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The What and Why of Math Games

As a veteran elementary teacher and math specialist, I’m a big believer in using math games to teach math in the classroom.

What is a math game? The most effective math games are those in which the structure and rules of the games are based on mathematical ideas, and winning a game is directly related to understanding the mathematics.

Why play math games? I will classify the intrinsic advantages of math games under three categories:


Much of mathematics teaching revolves around giving students practice in newly acquired skills and reinforcing and revisiting already introduced skills. Games provide a way of taking the drudgery out of this practice of skills, and making that practice more effective. A game can generate much more practice than a workbook page, ditto, or flashcards. When playing a game, students don’t mind repeating certain facts or procedures over and over.

In terms of gains in test results, research indicates that games are an effective way to retrain and reinforce children’s skills with basic number facts.

Playing games demands involvement. Successful mathematics teaching depends on the active involvement of the learner. Piaget, Bruner, and Dienes suggest that games have a very important part to play in learning mathematics. Dienes even suggests that all mathematics teaching should begin with a game.

Ways of Working

Children need to talk about the math as they are learning it. Math games demand mathematical communication. This can be encouraged by having students work with a partner against two other students. Not only will there be meaningful conversation between the two partners, but between the four players.

To play effectively the partners must co-operate. Thus playing games provides opportunities for children to work co-operatively – an important life skill.

Games put pressure on students to work mentally. The ability to do math in your head is a skill that I don’t believe we spend enough time on with students. If you think about it, when presented with a mathematical situation, most people would first try to do it in their head. It takes awhile for students to gain confidence in their ability to do math in their head. You must show them a variety of ways to do math mentally, which will give them tools they can use, but it also builds their desire to think more creatively on their own.

Within the normal classroom situation there few opportunities and little incentive for students to check and justify their work. Games offer a strong incentive for players to check each other’s mathematics, challenging moves which they think are unjustified. I encourage children to ask their opponents to “convince me” or “prove it”.

Probability is one of the mathematics standards that is only slightly addressed. Games bring probability to the forefront. Students are offered many opportunities to think about probability through games.


Probably the most powerful reason for introducting games into the mathematics classroom is the enthusiasm, excitement, and total involvement and enjoyment that children experience when playing math games. Students are highly motivated and totally immerse themselves in the games, and, in the end, their attitude toward math grows increasingly more positive. Games offer children the opportunity to experience success, satisfaction, enjoyment, excitement, enthusiasm, active involvement, and gain confidence in their mathematical abilities.

Games teach or reinforce many of the skills that a formal curriculum teaches, plus a skill that formal learning sometimes, mistakenly, leaves out – the skill of having fun with math, of thinking hard and enjoying it.

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