I have discovered that word problems often contain nice activities if you let the students actually try them. Take this common one:
A tree that is 5 meters tall casts a shadow 7 meters long. At the same time of day, a building casts a shadow 20 meteres long. How tall is the building?
So, it’s certainly possible to just assign this on paper and have the students number crunch away. But why not have the students actually try it? Take them outside, get them to measure their height and the height of their shadow, then measure the shadows of some tall things that they’d normally have to climb. Voila, instant applied problem, and far more interesting to the students than the word problem.
Or take the ultimate stereotype in word problems:
Two towns A and B are five miles away. A train starts in town A heading towards town B going at 40 miles an hour. A train starts in town B heading towards town A going at 50 miles per hour. At what point do the trains meet?
This needs a little bit of a rewrite, but:
Let’s take these two Matchbox cars, wind them up, put them on opposite sides of this track, and run them into each other. At what point will they collide?
You see this is the exact same problem (especially if you make sure your cars have different top speeds) but it suggests an actual fun activity, rather than a classic Far Side cartoon about a math phobic’s nightmare.