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Student Engagement

11 Real World Math Activities That Engage Students

Bridging the gap between abstract math concepts and real life experiences can make the subject accessible and relevant for kids.

March 15, 2024

During a unit on slope, José Vilson’s students just weren’t getting it, and their frustration was growing. The former middle school math teacher began brainstorming creative ways to illustrate the concept. “I kept thinking, ‘My students already understand how this works—they just don’t know that they know,’” Vilson writes in a recent article for Teacher2Teacher. “How can I activate knowledge they don’t believe they have?”

Then he thought about a hill a couple of blocks from school that his students “walk up every day to get to the subway.” He tacked up paper and began sketching stick figures on the hill. “One was at the top of the hill, one was halfway up, one was near the bottom skating on flat ground, and one was on a cliff,” writes Vilson, now the executive director of EduColor. “Which of these figures will go faster and why?” he asked his students. “That got my kids laughing because, of course, my stick figures weren’t going to hang in the MoMA.” Still, his sketch got them thinking and talking, and it provided a simple stepping stone that “gave that math relevance and belonging in their own lives,” Vilson concludes. 

“It’s not unusual for students to walk into our classrooms thinking that math belongs to people who are smarter, who are older, or who aren’t in their immediate circle,” Vilson writes. “But every time I teach math in a way that’s accessible and real for my students, I’m teaching them: ‘The math is yours.’”

To build on Vilson’s idea, we posted on our social channels asking teachers to share their favorite strategies for connecting math to students’ experiences and lives outside of school. We received hundreds of responses from math educators across grade levels. Here are 11 teacher-tested ideas that get students seeing and interacting with the math that surrounds them each day.

Hunt for clues

Coordinate systems can feel abstract to some students—but using coordinates to navigate a familiar space can solidify the concept in a relevant and fun way. “Before starting a unit on coordinates, I make gridded maps of the school—I make them look old using tea staining—and send my students off on a treasure hunt using the grid references to locate clues,” says Kolbe Burgoyne, an educator in Australia. “It’s meaningful, it’s fun, and definitely gets them engaged.”

Budget a trip

Students enjoy planning and budgeting for imaginary trips, teachers tell us, offering ample opportunities to practice adding, subtracting, and multiplying large numbers. In Miranda Henry’s resource classroom, for example, students are assigned a budget for a fictional spring break trip; then they find flights, hotels, food, and whatever else they’ll need, while staying within budget.

Math teacher Alicia Wimberley has her Texas students plan and budget a hypothetical trip to the Grand Canyon. “They love the real world context of it and start to see the relevance of the digits after the decimal—including how the .00 at the end of a price was relevant when adding.” One of Wimberley’s students, she writes, mixed up his decimals and nearly planned a $25,000 trip, but found his mistake and dialed back his expenses to under $3,000.

Tap into pizza love

Educators in our audience are big fans of “pizza math”—that is, any kind of math problem that involves pizza. “Pizza math was always a favorite when teaching area of a circle,” notes Shane Capps. If a store is selling a 10-inch pizza, for example, and we know that’s referring to its diameter, what is its total area? “Pizza math is a great tool for addition, subtraction, multiplication, word problems, fractions, and geometry,” another educator writes on our Instagram. There are endless pizza-based word problems online. Here’s a simple one to start, from Jump2Math: “The medium pizza had six slices. Mom and Dad each ate one slice. How much pizza is left?”

Break out the measuring cups

Lindsey Allan has her third-grade students break into pairs, find a recipe they like online, and use multiplication to calculate how much of each ingredient they’d need in order to feed the whole class. The class then votes on a favorite recipe, and they write up a shopping list—“which involves more math, because we have to decide, ‘OK, if we need this much butter for the doubled recipe, will we need three or four sticks, and then how much will be left over?’” Allan writes. “And then it turns out students were also doing division without even realizing!” 

Sometimes, a cooking mistake teaches students about proportions the hard way. “Nobody wants a sad chocolate chip cookie where you doubled the dough but not the chocolate chips,” adds teacher Holly Satter.

Get moving

Heading outdoors is good for kids’ bodies, of course, but it can also be a rich mathematical experience. In second grade, kids can head out to measure perimeters, teacher Jenna McCann suggests—perhaps of the flower boxes in the school garden. If outdoors isn’t an option, there’s plenty of math to be found by walking around inside school—like measuring the perimeter of the tables in the cafeteria or the diameters of circles taped off on the gym floor.

