5 Math Strategy Games to Practice Basic Skills

July 11, 2011 at 9:32 am Leave a comment

The summer is a great time for kids to hike, bike, swim… and forget everything that they learned during the school year.

The son returned to school after summer break. At the end of the first day, his mother received a call from the teacher about his poor behavior. “Now, just one minute,” said the mother. “He had poor behavior all summer, yet I never called you once!”

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell purports that poor kids lose ground to affluent kids during summer break. Their experiences and academic progress during the school year are similar, he contends, but their out-of-school experiences during the summer are very different. Though minor at first, the cumulative effect of those summer losses becomes noticeable as children get older.

The following are five games/puzzles that can be used with young kids to prevent summer losses and, possibly, even elicit some summer gains. Each has the characteristics that I love about a good game for young kids: It requires students to use and practice basic skills, but there is a higher purpose for doing so.

1. KenKen

This is a game that’s kind of like SuDoku, but a million times better. If you don’t know the game, check it out at www.kenken.com. My sons noticed me playing it one afternoon and asked what it was. I explained, and they asked if they could do it with me. We now solve three or four games every afternoon. I used to help them a lot, but now they pretty much know all of their math facts up through 7 × 7. How do you not love a game that helps four-years-olds learn the times table?

2. Wormhole

This is a puzzle, not a game, and you can learn all about it at Math Pickle. The general idea is that you start with a sequence of numbers in a flower-like pattern. You then multiply two adjacent numbers, subtract 1, and divide by the number below. The cool and surprising part is that every intermediate result is an integer, so there are no ugly decimals for kids to deal with. And by the twelfth ring of petals, every result is 0. Happens every time.

3. Squares of Differences

The good folks at Math For Love reminded me of this great problem, and Josh Zucker discussed it at length on the NYTimes Numberplay blog. Draw a square, and put a positive integer at each vertex. Then at the midpoint of each side, write the difference of the numbers at the two adjacent vertices. Now connect the midpoints to form a rotated square inside the original square, and repeat. It seems that if you continue this process long enough, you’ll eventually get all 0’s. But does that always happen?

By the time kids test this conjecture with three or four attempts, they’ve done a hundred subtraction problems without even realizing it.

4. Decimal Maze

The Decimal Maze (PDF) comes from the lesson Too Big or Too Small on Illuminations. Trying to obtain the maximum value while traversing a maze with decimal operations, students learn about the effects of multiplying and dividing by decimals that are greater or less than 1. The activity is good for upper elementary and middle school students, but I’ve used modified versions with very young kids. For instance, a modified maze for kids in first grade uses single-digit positive integers while limiting the operations to just addition and subtraction; for older kids, a maze could include fractions or powers instead of decimals.

5. Dollar Nim

As I mentioned in a previous post, my wife created a great game that I call Dollar Nim. The idea is simple. Imagine you have 100¢, and on your turn you can remove 1¢, 5¢, 10¢, or 25¢. Players alternate turns; the player to reduce the amount to 0¢ is the winner. The optimal strategy is not obvious, and kids practice a whole lot of subtraction, especially as it relates to making change.

More generally, any one-pile nim game is great for the purpose of having kids practice subtraction without realizing it.

I hope you find some free time this summer to enjoy these games. I’ll leave you with a joke/truth about summer school.

I never understood the concept of summer school. The teacher’s going to go up there and go, “OK, class. You know that subject you couldn’t grasp in nine months? Well, we’re going to whip it out in six weeks.” – Todd Barry

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About MJ4MF

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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