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How to Teach Real Life Math Problem Solving Activities

Use these fun activities to help teach real life math to your middle school students this year.

Growing up, I vividly recall a moment when a classmate questioned our teacher about the relevance of a math concept. You know the questions he asked already. “Why do we need to know this, and when will we ever use this?” The teacher’s response, delivered with a hint of exhaustion, was a curt, “You’ll use it someday, and you need to know it because you just do.” Since I’ve been teaching, I understand her exhaustion with those questions, but I knew I wanted to create a different classroom dynamic. I wanted to create an environment where questions were welcomed and explored. That’s why I make it a point to infuse real-life math problems into lessons. I want to provide an authentic learning experience that has students applying concepts in relevant situations. Today, we explore real-life math problems, why they’re important, and ways to bring them into your classroom!

What Are Real Life Math Problems?

I love using real life math problems because instead of just teaching math concepts from a textbook, I get to guide my students through challenges that directly relate to their lives outside of the classroom. Real-life math problems are exactly what they sound like. They are math problems that have a direct connection to the world around us.

Real life math problems will help students navigate the world around them with confidence as they approach adulthood.

Have you ever opened up a textbook, looked down at a problem, and thought to yourself, “Gosh, what does this EVEN mean?” I know I have, which is humbling since, as teachers, we are expected to have the answers. That was a huge signal to me that if I’m not understanding these abstract scenarios, then my students aren’t either. With middle schoolers, in particular, we have a small window to catch their attention and create buy-in. These abstract, hypothetical, and wordy problems weren’t cutting it for me to do that and make math approachable.

I turned to the experts, my students. If you want your middle schoolers engaged, you have to meet them where they are. By presenting math in the context of situations they encounter, I show my students the practical applications of what they’re learning.

From budgeting their allowance to measuring ingredients for a recipe, and from calculating distances for a road trip to determining the best deals at the grocery store, these are examples of real-life math problems that I incorporate into my lessons. These are just a few examples, but really, they are endless. By engaging with these real-life math problems, my students master math concepts. They’re also developing critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities that will serve them well beyond the walls of our classroom.

Benefits to Real Life Math Problems

Using real-life math problems makes learning math more engaging and meaningful for our students. By connecting math concepts to their everyday experiences, we capture their interest. We can then show them the relevance of what they’re learning. No more asking why and when we will need to know. Instead, they’re eager to dive into each problem, knowing that the skills will directly be used in their lives.

Giving your students the opportunity to practice real life math problems will help them feel excited about practicing practical math concepts they will need to use in their every day lives.

Engaging with real-life math problems creates a deeper understanding of math concepts. When students see how math applies to real-world situations, they’re able to grasp abstract concepts and make connections. It’s not just about memorizing formulas and algorithms. It’s about understanding the underlying principles and their role in the world around us.

Using real-life math problems promotes cross-curricular learning. Math doesn’t exist in a vacuum, which surprises some of our students. It intersects with various other subjects and topics. By including real-life scenarios in our math lessons, we’re able to integrate concepts from science, technology, engineering, life skills, and more. Our students learn to approach problems from multiple perspectives. This prepares them for the diverse challenges they’ll encounter in their academic and professional lives.

We can’t forget about the joy of discovery that comes with solving real-life math problems! There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of cracking a tough problem or finding a creative solution to a real-world challenge. By immersing ourselves in these math adventures, we’re experiencing the thrill of exploration and the joy of discovery firsthand.

Real Life Math Problem Solving Activities

Below are just a few examples of real life math problem-solving activities that bring math to life in your classroom. By engaging our students in hands-on, practical challenges that relate to their everyday experiences, we ignite their curiosity, deepen their understanding, and empower them to see the world through a mathematical lens.

Grocery Store Math

First, let’s go on a grocery run without leaving our classroom! Start by assigning each student a budget and providing them with a list of grocery items to purchase. In the past, I printed out pictures of items and laminated them for use the following year. If you have access to pretend play food, middle schoolers will get a kick out of it, too! Then, challenge them to navigate the desks and rows of tables, scouring for the best deals while sticking to their budget.

Grocery store math is a great real life math students can start putting into action almost immediately and will give them a better understanding of how to plan and budget for the cost of food.

Students will explore various math concepts. First, they’ll use addition and subtraction skills to track their spending and ensure they stay within their budget constraints. Then, they’ll flex their multiplication muscles as they calculate prices and compare sales to identify the most cost-effective options.

