9] Not only will they use these skills in everyday life, but they will also continue to build on these skills for years to come as they learn increasingly complex arithmetic operations such as subtraction, multiplication and division, algebra, and more. 

More advanced arithmetic. “If you two take away from seven, what are you left with?” Subtraction is an important skill in early arithmetic. You could help children to think about addition with questions such as, “Two plus what number equals seven?” Solving these types of problems help children understand the relation between addition and subtraction.

Picking a Card Game for the Child's Math Level

Along with the games, we provide a simple chart (see below) to help families decide which game to start with and what to move on to as the child learns. This is important because research shows children’s learning happens when they are provided with just the right amount of challenge. Within the games, players can raise or lower the challenge based on the child’s skill level using variations provided for each game. There are also hints provided for each game that can be used to give children the appropriate amount of support and help. You can find links to the games at the bottom of this post.

First, you’ll need to find a standard deck of playing cards. You can buy them in drug stores everywhere and they are inexpensive.

Here’s how to identify which card game would be most effective for the child’s learning. You can also learn how to pick the card game that is just right for the child in this video tutorial

  • Begin with the simplest early math skill, Compares Larger and Smaller Numbers, which is found in the first left-hand column in the chart below. Start by asking the child to answer questions about the numbers on the cards. 
  • First, pull out all the number cards you will need for asking the questions. For the first set of questions in the left-hand column, you will need to show the child a 3, a 9, a 4, a 6, and a 7 card. 
  • If the child needs help answering anyof the questions “Can you tell me which number is larger?” or is unsure, then the card game shown at the bottom of that column, Count Jack is Highest, is the right card game for the child.  
  • If the child can answer allthese questions easily without any help from you, then go on to ask the questions in the next column.
  • Keep asking the questions in the columns on the chart until you have the right card game for the child. Then, right below the chart, download the card game booklet and start playing.
  • Finally, you might have noticed that the math skills taught through these card games take practice. What better way to practice math skills than with a game! So don’t play the card game just once. Play it many times before you move on to the next card game.

Download the chart in PDF format and access the video tutorial here.

Download All Card Games

The Family Card Games for Building Young Children’s Math Skills booklet is a series of 10 family card games. Each card game includes instructions for playing and a link to a video tutorial explaining the rules of the game. Download the card game booklet and have fun playing!

Beth Casey is Professor of Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College. Alana Foley is a statistician in Susan Levine's Cognitive Development Lab at the University of Chicago.


[1] Lyons, I. M., & Ansari, D. (2015). Numerical order processing in children: From reversing the distance‐effect to predicting arithmetic. Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(4), 207-221.

[2] Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., ... & Sexton, H. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental psychology, 43(6), 1428.

[3] Jordan, N. C., Kaplan, D., Locuniak, M. N., & Ramineni, C. (2007). Predicting first‐grade math achievement from developmental number sense trajectories. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 22(1), 36-46.

[4] Holloway, I. D. & Ansari, D. (2009) Mapping numerical magnitudes onto symbols: The numerical distance effect and individual differences in children’s mathematics achievement. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 103, 17-29.

[5] Lyons, I. M., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Numerical ordering ability mediates the relation between number-sense and arithmetic competence. Cognition, 121(2), 256-261.

[6] Brannon, E. M. (2002). The development of ordinal numerical knowledge in infancy. Cognition, 83(3), 223–240. 

[7] Spaepen, E., Gunderson, E. A., Gibson, D., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2018). Meaning before order: Cardinal principle knowledge predicts improvement in understanding the successor principle and exact ordering. Cognition, 180, 59-81.

[8] Gathercole, S. E., Pickering, S. J., Ambridge, B., & Wearing, H. (2004). The structure of working memory from 4 to 15 years of age. Developmental Psychology, 40, 177–190.

[9] Huttenlocher, J., Jordan, N. C., & Levine, S. C. (1994). A mental model for early arithmetic. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 123(3), 284.


Recent News

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

There are many reasons why children express total disinterest, and getting them involved can feel like a daunting task. This blog is for anyone who has encountered resistance around early math learning and wondered what to do about it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Instead of aiming to set aside time for one more thing to do, caregivers can find meaningful early math learning opportunities hidden in activities they are already doing with their children.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Math learning can occur throughout the school day by integrating math into classroom transitions and routines.