A young girl plays with an abacus in math class.
The Internet is full of cool math games, no abacus or love of numbers required. (Image credit: Gorilla | Shutterstock)

For children who find math difficult or frustrating, or who just like to be challenged, there are many cool math games online to play for free. But are they useful? Research shows that the brain’s systems for math and language are different, and some people are wired to be better at one or the other. That doesn't mean any student should give up on math, though it does suggest some students may need alternative methods to reach their potential.

Math games can be an effective way to learn. A study in 2010 found that the action-packed video game Dimension M beat traditional lessons in teaching linear algebra to seventh- and eighth-graders. Another option to boost skills and math confidence in kids is to buy math software, which allows for greater parental control than turning a child loose on the Internet. [See also: Best Math Apps]

Here are some cool online math games and websites we find to be educational and entertaining:

Math Cats The Math Cats website looks like something from the early days of the Internet. It's very simplistic in design, drawing and animation, but rather sophisticated in terms of the games. The homepage has a cat welcoming children to the site. Kids click on the cat and then see a menu of tools and games, including one called Math Machine in which the goal is like herding cats — you try to get all the cats off the board. An age calculator reveals how old a person is in days, hours, minutes or seconds. A logic puzzle, based on thinking from the eighth century, poses the problem of a sailor getting a wolf, a goat and a cabbage across a river. Only one can be carried at a time, and if left together, the wolf will eat the goat or the goat will eat the cabbage. Go figure! There are games aimed at the primary level up through middle-school levels. In addition to the cool math games, there is math trivia, an art gallery, and an attic full of math definitions.

B-Cubed B-Cubed can lead to hours of playing. The levels get harder as a player goes through a game, and some of the levels are very difficult to solve. A player slides a cube using the keyboard's arrows with the goal being to pass over every single square on the board until reaching the final square. It may sound easy to do, but it becomes progressively more challenging. B-Cubed is one of many thinking games, puzzles and mazes at Coolmath-Games.com. Another game on the site teaches angles by having the player try to shoot a moving target.

IXL Math This website has many cool math games for children starting at the Pre-K level and going up to algebra, with games broken down by grade level. Each level of IXL Math teaches hundreds of skills through games. An example: At the third-grade level, players learn how to add decimals, understand the placement of parentheses, and dozens of other skills related to multiplication and division, fractions, geometry, mixed operations and more.

First in Math This site covers math ranging from single-step addition to complex algebra problems with fun games to play. Students start at the level where they are struggling, then work their way through the First in Math program at their own pace. The program gives kids feedback to encourage them to keep going. The site requires a login.

Fun Brain This website has 17 math games that children can play. Fun Brain's math games are based on car racing, soccer, baseball and other sports and activities. There are also games based on popular books, such as "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and the "Amelia" series. There is an online Sudoku as well as reading games, too.

Math League Math League takes a different approach that goes way beyond animated online games: It works directly with schools and home-school parents to schedule contests for students to compete in. The site is designed for children in fourth grade through high school. In addition to contests, the Math League offers books and computer software, as well as a help section for students stuck on a problem. Registration is required.

AAA Math This one is not really a game site, but we included it because it may work best for some children who are serious-minded and just need some instruction. AAA Math has a boatload of math tutorials, each covering a discreet and narrow subject, that allow children to work out challenging problems. There are, for example, dozens of simple tutorials just for the concept of addition, with each one being more difficult than the last. The tutorials can be sorted by grade level.

Super Santa Kicker Super Santa Kicker is more about physics than simple math. It is an online game that is among the most popular loosely affiliated with the "math game" category. The goal is to help reindeer kick Santa into a series of chimneys. Of course there are obstacles. Kids have to figure out the correct strength and angle to get Santa into the chimney past the obstacles, which get more difficult with each level.

Live Science Staff
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