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Making math fun for kids: Seattle couple creates board games, teaching tools

Katherine Cook and Dan Finkel believe that kids who are having fun will better achieve math mastery.



Math for Love founders Katherine Cook and Dan Finkel transform numbers into fun.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

Math and love have always gone hand-in-hand for Dan Finkel. As a child, he learned to love patterns, puzzles and problems while attending math camp in Massachusetts. While studying mathematics at University of Washington, he fell in love with Katherine Cook, the woman who would later become his wife. When the couple founded a company with a mission of transforming how math is taught and learned, Math for Love seemed like the perfect name choice.

Today, Math for Love is a Seattle-based math education consultancy and board game development company with a worldwide reach. The Math for Love team strives to combine rigor and play to make math as fun for kids as it is challenging.

“I think we can turn kids off of math by making it too high-stakes,” says Finkel. “They feel like how they perform proves whether they are smart or not.”

After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014, Finkel and Cook created Prime Climb, a colorful 2-to-4 player board game for kids ages 10 and up that highlights the power of prime numbers. The basic mechanics of Prime Climb are simple enough that kids enjoy the game, but the possible strategies are complex enough that even adults take pause. For kids ages 3 to 8, Finkel and Cook designed Tiny Polka Dot, a card deck that can be used to play 16 different games focused on counting, arithmetic and logic.

“We wanted to give parents a fun way to make teaching math really playful and natural, instead of it being high-pressure and punishing,” says Finkel.

When not inventing math board games, mentoring teachers, writing curricula or giving his “Five Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching” TEDx Talk, Finkel and Cook contribute to the New York Times number blog, Numberplay. Math is an ingrained part of their work and leisure time. They truly model the rigor/play teaching philosophy that they espouse. The duo is driven by their conviction that math should be made accessible to everyone.

“Nobody really knows what the careers of the future are going to be,” says Finkel. “But math is such a common-sense superpower that it’s going to help kids have a full life, no matter what.”

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