In Maricris Lamigo’s eighth-grade geometry class, “I let [students] roam around the school and take photos of things where congruent triangles were applied,” says Lamigo. “I have students find distances in our indoor courtyard between two stickers that I place on the floor using the Pythagorean theorem,” adds Christopher Morrone, another eighth-grade teacher. In trigonometry, Cathee Cullison sends students outside “with tape measures and homemade clinometers to find heights, lengths, and areas using learned formulas for right and non-right triangles.” Students can make their own clinometers, devices that measure angles of elevation, using protractors and a few other household items.

Plan for adult life

To keep her math lessons both rigorous and engaging, Pamela Kranz runs a monthlong project-based learning activity where her middle school students choose an occupation and receive a salary based on government data. Then they have to budget their earnings to “pay rent, figure out transportation, buy groceries,” and navigate any number of unexpected financial dilemmas, such as medical expenses or car repairs. While learning about personal finance, they develop their mathematical understanding of fractions, decimals, and percents, Kranz writes.

Dig into sports stats

To help students learn how to draw conclusions from data and boost their comfort with decimals and percentages, fourth-grade teacher Kyle Pisselmyer has his students compare the win-loss ratio of the local sports team to that of Pisselmyer’s hometown team. While students can struggle to grasp the relevance of decimals—or to care about how 0.3 differs from 0.305—the details snap into place when they look at baseball players’ stats, educator Maggierose Bennion says.

March Madness is a great source of real world data for students to analyze in math class, says sixth-grade math teacher Jeff Norris. Last March, Norris decorated his classroom like a basketball court, then had his students do basic statistical analysis—like calculating mean, median, and mode—using March Madness data, including individual game scores and the total win rate of each team. “We also did some data collection through our own basketball stations to make it personally relevant,” Norris says; students lined up in teams to shoot paper balls into a basket in a set amount of time, recorded their scores in a worksheet, and then examined the scoring data of the entire class to answer questions about mean, median, mode, range, and outliers.

Go on a (pretend) shopping spree

“My students love any activities that include SHOPPING!” says Jessie, a sixth-grade teacher who creates shopping-related problems using fake (or sometimes real) store ads and receipts. Her students practice solving percentage problems, and the exercise includes opportunities to work with fractions and decimals.

To get students more engaged with the work, math educator Rachel Aleo-Cha zeroes in on objects she knows students are excited about. “I make questions that incorporate items like AirPods, Nike shoes, makeup, etc.,” Aleo-Cha says. She also has students calculate sales tax and prompts them to figure out “what a 50% off plus 20% off discount is—it’s not 70% off.”

Capture math on the fly

Math is everywhere, and whipping out a smartphone when opportunities arise can lead to excellent content for math class. At the foot of Mount Elbert in Colorado, for example, math teacher Ryan Walker recorded a short word problem for his fourth- and fifth-grade students. In the video, he revealed that it was 4:42 a.m., and it would probably take him 249 minutes to reach the summit. What time would he reach the summit, he asked his students—and, assuming it took two-thirds as long to descend, what time would he get back down?

Everyday examples can be especially relatable. At the gas station, “I record a video that tells the size of my gas tank, shows the current price of gas per gallon, and shows how empty my gas tank is,” says Walker. “Students then use a variety of skills (estimation, division, multiplying fractions, multiplying decimals, etc.) to make their estimate on how much money it will cost to fill my tank.”

Connect to social issues

It can be a powerful exercise to connect math to compelling social issues that students care about. In a unit on ratios and proportions, middle school teacher Jennifer Schmerler starts by having students design the “most unfair and unjust city”—where resources and public services like fire departments are distributed extremely unevenly. Using tables and graphs that reflect the distribution of the city’s population and the distribution of its resources, students then design a more equitable city.

Play entrepreneur

Each year, educator Karen Hanson has her fourth- and fifth-grade students brainstorm a list of potential business ideas and survey the school about which venture is most popular. Then the math begins: “We graph the survey results and explore all sorts of questions,” Hanson writes, like whether student preferences vary with age. Winning ideas in the past included selling T-shirts and wallets made of duct tape.

Next, students develop a resource list for the business, research prices, and tally everything up. They calculate a fair price point for the good they’re selling and the sales quantity needed to turn a profit. As a wrap-up, they generate financial statements examining how their profits stack up against the sales figures they had projected.


We’d love this article to be an evolving document of lesson ideas that make math relevant to kids. So, teachers, please tell us about your go-to activities that connect math to kids’ real world experiences.

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