But it doesn’t stop there! This activity also encourages students to make strategic decisions about what to buy based on their budget and nutritional needs. They’ll practice critical thinking as they weigh the pros and cons of different purchasing options, considering factors such as price, quantity, and nutritional value.

By actively participating in budgeting and decision-making processes, students develop financial literacy and responsible consumer habits. They learn the value of money, the importance of budgeting, and the significance of making informed choices. Skills that will serve them well both now and in the future.

You can take this grocery store math to the next level with some small changes.

  • Instead of a grocery list, provide them with a recipe and have them buy enough of the ingredients to make the recipe.
  • Place a few items on sale and tell students they must buy the item with the largest discount.
  • Don’t forget tax. Making students account for sales tax without going over their budget is another real life challenge.

Measurement Madness

Who says math can’t be delicious? Get ready to whip up a storm and turn baking into a mouthwatering math lesson! You may need access to a kitchen or similar tools to help with baking. I provide students with a treat recipe, usually a simple cookie recipe, and challenge them to adjust ingredient quantities based on different serving sizes.

As students roll up their sleeves and don their aprons, they’ll dive into a world of fractions, multiplication, and division. First, they’ll practice fractions as they scale the recipe up or down to accommodate different serving sizes. Need to double the batch for a larger crowd? No problem! Students will use their fraction skills to adjust ingredient quantities accordingly.

As students tackle multiplication and division, they’ll calculate ingredient quantities with precision, ensuring that each batch of goodies turns out just right. Whether they halve the recipe for a smaller gathering or triple it for a bake sale, students will practice their math skills while whipping up delectable delights.

As they savor the results of their labor, students will not only enjoy the delicious results but also gain a deeper appreciation for the role of math in the culinary arts. They’ll see firsthand how math concepts can be applied in practical, real-life math situations!

This real life math activity fosters important life skills such as following instructions, measuring accurately, and working collaboratively. Our students learn the importance of precision and attention to detail. These qualities are essential both in the kitchen and beyond.

Ready to step this challenge up? Turn your students into chefs and bakery owners and have them calculate the cost to make the recipe, how much they would sell the item for, and how much profit they would make.

Travel Time Trials

If you ask your students where they would love to travel, they’ll shout out places far away and expensive. Most of the time, they aren’t factoring in cost. They just know the place looks cool and famous people have been there! So, in this real life math problem-solving activity, I’m also giving them a little reality check. I task my students with planning a hypothetical road trip to their dream destination, whether it’s a coastal getaway, a mountain retreat, or a bustling city excursion. Then, I challenge them to calculate travel times and distances between each stop along the way.

As students plot their route and map out their itinerary, they’ll dive into a world of multiplication and division. First, they’ll practice multiplication as they calculate the total distance to be traveled, breaking it down into manageable segments between each destination. Need to cover 300 miles in one day? For example, students will use their multiplication skills to determine how many hours of driving that entails.

As students tackle division, they’ll calculate travel times based on average speeds and estimated distances between stops. Whether it’s dividing the total distance by average speed to determine travel time or breaking down the journey into hourly increments, students will hone their division skills while planning their epic road trip.

While researching, students will keep track of the cost of different types of transportation and compare different companies or methods to find the most cost-effective choice. As they research attractions, landmarks, and points of interest along their route, students will sharpen their math skills and gain valuable insights into geography, culture, and planning. They’ll learn about important life skills such as time management, budgeting, and decision-making.

Take these trip planning skills to the next level by giving students a budget for their trip and a time limit. After all, there aren’t many jobs where you can just take off for an unlimited amount of time. Challenge them to fit their road trip into the budget and time constraints.

Be Your Own Architect – A Real Life Math Problem Solving Activity

This real life math problem-solving activity has our students putting on their creative architect hats! Here’s the blueprint for success: I give them the task of designing their dream home or crafting a futuristic cityscape using graph paper or digital design tools you may have access to at school.

As students sketch out their vision, they’ll dive deep into the world of geometry and measurement. They’ll practice calculating the dimensions of rooms and buildings, exploring concepts like area, perimeter, and scale in a hands-on, creative way. As they craft their designs, they’ll consider factors such as proportion, symmetry, and aesthetics. This activity has them practicing their spatial reasoning skills and unleashing their creativity in the process. Whether it’s picturing an open-concept living space or designing a sleek skyscraper, our students will have the opportunity to bring their architectural dreams to life.

