Last week I was working with a group of amazing teachers while conducting a workshop for the Georgia Department of Education.  These 2 day workshops can be mentally draining for participants so I purposefully slide games in throughout the 12 hours. It was during one of these games that a teacher had the following concern/comment: “All of these games are great and everything but I can’t play them because there’s so much to teach and not enough time.”

photoThis comment has resonated with me over the past few days and I am so thankful she shared her thoughts.

I’m sure we’re all guilty of it!  Pull out a game and allow our students to play while we search for some reprieve or rush to the computer to check email.  But while the students are engaged in the game there’s so much happening…AND WE MISS IT!!!  If we are going to use games in our classroom we must understand their purpose and the role they play.  I asked myself, what’s really happening while students are engaged in games?

  • Problem Solving (SMP#1): A word problem is shared and half the class are confused or they just shut down and say it’s too hard! Just like you don’t jump off a couch and run a marathon in one day, stamina and perseverance in problem solving takes time and practice.  Puzzle-type games are a non-threatening way for students to begin developing problem-solving stamina.  The creator of Math Pickle, Dr. Gordon Hamilton, suggests using puzzles as a primary tool in math class.  I have used many of his puzzles and I’ve yet to hear a student say “this is too hard” within the first 15 minutes and that has to account for something!
  • Developing Fluency (SMP#2):  Many teachers complain that students don’t know their facts which results in the use of timed tests!  With the increased use of Number Talks in many schools, students have begun to develop strategies that enable them to think flexibly about numbers.  With that being said, students need an opportunity to practice using their strategies to the point they’re automatized and that’s where games come in.  The games employed in class should support and reinforce the concepts being taught to promote automaticity.  Example: if students are exploring doubles they could play Dominating Doubles.  While students are playing the game, I’m watching and listening to see who is finger counting and questioning to see who is using strategy.
  • Discussion and Discourse (SMP#3, #5  & #6): Get students talking about math!!! Students need opportunities to clarify their thinking by developing a relationship between discussions and understanding.  Many times when students disagree, they rely on a model to justify their thinking by using number lines, a manipulative, or a table.  It Takes 3 to Prove it to Me is a great game for 3rd-5th students to reason, discuss, and model while comparing fractions.
  • Own the Game! (SMP #7 & #8): This is probably my favorite reason for using games!  You introduce a game to students such as NIM or Leap Frog.  About a day later, one student is continually destroying everyone.  Classmates want to know what the “secret” is but I don’t allow the student to share…yet!  The student has generalized a rule to win the game, they’re thinking algebraically, and I’m doing the happy dance. The student is continually reasoning with internal questions such as “If I do this, then the result will be…”.  The repeated questioning eventually leads to a rule that works every time.  Algebrafying elementary content is quite difficult for K-5 teachers but games naturally lead to an identification of patterns…and that’s the golden ticket.

The SMPs need to be at the heart of everything we do and should be the vehicle for engaging students in mathematics.  So I now ask the question, “How can you not make the time to purposefully infuse games into your math class?”