Fifty-six kids. Four digits. One objective: Get to the number 24.
And any way you add, subtract, multiply or divide it, many of Anne Arundel County's fourth-and fifth-graders agree that the game "24" is a fun way to practice math.
During the past two weeks, children from nearly 50 county elementary schools have competed in regional tournaments of the game, which tests problem-solving skills as well as basic math knowledge.
To play, groups of four children are dealt a card with four numbers on it. The players apply different operations - addition, subtraction, multiplication, division - to the numbers to find a way to reach 24.
The top six winners from each regional competition will meet next month to determine the countywide elementary school champion.
"You have to know your math facts really well," said Shelby Emerson, 11, a fifth-grader at Ridgeway Elementary who was one of six students who advanced to the county competition.
But school officials say the game helps children move beyond memorization to become "fluent" in simple arithmetic.
"There are many ways to know the facts," said Joy Donlin, the school system's coordinator of mathematics. "What's important is that you know them and know them quickly."
"If kids are fluent in their math facts ... they can use them whenever they need them," she added.
According to a Web site about the game, 24 is designed to alleviate some of the anxiety about finding the correct answer, so children can concentrate on finding patterns.
Elementary school students play with cards that only have single-digit numbers. Middle-schoolers, who have their own event, increase the complexity by using fractions and double-digit numbers.
A muted tension pervaded the room this week during a competition at Meade Heights Elementary in Fort Meade, as kids sat in groups of four surrounded by a crowd of their families.
Betty Elder, a resource teacher for gifted and talented programs and a coordinator of the event, began with some words of encouragement.
"You are winners already," she told the group.
After proctors place a card in the center of the game board, children tap the board when they have an answer. The first to respond then recites the solution with the last step first, so proctors can easily check their answers.
The competition motivated the children. "I practiced like crazy in the morning and the afternoon," said Shelby Goodwin, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Piney Orchard Elementary.
In addition to practicing on their own at home or with parents, many children stayed after school to play with classmates or devoted recess time to competition.
Joon Lee, 11, a fifth-grader at Crofton Elementary, played at the countywide competition last year and again last week.
"If I don't know one, I'll go over it over and over again," he said.
Some learned skills by watching other children play.
"Before, I didn't know how to get 1 by dividing the same numbers," said Kelsey Terrell, a fifth-grader at Millersville Elementary.
Others practiced multiple ways to solve the problem for each card, such as Alandre Cato, 10, a Piney Orchard fifth-grader who also will compete in the countywide event.
But some children discovered lessons beyond the academic.
"It's nice to see someone that's better than you," said John Lim, a fifth-grader at Severn Elementary, during a break. "It brings you back down to earth."