This activity helps our students understand the principles of architecture and how math plays a crucial role in the design process. By exploring concepts like scale and proportion, students gain a deeper appreciation for the art and science of architecture and learn how mathematical concepts translate into real-world structures. They’ll learn important life skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and attention to detail.

Students can work with partners, small groups, or individually. When working alongside peers, they learn to collaborate to overcome design challenges. Communicating their ideas effectively and refining their designs based on feedback is essential in the world of school and career fields.

Connect even more math by having students figure out the cost to build their creations. They can price out their finished building or just one room. You can also give them a budget to work within. It’s a great math lesson that also weaves in learning to prioritize options and make decisions.

Real Life Math Word Problem Scenarios

Sometimes these project based learning lessons just don’t fit well into the available time. Don’t worry – you don’t have to ditch real world math problem solving. Instead, take your real world situations and turn them into word problems. Don’t worry—they’re not my students’ favorite either. However word problems are a great tool for applying math concepts to real-life scenarios. They provide a bridge between abstract math concepts and practical applications in everyday life. By tackling real life word problems, our students develop critical thinking skills and learn to apply mathematical concepts in context, making learning both relevant and engaging.

In my Math Problem Solving Word Problems resource, your students will have access to real life math problem scenarios that are relatable. Topics cover making necklaces, school shopping, fundraising, and going to the movies, to name a few. They’ll be applying math concepts ranging from ratios to algebraic equations to coordinate planes.

I use this resource in my math centers, group work, homework, and test prep. Each of the ten sheets is designed to engage our students while sharpening their math skills, making learning both meaningful and enjoyable.

Looking for real life math on the topic of fractions? My Comparing and Ordering Fractions resource is just what you need. Your students will have a chance to apply real life math concepts focused on fractions through various scenarios like runners, garden fence planning, and pizza sharing.

Data Analysis Delights

Data analysis is way more than just crunching numbers. It’s about uncovering insights and making informed decisions based on real-life data. To kickstart this real life math problem-solving activity, my students start by collecting and analyzing real-life data from a variety of sources. They may look at weather patterns, sports statistics, or survey responses. Whether they’re tracking temperature trends, analyzing batting averages, or surveying classmates about their favorite hobbies, I make sure they have a chance to gather data that sparks their curiosity and relates to topics that interest them.

Once they have their data, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and dive into analysis. We’ll practice graphing our data in different ways, from bar graphs and dot plots to pie charts and box plots. Then, we’ll learn how to choose the most appropriate graph for our data. We’ll also learn to label and interpret the axes to convey our findings effectively.

We’ll learn how to extract meaningful insights from the data, identify trends, patterns, and outliers in our data, and draw conclusions based on our observations. Whether we’re spotting correlations between variables or making predictions based on past trends, we’ll sharpen our analytical skills as we delve deeper into the data. Based on this information, we will even work with mean, median, and mode.

Working with data provides an opportunity for cross-curricular learning. We’ll explore how data analysis is used in various fields. We’ll see how data-driven decision-making plays a crucial role in solving real-world problems and shaping our understanding of the world around us.

To help guide your statistics unit, I’ve created a complete Statistics unit with teacher notes, student assessments, and more!

Make Math Relevant with Real Life Math Problem Solving Activities

As we wrap up our exploration of real-life math problem-solving activities, I’m reminded of these experiences’ transformative power for our students. By infusing our lessons with authentic, real-world scenarios, we’re not just teaching math. We’re empowering our students to become confident problem solvers equipped with the skills they need to navigate the world around them.

From grocery store adventures to architectural masterpieces, each activity provides a unique opportunity for our students to engage with math in meaningful ways, fostering curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking along the way. Let’s continue to make math relevant, accessible, and exciting for our students. Together, we can inspire a new generation of mathematicians ready to tackle any challenge that comes their way!

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Welcome to Cognitive Cardio Math! I’m Ellie, a wife, mom, grandma, and dog ‘mom,’ and I’ve spent just about my whole life in school! With nearly 30 years in education, I’ve taught:

  • All subject areas in 4th and 5th grades
  • Math, ELA, and science in 6th grade (middle school)

I’ve been creating resources for teachers since 2012 and have worked in the elearning industry for about five years as well!

If you’re looking for ideas and resources to help you teach math (and a little ELA), I can help you out!



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