“What do you mean you’ve got a maths game for homework? That’s not real work but don’t worry, I will find you a worksheet.”
When this conversation between a pupil and his mother was relayed to me one morning, it made me realise that I had made a huge assumption that parents would appreciate the benefits of playing maths games. This clearly not being the case, we obviously needed to run some maths workshops for parents focusing on the approaches used when teaching maths and an explanation of their benefits.
So how do we justify the playing of games?
Pupils need to apply and practise what they have learnt if they are to be fluent. This involves the ability to work efficiently, accurately and flexibly due to having a good level of understanding. When playing games, pupils can carry out many calculations without even noticing because it absorbs them. Also, in order not to disrupt the flow of the game, pupils are more likely to look for quick ways to calculate which can encourage flexibility. For example, if presented with a calculation such as 73–37, they can use 73–40 and adjust by adding 3 afterwards rather than using a written algorithm.
I often encourage pupils to play in pairs. The benefit of this is that they have to justify their choices when playing the game which can help them clarify their ideas or even highlight an aspect of the topic they are actually unsure about. When playing individually, pupils can verbalise reasons for their choices while playing the game. This does not have to take place every time a player makes a choice; the teacher or adult can direct it.
Maths games should ideally require pupils to reason. For example, when rolling a die to create a number that needs to be put into a calculation where each player has to decide whether to put it into their own or their opponent’s calculation. Another example would be pupils asking questions to determine a hidden entity such as a type of number or shape. If they are only allowed so many questions, they will need to choose their next question based on the answers that have been provided to previous questions. Presenting lots of calculations for pupils to complete does not always require reasoning.
Some pupils build up a fear in maths about getting answers right or wrong but this is often less of an issue when playing a game, particularly if the players are paired since they can discuss what to do next. Pupils can also become nervous when they see pupils completing activities in a shorter space of time but this is less of an issue during a game. Scoring systems that involve all players gaining points, with the highest or lowest point score belonging to the overall winner, also allow pupils to feel that they have achieved even if they are not the overall winner.
Even pupils who proclaim that they do not enjoy maths often enjoy playing maths games. It does not feel like a chore and there is an element of competition. However, it is important that the level of the game has been adapted so that it is accessible to all pupils. The same game can often be used successfully with a range of pupils when small adjustments are made such as providing dice with a smaller or higher number of sides when generating numbers.
During a game, pupils can reveal misconceptions through their choices and discussions about a topic that otherwise may not have been revealed. When this happens, it allows teachers or adults to intervene so that the misunderstanding does not cause issues when building on previous topics.
When pupils are immersed in a game and playing with others, they are less likely to need to ask questions of the teacher individually. Issues are usually discussed between the players and teachers are only needed to resolve debates. This allows teachers to focus on one particular group for a set period or to circulate and notice levels of understanding based on how the game is being played. Listening to discussions can prove to be a valuable form of assessment which sometimes reveals more than would be uncovered when looking at a page of calculations.
Parents are often keen to understand how their children are doing at school. As pupils get older, there can be a reluctance to share their homework with those at home. Games that need to be played with others allow parents an insight into what is being covered in maths in school and how well their child has grasped the concepts. Comment sheets, to be completed after the game has been played, provide invaluable feedback for their child’s teacher.
It is worth noting here that while the wealth of online maths games that can be found on the internet can be useful for consolidation, they sometimes can be designed in such a way that pupils can achieve an answer by simply guessing. They also do not provide the social interactivity and insights that an offline game can provide.
Click here to download one of my favourite games that can be adapted for all sorts of number work.