My 5-year-old son recently explained to my 3-year-old son that they were two years apart. Three years old plus 2 years old equals 5 years old, he explained. • I was hugely proud of his reasoning and math skills. He hasn't learned them exclusively at school. His learning has been helped in part by a tablet running educational math apps.
m YodelOh Math Mountain: The adorable app also stays within the learning-through-games genre, but for a more introductory level of math. This app involves a cartoon yodeler who ascends a graphical mountain over time — if he gets to the top, he yodels his way to his doom over the edge. To keep the yodeler from climbing the peak, the player has to answer math questions against the clock. For example, the question may be "10 x 15 = ?" and the five options are "0, 1, 50, 150, 200." Tapping the right answer saves the yodeler, whereas taking too long or tapping the wrong answer makes him take a step up the mountain or get butted uphill by a cartoon ram. It's $3 on iOS and, $2 on Android.
m DragonBox Algebra 5+: Has to be the most impressive math education app I've seen. Its clever design can teach all sorts of complex algebra concepts without making children feel as if they are learning mathematics. The app is like a game, and it starts at an abstract level: The player has to match small cartoon icons with their matching "dark" alternatives, eventually arranging the pieces on the playing board so that only the magical "box" of the game's title is left on the board. As the child plays through the levels, the abstract cartoon icons are eventually replaced with numbers and proper mathematical symbols, but with the same gameplay and sound effects. Perhaps the main drawback to this app is its complicated menus. If you're going to use it with 5-year-olds, it's probably best to keep them company so they don't get frustrated by instructions they cannot read. It is also surprisingly expensive, at $6, but you get more than 200 puzzles for your money. The app is on iOS and Android.
m MathBoard: For a slightly more traditional route, try this app. It has game-like elements, but it's based on a simulated old-fashioned school chalkboard. The app's screen is split into a quiz area and a work area. In the quiz area, a math puzzle is posed using traditional notation, perhaps something like 47 - 5 = ? Players choose the answer from a list of numbers to solve the puzzle, and they can use the faux chalkboard on the other side of the screen to work out the solution. If they get stuck, a "problem solver" window that shows each stage required to correctly work out the answer can be brought up. It's like help from a private math tutor. My chief complaints are that MathBoard could be more fun without distracting from the learning aspects, and that it has a $5 price tag on iOS and Android.
, Madagascar Math Ops: For an alternative app, try this one — a game filled with characters from the Madagascar cartoon movie franchise. Like Math Mountain, the app has a multiple-choice mental math quiz, but Math Ops has more animation. Winning moves are rewarded with a short in-app game — flying penguin fun that will remind you of Angry Birds. There is a free edition with limited levels on both iOS and Android; the full version costs $3.