Imagine you’re in the car with the kids, excited to see your extended family (or at least, specific members of your extended family), and you’re not quite there yet.

And the kids been glued to their video games, cell phones, and electronic devices the whole time. You know it’s not good for them, but at least you have some peace during the car ride. You shrug it off, not too worried about it, thinking about all the running around with cousins they’ll do once they get there.

And then you hear…

“Are we there yet?”
“I’m bored.”
“I’m hungry.”

…and whining.

Now what do you do?

It seems impossible for kids to entertain themselves these days without the use of batteries.

That’s what spurred me to create this “Pen & Paper Games” packet that I want to share with you. It’s full of my very best on-the-go, play-anywhere games that you don’t need any equipment (other than a brain) to play! These games I’ve played with my kids over the years, even standing in lines at Disnleyland.

Click here to download the packet and enjoy with your family!

By the way, Bagels is still our favorite line-waiting game, because it’s so fun to play and easy to teach the on-lookers who are wondering why we keep shouting “PICO!” and “FERMI!” followed by uproarious laughter. Bagels is good for the car too, only maybe without the shouting. It’s basically a mental version of the old Mastermind game, but don’t tell them that! Just enjoy the game and have fun learning and exploring our wonderful world.

Hex is a super fun game! It starts with a grid of hexagons (six-sided shapes) and two players. You can color in any cell on your turn. The ultimate goal is to be the first one to complete a chain across to the other side of the board.

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Magic squares have been traced through history as known to Chinese mathematicians, Arab mathematicians, India and Egypt cultures. The first magic squares Magic squares have fascinated people for centuries, and historians have found them engraved in stone or metal and worn as necklaces. Early cultures believed that by wearing magic squares, it would ensure they had long life and kept them from getting sick.

Benjamin Franklin was well-known for creating and enjoying magic squares, and it was all the rage during his time. Here’s the deal: we’re going to arrange numbers in a way so that all the rows, columns, and even the diagonals add up to a single number (called a Magic Sum). In this video, I show you the first Magic Square published in Europe way back in 1514. Plus, I show you how to make your very own Magic Square. You can use it to test your friends.

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If you’ve watched my “What Is Math?” video, you’ve seen a sample of the Bagels math logic game. This is one of my family’s favorites! It’s a guessing game, but you can use logic and strategy in order to guess the numbers very quickly. In this video, I’ll show you in more detail how it works. I’ll also show you how to use the game to guess numbers even larger than three digits. Once you’ve mastered the strategies in this game, you’ll never lose another game of Mastermind again.

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If a friend had chose a three-letter word and asked you to guess it, how would you start? It seems like it might take a while to narrow it down, right? This is a neat word guessing game that uses some strategy to make the guessing both a little easier and more fun.  When you try to guess your partner’s three-letter word, they can simply give you one of two clues that will make it a bit easier to narrow down the answer. Watch the video for an explanation.

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The first folks to play this game lived in the Roman Empire, but it was called Terni Lapilli and instead of having any number of pieces (X or O), each player only had three, so they had to move them around to keep playing. Historians have found the hatch grid marks all over Rome. They have also found them in Egypt!

In 1864, the British called it “noughts and crosses”, and it was considered a “children’s game”, since they would play it on their slates. In recent times (1952), OXO was one of the first known video games, as the computer played games against a person.

Tic-Tac-Toe can be fun, but when you get a “cat’s game” (no winner), it can get a little boring pretty quickly, right? In this video, I’ll show you some cool ways to change the game to make it more interesting by changing one or two of the basic rules. It’s much more engaging and strategic that way! Currently there are over 100 variations of Tic-Tac-Toe, and I’m going to show you my favorite ones. In fact, last time I taught a live science workshop, all 120 kids played this at the same time with squeals of delight!

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This is a cool two-player geometry game with lots of strategy involved. You’ll need paper and two different colored markers or crayons. The object is not to draw a triangle (or to force your opponent to draw one). Take a look at the video to see how it works.

