Monday, February 7, 2011

Teaching via Games: The Introduction

I like games.  Board games, video games, sports, Bear/Ninja/Cowboy, you name it.  I've even managed to get to a place where I even enjoy games when I lose.  I and dad are so proud.  When I moved to California, one of my best craigslist furniture finds was a nice big coffee table that opens up to reveal a not-so-secret compartment.  Mine's filled with board games.  Below are some of the most recent games I've played and/or added to the bowels of the coffee table.  

There are lots of games that are explicitly and implicitly mathematical.  Some a great and some are terrible.

Math Mama Writes has introduced me to some of the great ones.  Math for Love has a great post cautioning us that any game labeled as a "fun math game" is like calling something you would ingest a food product--typically not a good sign.
If your goal is to teach and you just slap the word “fun” on at the end, you end up with garbage. On the other hand, if you’re focused on making a game that’s really good, well, then it is fun. Of course, whether it has any educational value is pretty dubious.
I've played mathy games for many years.  There are hundreds (never mind the hundreds more using nothing more than a deck of cards).  Here are 20 (and please add your own favorites in the comments):
I find these games to be fun first, and mathematical second.  I use some of these in my classroom and a few to complement or inspire content.  For example, there are some great counting questions that can be asked about Set:

How many cards are in the deck? 
How many sets are in the deck?
What's the greatest number of cards you can have without a set?

I've used Mastermind lessons as a tool to develop the concept of proof with middle schoolers.  Backgammon is a great game to practice probability.  

Overall, though, many of these games present challenges in the classroom: they take too long to play or teach the rules, they require too much set up, they can only be played by a limited number of people, students can play without actually trying to implement any thoughtful strategy, and the big one: it is challenging to convince kids (and schools and parents) that playing these games is not just an extra, froofy, free time activity and a break from doing "real" math.  True, becoming better at chess will most likely not help you become better with fractions, but I've begun to think about how these above games could help develop mathematical thinking and habits of mind.


  1. Did you get a chance to see Brian Conrey's session on the geometry of SET? If not, maybe he'll be doing it again this summer at one of the AIM teachers' circle workshops.

  2. I think that SET is clearly mathematical. You use of Mastermind for proofs is good (incidentally, it can be fun to program it in Scratch---see the version at

  3. What grade level have you had success with the game Equate? I own a copy but have yet to try it out on my students.

  4. @Paul: I've had sixth graders "play around with it", but I've never tried to play Equate with kids in any formal way. In case you didn't know, there are different levels of the game (more advanced ones have powers, negatives, fractions). This is definitely one of the games that has the problem of taking too long to play an entire game (not that you couldn't just play a few rounds).

  5. One game I would like to add to the list is dominoes (with scoring). At the most basic level you only get points when you set the board up with a multiple of five, but the rabbit hole goes quite deep when one starts to understand the different strategies and how they interact. I have a fantasy of starting a dominoes club when I am out of graduate school.

    Another game to add is ricochet robots. That game is just plain wonderful.

  6. Great list, Avery. The only ones I would make sure to add are Hex, Nim, and Dots & Boxes (all super cheap--requiring only pencil and paper). I'm blogging my own list tomorrow; I'll make sure to link to here.

    Math for Love