Let the Games Begin

There are plenty of articles about gamification of education, and plenty of articles about games in education. This is just about playing games and how that can help education.

My daughter has struggled with mathematics. She gets concepts and has a pretty good number sense, but she seems to have a mental block on remembering number facts. We’ve used flash cards, drills while walking to school, dinner- and breakfast-time quizzes, math facts songs, basketball drills… we’ve practiced and practiced. And she still has a hard time with automatic recall of facts. She’s got good coping skills – she can count in 9’s, and counts on her fingers quickly – but she still has to figure out the answer to simple math fact questions. Her teachers regularly tell us we need to practice her math facts at home, but the good ones let her use a calculator as much as possible.

She does like playing games – she’s good at Chess and Othello, and loves card games and dice games. Recently, we started playing some board games to try to raise her financial awareness. (Living in Ethiopia, she doesn’t get much of an opportunity for shopping, saving, etc.) We’ve played Monopoly and Cashflow for Kids, but the simplest and quickest (hence the one that gets trotted out most frequently) is Payday. Easy family fun.

In the beginning, she had to do the usual counting on and figuring out whenever she had to pay a bill or figure out her change. But as we played it more and she started being the banker, she became quicker with her answers and more automatic in her calculations. Now, she can handle various financial transactions quickly and accurately.

So what happened? Did she grow up and get better at Maths? Did the repeated drilling finally stick? Or was playing a game the magic bullet?

It seems to me that game playing was the solution …but it’s not quite as simple as that. We weren’t playing a “math game.” We were just playing a game. One she found fun. She wanted to play and wanted to win. She was motivated. The mathematical skills needed were not central to the game, but they were repeatedly used and the better she got the quicker she could play and the more fun the game was. Furthermore, the skills were used in a real context. It wasn’t just memorizing that 6 + 4 = 10. It was understanding that a bill of $600 and a bill of $400 added up to a total amount she had to pay of $1,000. Or that if she paid $500 for a $200 bill, she’d need $300 in change. It was real. It was meaningful. …and it was fun.

Wouldn’t it be great if all learning was meaningful and real and fun? That’s not “gamification.” That’s doing real things that incorporate important skills in a fun context. Games are perfect. But so is making stuff. Or putting on plays. Or planning an event.

The problem is that these kinds of activities require planning and effort. It’s much easier to get out the textbook and have the students do the problems from the next section. Or give them a worksheet. Or a quiz. And these kinds of activities are messy and hard to assess. What standards do they address? How do you really measure the skills the students demonstrate? And each child will produce different products and demonstrate different skills. So it’s harder to manage in a classroom of 20+ students.

But the payoff makes the effort worthwhile. (IF your goal as a teacher really is student success and you don’t mind doing extra work to make that happen.)

Certainly this parent is going to continue playing games with his child.

Besides, it’s fun!


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