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Why Math Games Should be a Part of Every Math Class

This year, more than any other year, I've noticed that many of my students don't like math. Not just a little bit, but a lot. In part, it's a question of feeling confident about what they know and, in part, it's because I am asking them to not only give an answer, but also to justify their answer or their method. Too many of them simply want to follow the algorithm and be done with it. It doesn't matter if they can explain why this method works or not. They got the answer and it's correct. Who cares why it works. 

Other students have an ingrained sense that they are not good at math. Their parents were not good at math and that's why they struggle, too. Or so goes their logic. 

And, of course, in 5th grade we get into more thorny math topics that will follow kids through middle school and beyond. In a word, I think that when some kids hear me say, "It's time for math," they literally shut down their brains and their emotional filters go up. 

I've tried many things this year, but what has been most successful is starting most math classes with games. Now, I have to admit that I am wary of games in math because they tend to favor computation and therefore lean towards reinforcing algorithmic procedures. Nevertheless, I was a bit desperate and felt I needed to do something completely different or I would lose some of my reluctant math students for good. 

I have been using a variety of sources on and offline for games and sharing these resources is really not the point of this post. I will leave that for another time. A purpose of this post is to reflect on my observations as my students play the games. I also want to mention that I always have my students write written reflections of the game. Questions I ask include the following - 

(1) Was this game easy, just right or challenging? (I need to remember to add "why" next time).
(2) Where's the math in this game? What did you need to understand or know how to do in order to play?
(3) How would you change this game to make it more interesting or challenging for you?
(4) What strategy did you use, or could you use next time you play this game?

My observations:
• For a challenging game it's a good idea to pair up kids with differing math levels. That way they can help each other as appropriate. A much as possible, I try to emphasize the importance of teaching their partner why an answer is correct as a condition of getting a point. 
• Demonstrating the game to the class the first time it's played is important. Giving the kids a sheet with directions is not sufficient. 
• Limiting the game time to 15 minutes or so with 5 minutes to write a reflection is working for us. That still gives me time for a math lesson, which usually involves some kind of investigation related to our unit of study. The games are not always connected to the math we're currently studying, however. 
• Kids are making positive comments about math. They are sometimes choosing to forego class meeting to keep working on the math, whether it's a game or an investigation, though it's usually the latter at that point. 
• The game period gives me the opportunity to "work the room" and do some in-the-moment teaching. It only takes a minute or two to engage in a targeted interaction about math for students to suddenly understand something that was previously eluding them. 
• Kids make good choices when it's choice day for games. For the most part,
they select appropriate games and adjust the challenge level. 

Of course, I'm only at the beginning stages of using math games in the classroom. Up next is to dig into the book Well Played, Building Mathematical Thinking Through Number Games and Puzzles, Grades 3 - 5 (there's a K - 2 version) by Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland and Jayne Bamfors Lynch for more inspiration and ideas.  

Do you use math games in the classroom? If so, please share what you do and how it's working for you and your students.
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