We all know children love playing games, but how can we turn this love of games into rich mathematical learning experiences? What are the qualities of a good maths game, and should we be incorporating games into regular lessons and homework rather than a Friday afternoon filler activity?
Why use games in the mathematics classroom? First and foremost, they’re fun! Of course, that alone isn’t a good enough reason to use them. However, when children talk about fun and school, they often perceive fun lessons to be those where they felt challenged and learnt something new. In my research on student engagement, many students talked about fun maths lessons they had experienced, and these are some of their quotes:
“Maths is kind of fun when you get to play some maths games” (Year 6 )
“…if you sit on the carpet and the teacher goes on and on about what we’re learning it gets boring and you get restless so that’s why I like doing fun games.” (Year 6)
“Ms. C was a great maths teacher cause she kept giving us different kinds of g
games that we didn’t do before that’s about maths. But now it’s kind of boring because all we have to do is maths tests, maths stuff, nothing fun about it.”(Year 7)
“I loved maths in primary. I remember how we always had these games and we would rotate.” (Year 8)
“I like the iPad games because they are really fun and they make me improve on my maths and I like the maths games that tells you when you are wrong or you are right because if you get it wrong you can improve on that”(Year 4).
A good game provides engagement at cognitive, affective, and operative levels. That is, there must be challenge embedded with the game – if it’s too easy, children will get bored and no learning will occur. The game must be enjoyable to play, and it must promote interaction and dialogue. There are many maths games on the market that are basically drill and practice with the intention of building fluency with number facts. There are also an infinite number of traditional non-maths based games that have a range of mathematical skills and processes embedded within them. The best ones, however, are those that promote the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics proficiencies: Problem Solving, Understanding, Reasoning and Fluency. Take for example, the board game Mabble (photographed). The game requires an understanding of place value and computation, but also requires the players to engage in problem solving and reasoning, while building fluency and demonstrating understanding. Mabble is self-differentiating; meaning anyone of any ability can play successfully. It is also easy to assess students’ work with Mabble as they have to record their work and their scores.
Is it enough to simply allow children to play the games? Definitely not! This is where I get serious. If children play a maths game at school or at home without reflection afterwards, then chances are they have wasted an opportunity for learning. It’s important that children consider the mathematics involved in the game, the challenges that were faced and the strategies that were included. Often we don’t know if children learned anything while playing a game unless we ask some very strategic reflection questions which can be answered verbally or recorded in written form. Here are some examples of good reflection prompts, organised into the cognitive, affective and operative domains of engagement.
- Write a memo to someone about the most important mathematics you learned while playing the game.
- What was the tricky part about the game?
- What maths strategies did you use to help you play the game?
- Write two things that were difficult in this game.
- Can you connect the maths you used in this game to something you already know?
- Where would this knowledge be useful?
- What were the fun bits in your learning when you played the game?
- Why do you think the fun bits were fun?
- How did you feel playing the game with your group?
- Survey the members of your group about how they felt during the game and align them with your own.
- What were your strengths when playing this game?
- What is the most valuable advice you could give students who are going to play this game in the future?
- How could we change this game next time we do this?
- What would you do differently in your next game given the knowledge you have gained from this game?
- What did you find out about your problem solving skills and strategies during this game?
And finally, here is a list of some of my favourite games that promote both mathematical processes and content:
- Mabble (https://engagingmaths.co/teaching-resources/mabble-board-game/)
- Mancala (an ancient strategy game)
- Card games (variations of Snap are fantastic – one more, one less; two more, two less; multiples of 2; multiples of 3; combinations to 10, etc.)
- Domino games
The following are some iPad apps that are mathematics based games:
- Maya Numbers
- Banana Hunt
Of course, there are many more great games for mathematics teaching and learning. The important thing is that we encourage children to engage with them in a meaningful way and provide opportunities for them to reflect on the mathematics and learning involved. If we can do this, games can become part of our everyday routines and even homework tasks, rather than those Friday afternoon time fillers!