3 Math Apps My Kids Actually Play

Mission: Math title

It’s been a while since I’ve written up any iOS apps, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been playing them. This summer I’ve been trying to keep my daughters’ math skills sharp—particularly the older one, who had been slipping a little during the school year. But between the new baby and summer activities I’ve been a bit occupied and I haven’t had the ability to sit down and play card games or just do math drills. So as a stopgap measure I’ve been using a few math apps on the iPad.

My kids get screen time tokens that they can spend as they choose—watching cartoons on Netflix, playing games online, or playing on my iPad. During the school year, the main requirements were that they had to be done with any homework and violin practice before spending a token. For the summer, we added one more: before they got to use a 20-minute token to play, they had to spend ten minutes playing something math-related first. Since I’ve got a number of math-based apps to choose from, they didn’t mind at all—particularly because it was an extra ten minutes of screen time.

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Here are three of the apps that they’ve been playing with. I’ve checked them out myself and while they may vary in efficacy, these are at least the ones that they’ll choose to play.

King of Math
King of Math lets you level up as you solve problems.

We’ll start with the simplest one: King of Math Junior. The app is intended for ages 6 and up. (There’s also King of Math which covers middle school/junior high level math, but we’re not quite there yet.) The app allows for several profiles, so each kid has their own records of how they’re doing. I can tell at a glance how many points they’ve earned—plus, as you get points, you level up, which the kids enjoy. (There are boy and girl versions of the various characters, which is also pretty nice.)

King of Math
There are a variety of problems, not all of which I would consider “math.”

The problems are arranged in books, starting with basic counting and arithmetic skills, moving to geometry, comparisons, and fractions. There are also some puzzles and measuring problems. Each book has nine chapters in increasing difficulty, and you can earn from one to three stars in each chapter.

The problems are presented with very simple language, and they’re just multiple choice—tap on the right button to move on to the next problem. You’re rated on both your accuracy and speed, so there is some implicit encouragement to repeat chapters until you get all three stars.

Overall I’d say the problems included aren’t extremely difficult, but I like the variety of ways that problems are presented. Rather than just asking “What is 5 x 4?” the app may show four jars with five tomatoes each, and ask how many tomatoes there are. It gives the kids different concepts related to the arithmetic they’re doing.

One odd thing is that you can reach the highest level (King and Queen, naturally) without 3-starring all of the chapters. There are still more medals to win which do involve completing the chapters, but I wonder if my kids will lose interest once they hit Queen even if they haven’t finished everything.

Both King of Math and King of Math Junior are for iPad or iPhone, and have free versions if you want to try them out first, but at $.99 each they won’t break the bank.

Mission: Math
Mission: Math has you exploring a space station and solving problems.

The next one in complexity is Mission: Math—Sabotage at the Space Station. This one looks like a point-and-click adventure, although there’s not really a lot of interaction aside from moving from room to room and solving problems. The story is about a young S.M.A.R.T. agent who’s on her first routine mission, and you’re the junior agent who’s tagging along. But when the space station is sabotaged, you’re called upon to help figure out who did it. You get to adjust the look of the agent; I’m told the game is geared toward providing positive role models for girls—the young agent is a woman and there’s also an older woman who shows up later—but the junior agent can be made to look like a boy or a girl.

The math covered in the game is intended for ages 9 and up, and should match what students know by the end of fourth grade, which is perfect for my oldest daughter. Each room of the space station has one particular type of math problem. The simplest one involves simply pointing out the right place in a digit (ones, tens, hundreds, tenths, hundredths, etc.). There are also problems that involve fractions, simple geometry, and factors.

Mission Math
More screenshots from Mission: Math

The “chemistry lab” problems are more about measuring: making sure you have the right beaker, and then measuring the right amounts of fluids and powder to create goofy recipes. There’s also one lab in which you do math in Chinese, sort of: you’re presented with various math problems, but the answer choices are written out in pinyin, with a chart to consult.

As you solve problems, you get little snippets of storyline, and eventually the culprit is revealed. There isn’t really any interactivity during these cut-scenes, though, and your avatar isn’t animated like the rest of the characters. And although they do try to make your math problems part of solving various issues on the space station, some of the tasks seem, well, nonessential. It is fun, though, to have the little videoscreen while you’re learning problems—there are some other junior agents who get on the line with you and talk about what’s going on.

My daughter played through the entire app, and immediately asked if we could get the next one, which is teased at the end—but I had to tell her it’s not actually available yet, since this one is still a relatively new game. So she’s started over, even though she already knows the storyline. You can create multiple profiles in Mission: Math, so if you’ve got more than one kid playing through it the app will track their progress separately.

Overall, I was impressed with this one, mostly in the way that it held my daughter’s attention, and for presenting some interesting ways to present math problems. The graphics and interface can be a little clunky at times, but my kids didn’t seem to mind. At $7.99, it is a bit pricier, but if you’ve got kids at the right age range it could be worth it.

Dragon Box 2

DragonBox is still one of the most amazing educational apps I’ve encountered. It’s an app that teaches the mechanics of solving algebraic equations (“solve for x“) in a truly innovative way. When we first tried it out last year, my daughters were 8 and 5, and both of them were solving simple equations within an hour of playing with the app.

This year the publisher released DragonBox 2, which is very similar but covers more advanced topics, like parentheses, addition of fractions with common denominators, and more. The actual names in the iTunes store are DragonBox Algebra 5+ and DragonBox Algebra 12+, for the recommended ages.

DragonBox 2
Solving equations in DragonBox involves moving little icons between two sides of the screen.

Basically the way the app works is that you have two “trays” on the screen with little icons on them that look like creatures. At least one of them is a little sparkling crate, and you want to isolate that on one tray. The app ramps up gradually, showing you how to drag icons around, cancel out positive and negative versions of the icons, multiply or divide both sides of the equations by something, and so on.

The most fascinating thing to me was that it actually requires no arithmetic skills at first. It’s simply learning the rules to this game. But then, as the little creatures eventually get replaced by letters and numbers, the player becomes aware that the rules to DragonBox are the same as the rules of algebra. The app does not teach the theory of solving equations, just the mechanics of it, but what it does is internalize the habits. I don’t think that it should replace standard algebra teaching altogether, because you’ll need somebody to explain why the equations balance by doing these operations. But as far as teaching somebody how to solve an equation, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything that makes it so fun.

The older version is $5.99 and the newer version is $9.99. I don’t think you necessarily need to get both—the second one starts fresh and includes twice as many chapters. The app also allows for multiple players, each with their own account (and little cartoony avatar). Players are rewarded with a little growing creature as they solve problems, plus the usual one to three stars depending on how well you solved the equation.

Well, there you have it! These aren’t all of the math apps I have on my iPad. For instance, Operation Math is another one that GeekDad Jim Kelly recommended which is mostly about drilling arithmetic problems more and more quickly, but has a secret agent theme. My daughter could probably use that sort of practice, but she hasn’t been as excited about it. And I know Numbers League is another one that GeekMom Jenny Williams loves, both in digital form and the card form.

For now, though, these three are holding my kids’ interest, and when school starts I guess we’ll see how well they retained their math skills over the summer!

[This post originally ran in August, 2013]

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Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.