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If you’ve ever wanted to sneak a peek into my cabinet of educational games and books for kids, now is your chance. Use this list for gift ideas, boredom busters, and just plain family fun. Some of these games you can pick up at the store, and the rest are the home-made, print-it-out, cut-and-play variety that your kids will really learn from.

I first made this list because I felt that so many games are watered-down versions of either bingo or “roll the dice and see where you land”, with the occasional card pick. I was curious to see if there were any truly great educational games still available, or if they were all just brain candy.

My games listed here are designed to develop strategy, critical thinking, and chaotic surprise in addition to having the kids learn practical knowledge along the way (not trivial fluff). And when a kid memorizes the card deck, it works in their favor because now they know the entire periodic table.

Here you’ll find games including arithmetic, fractals, equations, chemistry, physics, and more. If you have any you’d like to add to the pile, just submit it in the comments section so everyone can benefit. Are you ready?

Note: This list is growing so please check back for updates!

Favorite Books

Favorite Resource for Science Supplies

A lot of science supplies can be purchased online these days, especially the hard to find stuff. However, if you’re in the market for oddball items from a company that reuses industrial overruns, here it is:

  • RAFT Resource Area For Teaching RAFT (Resource Area For Teaching). When I was first starting out, I would take a pickup truck to RAFT in San Jose and load up on everything I needed to teach science for the month. Since I was teaching at 60 different schools (about 50 classes per week), I went through a LOT of materials… and I knew I had to get them inexpensively. RAFT has grown a lot over the years, and if you’ve never had the opportunity before, now is your chance to check it out for yourself.
  • Educational Innovations is the place I got a lot of my physics stuff when I was teaching at the university.
  • Sci-Supply is an inexpensive physics store with lots of great stuff for smart kids.
  • Science First is where I get a lot of my higher-end, more commercial grade physics demos.

Favorite Science Games

Math Games

  • Equate the Math version of Scrabble, which is great for kids that are getting the hang of arithmetic
  • Best Dice Game for honing math skills – I keep a set in my purse wherever I go (no kidding!)
  • Monopoly using a third and fourth die to calculate tax for purchases or compound interest (for rate and time); federal income tax brackets (which depend on your capital) replaces the ‘income tax’ square… we try to make it as realistic as we can, and even do the ‘bidding option’ stated in the rules when buying property.
  • Mathematician Dice
  • Cryptarithms (one of my favorite math games – it’s the image of “SEND MORE MONEY” at the above right – you have to figure out what number each letter represents!)
  • More Math Recommendations

Awesome Games Overall

  • Chess find a 34-piece set (with four queens) and a vinyl mat

Intelligent Music for Kids

(that doesn’t make adults want to rip their hair out)

Here’s the video of the Element Song:

Here’s the video of the Nano Song:

Note: You can find more songs at the Harvard Physics Song site, but be sure to preview them before sharing them with your kids as they are more appropriate for college-level students!

What Pi Sounds Like by Michael Blake (see video below):

Did you know I carry a set of dice in my pocket just for this game? It’s as old as the hills and just as fun to play now as it was when I was a little math whiz back in 2nd grade.  (No kidding – when we had ‘math races’, I was always team captain.  Not quite the same thing as captain on the soccer field, though…)

This is one of those quick-yet-satisfying dice games you can play to hone your thinking skills and keep your kids busy until the waiter arrives with your food.  All you need are five or six standard 6-sided dice and two 12-sided dice.  (Note – if you can’t find the 12-sided dice, just skip it for now.  You can easily substitute your brain for the 12-sided dice.  I’ll show you how.)
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If you really want to baffle Aunt Edna next time she visits, then these tips are for you. As a kid, I was never very good at Scrabble, mostly because I played with adults and my word range simply wasn’t as large… so it was highly unfair.

Here’s a way to tip the scales if you feel like you’re in the same boat as I was. The words below can score you big points, both on the board (if you use the triple boxes) and also in the eyes of your family!

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