Elementary math games can be very effective for reinforcing curriculum… IF they are focused on a specific standard and properly presented. Here's how to make the most of games for teaching mathematics.
Before Getting Started
It's important to only introduce math games after your students have learned the math standard that is involved. It's never a good idea to use a game to introduce a standard.
Why? If you introduce a game before they are fully proficient, they will become frustrated and end up disliking it.
Never assume that your students have background knowledge in any particular game, such as assuming they know how a card deck is organized. Take it step-by-step to lessen child frustration and enhance the impact.
First, the teacher models the game
Using a document camera to project what you are doing, model exactly how to play the game. Next, play the elementary math game with a student in front of the class.
Finally, have two or more students (depending upon the game) play it in front of the class.
Does this sound like too much prep? It's not. Humans are visual learners and need to see a new activity more than once to really understand it. You'll find it much easier to “work out the kinks” before the kids break into groups.
Next, kids play the game
Break the students into teams to play on their own while you circulate to help out. But don't overdo it; the first time I have students play a math game, I keep the actual playtime short – just enough for them to get the gist of it.
This is mainly a timing thing. With all of the necessary modeling, there will be only a few minutes left for the game before the allotted twenty minutes (or so) is used up. (More on duration below.)
The next time the class tackles a math game, I review it briefly, them give them more time.
After that, the game is added to a math center along with other classroom math games they have already learned.
The most time I will ever give students to play a game is twenty minutes; I never use the entire math instructional block. As I note above, games can be great reinforcement but kids still need their daily dose of instruction.
It’s very important to set stringent behavior expectations and model exactly how to play the different elements of any game, keeping in mind those parts of the game which may cause behavior issues.
A perfect example is rolling dice. By the way, remember to emphasize the “rolling” part; never say, “throw the dice” because that is exactly what will happen!
When it comes to rolling dice, I model how to use two hands to cover the dice and shake them, then how to gently roll them. My expectation is that the dice must stay between partners. If it goes outside of the small area where partners are playing, then the game is over.
In general, games open up many opportunities for misbehavior. If you are having difficulties with classroom management, then playing games is not going to help that one bit!
Video tips: managing elementary math games
Focusing on math standards
Improving in math is all about focusing on the standards. Therefore, a classroom math game must align with a grade-level standard.
I always start out by showing or posting the applicable math standard. We go over it together as a class and I remind the students several times as I'm modeling about why we are playing it. I ask them directly:
“Why are we playing this game?”
They know I’m expecting an answer such as:
“We are learning about place value.”
You can find games quite easily by searching on Teachers Pay Teachers or Pinterest.
Searching on the Internet is also another excellent way to find them, as long as you use the correct search term. Keep your search very narrow for best results. For example:
“fourth-grade math game measurement and data” (without the quotes)
Be very careful when having your students play classroom math games on the computer. There are a whole bunch of websites that are not standards-based and really don't do anything for the children's math proficiency. They are simply just fun.
Of course, “fun” is OK – but we can have fun with a purpose as easily as using fun to simply occupy time.