Online math games can play a useful role in helping kids learn, but they aren’t the only game in town and they shouldn’t be used to the exclusion of older methods, such as card games, dice games and printable math games. For many people, but especially kids, it is easy to get excited about the latest, shiny tech. However, being new and shiny doesn’t mean it is actually better than tried and true methods. There are reasons classics stick around: They have stood the test of time because of the quality they deliver.
One of the shortfalls of most online math games is that they are unlikely to give you a record of how the child performed. Even if you only had to keep track of the progress of one child, memory is an unreliable method to track progress. It is far better to have some kind of record. When you are dealing with a large number of kids, it is critical that you have a record. If you are also grading them, you need that record to back up the scores they are given.
Another factor is that many children, especially introverts, don’t like being explicitly tested or asked questions. It feels invasive to them. But playing games with the child allows an adult to observe the child to get some idea of their actual performance. This can be recorded without explicitly testing them every step of the way. It can be a bonding process, a means to win them over instead of alienating them. Letting them play online math games independently may appeal to them and may have a role to play, but it does not substitute one-for-one for interaction with a knowledgeable adult.
Yet another shortfall of online math games is that if no adult is actually watching or actively participating, many systems can be gamed. In other words, a child can figure out how to make it look like they did well, in spite of not understanding the concepts or how to actually do the math. It takes human interaction to make sure they really understand the concepts being taught and aren’t simply faking their way to an acceptable score. Just as “teaching to the test” is generally a poor methodology, so is taking the easy way out of letting them play an online game and checking their score rather than checking their comprehension.
For many kids, being able to hold something in their hand and manipulate it physically can be enormously helpful. It can help them wrap their brain around challenging concepts that may otherwise seem too abstract and nebulous. Having a thing to hold can be a huge help for bridging the gap between what the child knows currently and the concepts being introduced.
Different children have different thought processes. Making sure to reach them in a way that works for how they think will pay life-long dividends. Missing critical concepts in childhood can impair them in high school, college and in their careers and life.
Each child has their own unique mental process. For example, some kids think in pictures and other kids think in words. A computer cannot customize its approach in order to deal with these differences. But a person can modify their approach to best reach each child, often without consciously realizing they are making adjustments. The back and forth of human interaction tends to have built-in adjustments that often are not consciously noticed by any of the participants. How others in the group respond or behave informs the responses of each individual and causes them to course-correct in small ways that just seem natural, because they are natural.
Online or computer games are limited by the mental models of the people who designed them. Any unstated assumptions made by the people who created the game cannot be modified along the way. If those assumptions cause some kind of problem or leave some kind of critical gap, there is no means for the game itself to resolve the issue. But the unstated assumptions of teachers can be addressed when the teacher sees that something has gone wrong and adjusts their approach accordingly. Unless and until we have true Artificial Intelligence, a computer cannot match the performance of a human in effectively transmitting important concepts to our youth.
There is an aspect of math that is not about numbers per se. It is about real world relationships that are easily and readily captured and expressed in numerical form. Mathematical concepts describe underlying reality. When children fail to understand this, their use of number can go awry in ways that no computer can help redress. It takes an actual person to notice that a child’s underlying ideas about what is going on are incorrect and then find a way to determine the exact details of where and how their mental models have gone wrong.
Hands on manipulatives can physically demonstrate concepts in a memorable way. For example, laying out tiles like the ancients did can make it clear that a “square” number is called this because it literally makes a square when physically laid out. It can also make it clear that why we call multiplication tables “times tables” — that if you have this number of tiles that many times, you get X result.
Moving on to blocks can help you demonstrate why we say a number to the third power is “cubed” — because it literally forms a cube when you have a physical shape that counts out the same number of items in all three directions. If a child is having trouble understanding division, physically slicing up a pie can tangibly demonstrate for them why we write fractions the way we do and can also make it clear why the numbers gets smaller as the denominator gets larger. They can see that one half of a pie is smaller than a whole pie and one quarter of a pie is smaller than a half and so on.
Playing dice games or repeatedly flipping coins can help demonstrate probability. This is how actual mathematicians developed or proved various mathematical theories and it can be replicated readily by students in the here and now. For socially oriented students, reading up on the actual mathematicians who performed these historical explorations and replicating them to some degree can be a more relatable means to learn math.
Especially for children who have had a negative experience of math, using games to teach math and making sure it is fun can help them get over their emotional blocks so they can experience math in a positive way. A social approach to math that is fun may also help students relate to math positively who are often left out in the cold because math is taught in a way that doesn’t work for them.
Girls are often more socially oriented than boys and are often alienated from STEM subjects by the manner in which these courses get taught, though this isn’t a gender issue per se. It is just a brain wiring issue. Any student, regardless of gender, who is alienated by the usual approaches to math may suddenly flourish in school when “difficult” subjects are taught in a manner that more readily connects with how their brains process information.
Some of your brightest students will not do well with rote approaches to math. They will find it boring, and bright kids quickly check out and stop caring when they are bored. This can even cause them to become trouble makers as a means to alleviate their own boredom. Keeping your brightest students engaged can benefit everyone in the classroom and can help drag up the average performance of all students.
