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Using Games To Teach Math

by National Board Certified Teacher Bonnie Britt

(Read Bonnie’s daily blog here!)

Teachers and parents often ask for suggestions about activities to do with their students/children to help further their mathematical understanding.  I’ve been teaching math to children for many years, and I’ve found that math games are, from a teacher’s point of view, wonderfully useful.  Math games put children in exactly the right frame of mind for learning.  Children are normally very eager to play games.  They relax when they play, and they concentrate.  They don’t mind repeating certain facts or procedures over and over. 

Games are engaging and maintain interest – Dittos or workbook pages rarely are.

Many teachers and parents think of games as being “fluff”.  Once they begin to watch what happens as children play a game, they quickly change their minds.  Children throw themselves into playing games the way they never throw themselves into filling out workbook pages or dittos.  And games can, if you select the right ones, help children learn almost everything they need to master in elementary mathGood, child-centered games are designed to take the boredom and frustration out of the repetitive practice necessary for children to master important math skills and concepts.

Playing math games is even more beneficial than spending the same amount of time drilling basic facts using flash cards.  Not only are games a lot more fun, but the potential for learning and reasoning about mathematics is much greater, as well.  Children will be more focused and retention will be greater.

Games require a variety of problem-solving skills, such as making and testing hypotheses, creating strategies (thinking and planning ahead), and organizing information.   Plus, as children play, they further their development of hand-eye coordination, concentration levels, visual discrimination, memory, and their ability to communicate and use mathematical language.

Games can provide an atmosphere where children are encouraged to:

  • share their ideas with others – think, discuss, and explain
  • be alert, interested, curious, and challenged
  • come up with interesting ideas, problems, and questions
  • have confidence in their abilities to figure out things for themselves
  • speak their minds with confidence
  • work cooperatively
  • give and take praise and criticism
  • instruct others
  • accept success and failure in the presence of peers and adults
  • develop initiative, interest, curiosity, resourcefulness, independence, and responsibility.

Would any of the above happen with a ditto, workbook page, or flash cards?

Teaching methods that stress rote memorization of basic number facts or algorithmic procedures are usually boring and do not require learners to participate actively in thought, reflection, and their own learning.

Research has demonstrated that students learn more if they are actively engaged with the math they are studying.  Constance Kamii, a world renowned expert on how children learn math, puts it this way, “Children who are mentally active develop faster than those who are passive.”

Active learning is, in short, anything that children do other than merely listen to a teacher’s or parent’s explanation. Workbook pages, dittos, and flash cards are on the very low end of the “active learning” scale.  Playing math games put children’s minds into a much higher-level “active” mode.

Games solidify the achievements of children who are already good at math, and they shore up children who need shoring up.

One of the most useful outcomes of playing math games with children is that they provide some immediate assessment to teacher, parent, and child.  The game format allows you to observe and evaluate the thinking and problem-solving strategies children are using.

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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