Teaching Basic Probability with a Pile of M&M’s

By: Keith


Sometimes learning math can be yummy.  Yesterday we gave the boys a lesson in probability by using peanut M&M’s.  The motivation was pretty simple, answer correctly, get an M&M.  Here’s how it works if anybody is interested in trying it with their kids:     


Step 1. Grab a handful of M&M’s and place them on the table in a pile.  Ask your kid how many there are.  Have him write the answer on a piece of paper.     


Step 2. How many different colors are their? Write that down too.     


Step 3. How many of each color are there?  Have them write the colors and the quantity of each type of M&M next to the color so the numbers line up (easier to read).     




Step 1. Which color has the most M&M’s?  The Least?      


Step 2. If we cover the M&M’s, and I pick one at random, which color is most likely to be picked?  Least likely?     


Step 3. Probability is always represented as two numbers.  Some number out of the total.  If yellow has the best chance of being picked, what is the probability that I’ll pick it?  What about pink (the least)?      


Step 4. Line up the M&M’s from most to least.  Yellow, blue, greed, purple, pink – or whatever.  Now they’re easy to see and visualize.  Ask your kid if there are still the same number of M&M’s?     


Step 5. What is the probability of picking at random either blue OR green?  What is the probability of not picking blue or green?  Do this with several combinations of colors to practice.     


Game 1:     


Step 1. Take your pile and put it in a separate bowl so the kids can’t see when you pick one out at random.  Tell them they’re in Las Vegas and they’re going to try to win M&M’s.  They can improve their chances by using probability.     


Step 2. Remind them how many M&M’s there were in total and to reference their graph if they need to. You’re going to pick 6 (even number because I have two kids) times, and they’re going to pick a color each time.  If they win by picking the right color they get to eat it.     


Step 3. They’ll probably screw it up the first time, but remind them that for every M&M that gets eaten the probabilities change.  They’ll have to figure it out if they expect to improve their chances.  Candy is the great motivator to mental growth I think.     


Bonus Game (if you think they’re ready):     


Step 1. Draw a new pile with new probabilities.  You can help them write it down to speed things up.     


Step 2. The game is the same as before, but this time you’re going to pick 5 M&M’s at a time instead of just one.  This increases the difficulty.     


The first time we played the game with the boys they weren’t overly enthusiastic.  After the game they wanted to play again.  They woke up the next morning and wanted to play right away to which I said “Breakfast first, boys!”  The key is to go slow and explain each step as many times as necessary before moving on to the next.  This should be a no stress lesson, and they should be rewarded with M&M’s to keep it fun (out of a separate bowl so you don’t screw up your source of lesson material).

12 Responses to “Teaching Basic Probability with a Pile of M&M’s”
  1. Eric March 18, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    You teach your kids important stuff, I teach my kids how to do the chicken dance.
    .-= Eric´s last blog ..I’m In The Wrong Blogging Business =-.

    • Keith March 19, 2010 at 11:33 am #

      Eric: hey, the Chicken Dance comes in mighty handy at Oktoberfest :-)

  2. J. Cruikshank March 18, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    That’s creative teaching and a reminder that learning should be fun.

    • Keith March 19, 2010 at 11:31 am #

      Mom: learning should be fun, you’re right. I think it’s a shame that kids don’t enjoy math. If I had had lessons like this when I was a kid I probably would have been much better at math.

  3. Tina March 19, 2010 at 5:03 am #

    Oh I love this. What a great learning experience enveloped with fun and chocolate no less! How do you come up with these great ideas? They’re fantastic!
    .-= Tina´s last blog ..The Radio Flyer Horse – Hi-Yo Silver, Away! =-.

    • Keith March 19, 2010 at 11:29 am #

      Thanks Tina: Learning with food is always a success :-) I figure if it works with dogs it might work with the kids! HA

  4. john cave osborne March 19, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    we used m&m’s to teach our 2-1/2 year old triplets how to poo poo in the potty.

    now, correct me if i’m wrong, but according to the transitive property of equality, wouldn’t that mean that math is crap?

    seriously, fantastic and useful post.
    .-= john cave osborne´s last blog ..Our Pookie Gets Kookie–Lets Loose on Dr. Seuss =-.

    • Keith March 19, 2010 at 10:30 pm #

      Thanks John :-) I’m not sure what the transitive property of equality is, but I understand the concept. Yes, math is all about counting and making crap! HAHA

  5. Dennis Yu March 19, 2010 at 8:05 pm #

    Wait until they get older and you can play this game with dollar bills…. or maybe $10 bills.

    • Keith March 19, 2010 at 9:53 pm #

      Dennis: I’m sure they’d like that!

  6. BigLittleWolf March 20, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    Great idea. (Does it work for calculus?? Can you eat your demonstration tools afterward?)
    .-= BigLittleWolf´s last blog ..How to write a thank you note =-.


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