Attribute Train - Turn Your Junk Drawer into a Math Game

Players: 2 or more
Ages: 5 and up
Cost: Free!
Math Ideas: Classification
Questions to Ask
    What do these two items have in common?
    Let me make a train, and then can you tell me what each pair of cars has in common?

One of my favorite parts of writing this newsletter is that I get great game recommendations all the time. A friend will text me a picture of a game they found at Target and, before you know it, I'm inventing a toilet paper shortage so I can run down to the store.

This is why free games are my (and my wife's) favorite game recommendations. And boy, do I have a great one this week.

I learned about Attribute Train from Meredith Wilkes, who shares a bunch of great moments of early math on Twitter. I immediately played the game with my older two kids, both of whom absolutely loved the game. It's now a mainstay at the Haines household.

How to Play


To play attribute train, all you need is a bunch of stuff. Lots of early math educators use these colorful shape blocks, but you can get items from your junk drawer, your pantry, or wherever you'd like. The first time we played, I asked each of my kids to grab four different toys from the playroom.

Choose one item to be the locomotive, or start of the train. In this image, the locomotive is a big blue square. Then look at the rest of your objects: what other objects have something in common with the big blue square?

Once your child chooses an item, ask them to explain what the two items have in common. Maybe they're both blue, both squares, or maybe they're both big. As long as your child can justify the connection, they can add it to the train! Then you start looking at your pile of objects to see what has something in common with the next shape.


The goal of the game is to connect every item into a single long train, where each object is connected by a unique attribute. The most fun part is the end, when you ask your child to start at the beginning and explain all the attributes that connected all the items in the train. The longer the train, the more challenging a memory exercise this is!

Where's the Math?

At this point I probably sound like a broken record: math is about more than numbers.

Specifically, this game is about attributes and classification, two topics we've discussed before in previous entries on Guess Who and SET

Briefly, attributes are the elements of objects that we use to classify them. A toy can be small and shiny and pointy and colorful, and those attributes can be used to place it in certain categories, such as "toys to keep away from my infant daughter."

Triangles have attributes, as well. So do functions and sequences and fractions and all sorts of other mathematical objects. And the more comfortable your child is with classifying objects, the more likely she is to notice patterns in all her classes, not just math.

Questions to Ask

When playing with my kids, I like to alternate turns, so that sometimes they get to pick the new object and sometimes I pick the new object and make them guess the attribute.


Recently, my kids and I played a game with this set of randomly selected toys. My daughter chose the cleaning toys as the locomotive, and they got to work!

My son decided that the grocery basket came next since both toys have to be picked up to be used properly. Then I chose the big circular loop (a caterpillar tunnel, in fact) and my daughter said it matched the grocery basket because they both have holes through the middle.


We moved on to the box, which my kids said matched because both the tunnel and the box have a variety of colors. My daughter chose the Rubik's cube next and said that it matched the box because "they both have sides." By the way, these are my favorite moments in the game, where I get to ask "What do you mean?" The kids have an idea of what connects two objects, but they may struggle to articulate it. Give them the time and space to come up with their own words for things before you introduce new vocabulary.

Anyway, my son had the most inventive connection of the game, saying that the remote control car matched with the Rubik's Cube since they both spin. He demonstrated by spinning the wheel of the car and then spinning one side of the cube.  I would not have thought of that one!


The end of the game is tough, where the remaining objects clearly didn't inspire much earlier on and now need to be connected to the caboose of the train. In our game, my kids made the last couple connections by saying "the car and the track are both broken" (true) and "the track and the magnet cubes both have a piece missing" (also true).

Now comes the best part of the game, where I say "So what makes all these train cars connect?" and the kids go back to the beginning and share all their ideas from the whole game.

As a bonus, you can always rearrange the order of the train cars and ask your child to justify this new order. That's a challenge, but it can lead to some inventive, and hilarious, connections.