When neighborhood kids lined the courtyard fence, trying to get a peek inside the math festival, Sikimeti Ma’u knew she had a hit on her hands.

Sikimeti, a mathematician and mom, wanted to bring play-based math to the children in her community and thought a Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival (JRMF) would be the perfect combination of education and fun. The festival took place in Venice, Italy in an outdoor garden in September 2021, and more than 50 children and families participated – including the curious kids that were invited to join the fun from the street.

colorful floor maze mat

The Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival in Venice, Italy featured a handmade maze mat featuring colorful paper.

“The Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival was the first of its kind offered in Venice,” Sikimeti says. “I knew it would be different, and unlike anything the community had seen before.”

Sikimeti is aware of how important math exposure is for kids to develop a keen interest in the topic. Her brother, a few years older, had a strong affinity for math as a kid that Sikimeti emulated. That passion drove her to study mathematics in college. Today she is a production editor at Mathematical Sciences Publishers and an adjunct math lecturer in Italy, and often plays math games with her kids in her spare time.

Yet she knows so many children today do not have a mentor to guide them in their math education. “I feel a responsibility to the kids who don’t have a person in their lives to show them what they’re capable of,” she says. “I want to teach them that math isn’t impossible. It’s interesting.”

It was the unique puzzles and games offered by the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival that sealed the deal on Sikimeti hosting a JRMF event.

“What JRMF offers is so rare,” she says. “What’s incredible about the games is how simple they are to understand. There is no reliance on what the kids already learned in school. They can start at whatever level they are on. The games immediately grab their imagination. And once they’re engaged, it’s smooth sailing from there.

Educators call this type of game “low-floor, high ceiling,” meaning the activity can be enjoyed and challenging for all ages. All JRMF activities are built so the main question is accessible for all students, regardless of skill level or background knowledge. Students can engage with the activity even if the problem seems unfamiliar and they are not sure of the answer.

a basket of apples on the table with the JRMF game Apple Picking

Kids played JRMF’s activity Apple Picking with real apples.

And yet, students can spend hours, days, or even weeks exploring the activity. When they answer one question, there is always a new, deeper question waiting for them to chew on. Many JRMF puzzles lead to high-level mathematical concepts, including topics in graph theory, number theory, and discrete mathematics.

Some puzzles are currently unsolved math problems. Even the most advanced and knowledgeable students will find something beautiful and surprising to learn about.

The scalability of the math games is what made the event so successful, Sikimeti says.

“There were some kids there who love math, and a lot more kids who hate math but who had been coerced by their parents into coming. The most amazing thing was that they all loved it, and all had a blast, and you couldn’t tell who was who.”

She continues, “When the festival volunteers found out afterward who the kids were that were supposedly really bad at school, they were shocked. They never would have guessed. We gave the kids an opportunity to have a fresh start with math.”

It was a powerful moment for the volunteers, and why Sikimeti plans to host a Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival every year in Venice. It’s also why she urges other math enthusiasts to plan one in their communities as well.“Just do it. It’s so fun,” she says. “With a little strategic thinking and creativity, anyone can host a math festival.”

Sikimeti’s Tips for Hosting a Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival:

  1. Attend the free, virtual training offered by JRMF to learn the basics about math festivals.
  2. Download JRMF’s free DIY Math Festival Planner for detailed instructions, including step-by-step checklists and puzzle guides.
  3. Recruit volunteers to help lead the various activities. Get creative with how to make the puzzles come alive with toys and tokens.
  4. Set aside a small budget for snacks and beverages (or prepare for the kids to want to eat the apples after playing Apple Picking!)