Friday, 10 July 2015

'Learning Mathematics Through Games Series: 1. Why Games?'

We all know that children enjoy playing games. Experience tells us that games can be very
productive learning activities. But ..

  • What should teachers say when asked to educationally justify the use of games in
    mathematics lessons?
  • Are some games better than others?
  • What educational benefits are there to be gained from games?
 This article supplies teachers with information that may be useful in better understanding the
nature of games and their role in teaching and learning mathematics.

What is a mathematical game?

When considering the use of games for teaching mathematics, educators should distinguish
between an 'activity' and a 'game'. Gough (1999) states that "A 'game' needs to have two or more
players, who take turns, each competing to achieve a 'winning' situation of some kind, each able to
exercise some choice about how to move at any time through the playing". The key idea in this
statement is that of 'choice'. In this sense, something like Snakes and Ladders is NOT a game
because winning relies totally on chance. The players make no decisions, nor do that have to think
further than counting. There is also no interaction between players - nothing that one player does
affects other players' turns in any way.

Oldfield (1991) says that mathematical games are 'activities' which:

  • involve a challenge, usually against one or more opponents; 
  • are governed by a set of rules and have a clear underlying structure;
  • normally have a distinct finishing point;
  • have specific mathematical cognitive objectives.
Benefits of Using Games

The advantages of using games in a mathematical programme have been summarised in an article
by Davies (1995) who researched the literature available at the time.

  • Meaningful situations - for the application of mathematical skills are created by games
  • Motivation - children freely choose to participate and enjoy playing
  • Positive attitude - Games provide opportunities for building self-concept and developing
    positive attitudes towards mathematics, through reducing the fear of failure and error;
  • Increased learning - in comparison to more formal activities, greater learning can occur
    through games due to the increased interaction between children, opportunities to test
    intuitive ideas and problem solving strategies
  • Different levels - Games can allow children to operate at different levels of thinking and to
    learn from each other. In a group of children playing a game, one child might be
    encountering a concept for the first time, another may be developing his/her understanding
    of the concept, a third consolidating previously learned concepts
  • Assessment - children's thinking often becomes apparent through the actions and decisions
    they make during a game, so the teacher has the opportunity to carry out diagnosis and
    assessment of learning in a non-threatening situation
  • Home and school - Games provide 'hands-on' interactive tasks for both school and home
  • Independence - Children can work independently of the teacher. The rules of the game and
    the children's motivation usually keep them on task.
Few language barriers - an additional benefit becomes evident when children from non-english speaking backgrounds are involved. The basic structures of some games are common to many
cultures, and the procedures of simple games can be quickly learned through observation. Children
who are reluctant to participate in other mathematical activities because of language barriers will
often join in a game, and so gain access to the mathematical learning as well as engage in
structured social interaction

Hints for Successful Classroom Games

These tips come from Alridge & Badham (1993):

  • Make sure the game matches the mathematical objective
  • Use games for specific purposes, not just time-fillers
  • Keep the number of players from two to four, so that turns come around quickly
  • The game should have enough of an element of chance so that it allows weaker students to
    feel that they a chance of winning
  • Keep the game completion time short
  • Use five or six 'basic' game structures so the children become familiar with the rules - vary
    the mathematics rather than the rules
  • Send an established game home with a child for homework 
  • Invite children to create their own board games or variations of known games.
Future articles in this series will cover types of games and creating your own games


Aldridge, S. & Badham, V. (1993). Beyond just a game. Pamphlet Number 21 . Primary
Mathematics Association.
Davies, B. (1995). The role of games in mathematics. Square One . Vol.5. No. 2
Gough, J. (1999). Playing mathematical games: When is a game not a game? Australian Primary
Mathematics Classroom
. Vol 4. No.2
Oldfield, B. (1991). Games in the learning of mathematics. Mathematics in Schools. January

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