If you had told me at the start of 2020 that I needed to prepare to teach my children at home for a year, I would have laughed. While I had toyed with the idea of homeschooling once upon a time, that was before I was a work-at-home mom running her own 6-figure business. In fact, I was so excited to think that come Fall 2020, both my kids would be in school full-time — oooh the things i had planned!

Make plans and God laughs, right?

So with the worldwide pandemic keeping us trapped in our house, I found myself scrounging for things that would keep my kids occupied in fun, but educational ways.

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Teaching Math With Pokemon Cards

My husband, who is an avid gamer, pulled his Pokemon cards out of storage and started to thumb through them. The game has complexities, but at its core, it’s addition and subtraction, and it’s packaged in a fun card game with bright, cute pictures. We sat down and figured out a way to make it accessible to our 5 and 6-year-old children while making sure it still felt like a game. The result is something the kids beg to do, not realizing they’re also learning math at the same time!

How to find Pokemon cards

Stack of Pokemon cards with an Eevee up front

The first thing you’ll need to do is get some cards. If you still have some from your youth, you might want to price check them first – old cards from the late 90s up through the 2000s are potentially very expensive and could yield you some extra cash. For what we’re doing, all you need is basic Pokemon and some corresponding energy cards.

You can find these all over:

  • You can buy them new in packs, but that can get expensive quickly.
  • Flea markets are good to find old collections.
  • Sometimes you can find them in antique malls, or thrift stores.
  • The Facebook Marketplace is a fantastic option to find Pokemon cards. If you find someone who is selling and you tell them you just need Pokemon and Energy, they will almost always be willing to sell you their extras cheaply.

Learning to play Pokemon (very simply)

You’ll notice that Pokemon cards have…a lot going on. The first thing we did when teaching our kids is to ignore the majority of that, and focus instead on three boxes:

Pikachu Pokemon card, with arrows pointing to hit points, energy cost, and attacks

The hit points (HP), the Attacks, and the Energy cost of the attacks. These spots are where basic addition and subtraction happen, and the rest of the cards require higher-level thinking. The version of the game we play with our kids is dramatically lessened in terms of complexity.

First, build a deck for each player. We keep ours to 30 cards – 15 Pokemon and 15 energy. The kids pick out their favorites and then we put in the corresponding Energy cards (Pikachu is electric type, so we need electric Energies).

Start the game by setting 3 cards aside from the top of your deck. Those are prize cards and you get to pick one up each time you knock out the opponent’s Pokemon. When you’ve picked up all three, you win.

Pokemon Cards – How to Play

  1. Start the game by drawing 5 cards.
  2. Pick 1 Pokemon from your hand to go in front; that’s who will battle first.
  3. Any other Pokemon in your hand go behind that one, on your “bench”. If your front Pokemon has their HP reduced to 0, then you move another one up to take their place.
  4. Place 1 Energy card on any Pokemon on your team that you want. It’s best to play Energy on your front Pokemon first, as they’re the ones who will be attacking (and getting attacked).
  5. If you have enough Energy attached to the Pokemon to do a move, then they can attack. Subtract whatever damage the move does from the opposing Pokemon’s HP. This is where learning math comes in – we use little glass aquarium beads or coins to count out damage. It makes it easier for littles to conceptualize math when it’s a matter of adding or taking away concrete objects like tokens.
  6. Once a Pokemon has taken more damage than their HP, they are “knocked out” and put aside. Then, a Pokemon from the bench moves up to take their place. Finally, the player who knocked out the Pokemon gets to draw a prize and add it to their hand.
  7. Keep going until someone has drawn all three prizes – they’re the winner!

If you’re keeping it very simple, it’s basically a matter of letting your children pick their favorites and make a deck. There is a strategy that comes into play because you can only play 1 energy per turn, and sometimes you want to put it on your Pokemon on the bench. This is because when your front Pokemon gets knocked out, the one you bring up to replace it can immediately attack if you put energy on it already.

Learning math with Pokemon cards

So what I laid out is a VERY oversimplified explanation of the game, but I want to dive into why it’s so great for teaching math. The game is about dealing damage and knocking out Pokemon, but it’s done in big, clean increments. The words are simple and the colors and characters are engaging – kids learn better when they care.

In fact, one of the best things you can buy for your kids if you want to do this is an Elite Trainer Box. It comes with 8 packs, pretty counters for damage, and enough cards to build a deck. The whole box itself is sturdy cardboard to hold your collection, too. You can use anything as counters, though – change, those little glass aquarium rocks, and so forth. We used M&Ms once, but our Pokemon kept inexplicably losing damage counters and the game took 2 hours.

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Before our kids could read at the level they can now, I read the cards to them and explained the math. They put on the damage counters, or removed them (some abilities heal). Every aspect of the game gives you the opportunity to count but in small amounts that are great for little thinkers. You need a certain amount of energy to use abilities, and those abilities do a certain amount of damage, and each Pokemon has a certain amount of HP.

Putting it together

So let’s recap:

  • Find some Pokemon cards, either at a yard sale, in your basement if you’ve kept them, or pick up an Elite Trainer Box for maximum value. I do not recommend buying packs. You can check Facebook marketplace – there are often people on there selling repacks with everything you’d need to play and for relatively cheap. Players are always looking for ways to offload their extras.
  • Let your children pick their favorite Pokemon and build a deck. If they’re under 7, I recommend just using “basic” Pokemon and energy in your decks. Trainers and evolutions make the game more dynamic and fun, but this is about teaching math and game basics first. Add the cool stuff later.
  • Decks should be 30 cards (the real minimum is 60 but that’s excessive for what we’re doing). Also gather up some counters for damage.
  • Start the game with 5 cards, and set aside your three prize cards. Also put a starting Pokemon from your hand out front, and the rest on the bench behind it.
  • The youngest person goes first! No cheating, mom and dad.
  • Start your turn by drawing a card, playing Energy on one Pokemon and if you can do a move, do it.
  • Let them count out the damage and place the counters. If their mathematic understanding is more advanced, you can have them compare the damage on the Pokemon to their HP, and state the difference to determine if the Pokemon is knocked out.
  • The winner is determined by whoever draws their three prize cards first. Prize cards are drawn by knocking out your opponent’s Pokemon. The drawn prize cards go into your hand.

This is a very simple overview of the game, but it’s enough to engage little minds and get them thinking about math. Then, as your kids get older, it can be something they want to keep playing. Card games are often laughed off by parents as money-sinks, but they really are valuable for teaching reading, math, and advanced concepts. The complex interactions teach strategy and innovation, and it’s a great way for kids to socialize.

Do you have any unique and fun ways you’ve been teaching your kids math or reading? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below! Or, perhaps a better question – who’s your favorite Pokemon?