A bright student who is positively engaged with their classmates can help illuminate how to do it well. Giving a good example is far more efficient than telling students a thousand and one ways to get it wrong. Having this positive example to follow can be enormously helpful to students who are struggling. It can also help reduce the social friction that bright students so often experience by giving them a more positive connection to their classmates.
But some studies and experiments have proven that simply approaching math in the right way can help teachers reach even many of their students who have been written off as simply “bad” students who are just not capable of doing well. In some cases, teaching math in a more approachable manner has allowed previously poor students to begin doing better in all of their subjects.
A diverse approach to teaching this foundational subject can be a win-win scenario for all involved parties. It can help ensure that there truly is no student left behind while improving the social experience of all parties. It can help make teaching a pleasure while also making the teacher shine by helping their students shine.
Bringing in some old fashioned, hands-on games and manipulatives to teach math is an excellent approach for elementary and middle school kids. It can help ensure they understand math in concrete terms before they get to algebra.
When a Game is not a Game
A great way to motivate children to learn mathematical concepts is through the use of games. After all, children simply like games because they are fun. However, if learning of mathematical concepts is to take place, a game must be a game and not just a math activity.
Many activities that are thought to be games are not really games according to J. Gough. In a journal article, J. Gough defines a game for educators. He states that “a game must have two or more players, who take turns, each competing to achieve a winning situation of some kind, and each able to exercise some choice about how to move at any time through the playing”. The player must think in order to make a decision on a choice.
Candy Land, for instance, is not a game. The player wins or loses based on chance. A player does not make any decisions, nor is he or she required to actually think strategically. The player simply counts and does not interact with others. What one player does doesn’t affect other players at all.
So too, online games do not require players to make strategic decisions nor do they require interaction with others. A player does not compete with another. What a player does doesn’t affect any other player.
Advantages of Using Games in Teaching Mathematics
Printable games or games using cards or dice can provide the following advantages in the learning of mathematical concepts:
Learning is Increased — When compared with formal classroom activities or online activities, there is greater learning through printable or manipulative games. This is because the games provide opportunities for children to interact with one another to test problem solving strategies and intuitive ideas.
Heterogeneous Levels — When playing games in a group of two or more, children can learn from one another. Children placed in a group to play a game are at different levels. One child may be learning a concept for the very first time, and another may be developing an understanding of the concept. A third child may have mastered the concept previously.
Application of Math Skills — Games provide students with opportunities to apply mathematical skills.
Games Motivate – Since children enjoy playing games, they will choose to participate freely.
Social Interaction — In the classroom, it’s the social interaction with other students they crave. True learning is a social process. The way children learn best is through games that foster interaction with other students and/or the teacher.
Less Fear of Failing — When playing a game, there is less fear of making a mistake or failing for students. They, therefore, will develop a positive attitude towards math and a better self-concept as well.
Assess Learning — Decisions and actions of a child become apparent when playing a game. This makes it possible for the teacher to assess the child’s learning in a situation that is non-threatening.
Fewer Language Barriers — Children with non-English speaking backgrounds are more willing to participate in games than other mathematical activities. Through observation, the rules of the game can be learned making it possible for them to join in and not only get access to learning math but to also participate in social interaction.
Independent of Teacher — When a group of children is playing a game, they usually will continue independent of the teacher. They will remain on task due to their motivation and the rules of the game.
Send a Learned Game Home for Homework
Online computer games can be fun and age appropriate, but children crave the attention of their parents. Online games do not require the child’s parents’ attention.
Sending a game home for homework provides an opportunity for the child’s parents to spend some quality time with their child. The child will have fun while learning, and will enjoy and remember playing the game more than playing an educational computer game.
When a parent or parents sit down to play a math game with their child, the child will be better able to both apply and solidify the mathematical calculating and reasoning skills they have learned in school. When a child plays an online or video game, the parent learns the final score of the child, but does not know what mistakes they made and why. The parent of a child will learn their child’s weaknesses and strengths in math by playing a printable game with their child.
Classroom Game Tips
- The game should match the mathematical objective of the lesson.
- The number of game players in a group should be from two to four allowing turns to go around quickly.
- The completion time of the game should be short. In order for the children to be familiar with the game rules, use only five or six basic structures of the class’s games. The mathematics should vary and not the rules.
- Assign cooperative groups to create their own board games or known games’ variations. The groups can then present the game to the class. The cooperative groups can play another group’s game.
- A fun way for a teacher to introduce a game to a class is to play the game with the class. The game would be the teacher against the class. The teacher first explains the rules, and then asks the class what their next move is. As the teacher plays, he or she models their strategy by explaining each move out loud revealing his or her thinking.
- After playing a game, assign student to reflect on the game by either discussing questions or writing answers to the questions in a math journal or notebook. Possible questions:
- 1. What were the strategies you used when playing the game
- 2. If you were to play the game again, what different strategies would you try?
- 3. How could you make the game more challenging?