Chicago is home to many festivals. There are food festivals, music festivals, art festivals, and even MATH festivals! In fact, we’re having the metropolitan area’s biggest festival this Saturday, May 20th! Join us at Payton HS, 1034 N. Wells, 1PM-2:30PM. Sign up here!

You’d be surprised how festive math can be. Math festivals even have famous mathematicians as “headliners”, like Math Circles of Chicago partner, Eugenia Cheng.

What do you do at a math festival? It definitely isn’t one big math tutoring session. At Math Circles of Chicago, we hold Julia Robinson Math Festivals (JRMF) at schools and libraries all over the city. A JRMF is a great source of math games and activities that promote critical thinking, logic, and cooperation. When you play these games you don’t feel like you’re filling out a math worksheet.

Example 1: Smileys

This game has one rule–if I’m not smiling, and if at least two of my direct neighbors (above, below, left, or right) *are* smiling, my smile turns on next time. The goal is to get everyone to smile eventually.

In the grid on the left, 3 faces are smiling. The two faces in red have 2 smiling neighbors, so by the next ‘turn’, they are smiling too. In the middle grid, only one frownie face has two neighbors smiling, so in the next turn it starts to smile. But that’s it–we failed because the bottom row never starts to smile.

It looks like we should have chosen different faces to smile at the start. Which ones? Is three enough? Can I get everyone to smile (eventually) if I start with only two smiling at first? And what if I change the size of the grid? Can I say something in general for any size grid?

To really get the idea, you need to give it a try yourself. Thankfully our friends at JRMF has an app for that!

Example 2: Skyscrapers

This is one of our most popular games! We love the Chicago skyline but how do you even plan a skyline? Skyscrapers makes answering that question tons of fun.

The objective of Skyscrapers is for the ‘city planner’ to figure out where to build skyscrapers.

The rules: You need a skyscraper on every square; every row and column must have skyscrapers of different heights; the numbers outside the grid (the clues) tell you how many skyscrapers you can see when you stand there and look in a particular direction.

At right you can see some students giving it a try at our April festival at the Back of the Yards Public Library–come to Payton (or one of our festivals in the fall) to try it out yourself!

Example 3: Jumping Julia

And finally, Jumping Julia–perhaps the most popular math festival puzzle there is. Kids and PARENTS can’t help but get sucked in trying to figure it out first or helping each other reach the goal.

This game has simple rules but can prove to be a real challenge! You start at the top right corner and you can move however many spaces the number says. For example, if you are standing on a 3 you move 3 spaces. You can move up, down, left, and right. You can even move backwards (HINT: Some puzzles require you backtrack to figure it out). You CAN NOT move diagonally. And, (see the photo below), this is a puzzle where you literally have to jump.

This game is great for younger learners in 3rd or 4th grade and the harder the puzzles get the more of a great brain teaser it is for older learners from 8th grade to adults! This game has a way of leveling the cognitive playing field. Kids love it when they can figure out something that their parents can’t!

Math Circles of Chicago plans on hosting 12 Julia Robinson Math Festivals at Chicago Public Schools and Libraries in the 2023-2024 school year. If you think your child’s school would benefit from a JRMF please do reach out! Math Circles of Chicago does not offer math tutoring but we offer something many overlook in their child’s math education: fun!