Math as a Game

Teaching special education requires a lot of trial and error. As I entered the second semester of my first year teaching math, I began to experiment with instructional design.  After a few weeks of research and the help of a mentor, I developed a curriculum approach focused around games and activities.  I did this for a number of reasons: games are more fun; they facilitate engagement and motivation, and they ground abstract concepts within tangible experiences.  And perhaps more than anything, my students and I quickly grew tired of learning math from worksheets.  What I did not anticipate, however, was how this shift would radically improve learning outcomes. 

About a week into the second semester, a student showed me that expo markers worked on our desks.  It was a small moment that became a tipping point.  Here's an example of a 6th grade student using expo markers to draw and compare fractions:

A few month later, I workshopped a game that would engage the conceptual ideas behind the features of 3 dimensional figures.  I resolved on blind-folding each student and having them count unique features using their sense of touch:

The following video is an example of a more traditional game called Seven-Up. Students fold a piece of paper into 12 squares, cross one out and number the rest 2-11.  They are given 7 counters to place where they wish on the numbered squares. Then they take turns rolling dice. Each time they roll a number where a counter has been placed, they take it off. The first player to get rid of all their counters wins.


The first time most kids play the game, they space the counters evenly across the numbers. Over time, they develop pattern recognition. The number 7 repeats again and again, so they cluster their counters around 6, 7 and 8. At that point, the students have an emerging understanding of probability as a concept, and the term is introduced.