Beat the Back to School Blues…Play a Math Game!

Coming back from winter break can be hard. Everyone is sleepy, unfocused, and daydreaming of the holiday gifts that await them at home after school. And that’s just the teachers!

But seriously, getting back into the groove of school is hard for everyone, and can be especially hard for students with disabilities who thrive on clarity of expectations and routine. Creating the perfect situation for students and teachers to transition from a holiday break can be a challenge. So this year, we played games!

When visitors come into my room and see “games” on the agenda they assume that means “free time.” That, however, is not the case. As Van De Walle, Karp and Bay-Williams write, “A game or other repeatable activity may not seem to incorporate a problem but it can nonetheless be a problem-based task. The determining factor is whether the [game] causes students to be reflective about new or developing mathematical relationships. Remember that it is reflective thought that causes growth and therefore learning” (63).


Tips from Marilyn Burns (Source)

Marilyn Burns describes why games have been a staple of her teaching repertoire, “Games can motivate students, capture their interest, and are a great way to get in that paper-and-pencil practice.”  Further, in their book, Routines for Reasoning, Kelemanik, Lucenta, and Crieghton relate that learning experiences for students with disabilities must be: authentic, meaningful contexts, multisensory, language rich, and full of opportunities for multiple practice. Games provide all of these features. They are by definition, competitive. Competition is, itself, a meaningful, authentic context. Most games are inherently multi-sensory. While playing games students must communicate with each other, thus creating language rich environments. And finally, most good math games make students do as many (or more) problems as they would on a paper-and-pencil worksheet.

Since my students have a wide range of academic abilities, it is necessary that we have access to a wide range of math games. Here are the math games we play, and please let us know which ones you love so we can play them too!

Lower Elementary

  • Savvy Subitizing Cards from Christina Tondevold – These are a fantastic set of cards that allow many different games to be played. One of our favorites is Tondevold’s original idea called “Savvy Subitizing,” where the cards are placed face down in the form of a ten frame and students pick cards from the deck to put in the correct place on their ten frame.
  • Tiny Polka Dot from Math for Love – Another set of cards which allow for a variety of game play. A favorite iteration is called, “Thirty-One.” Cards representing 1-5 are laid out, face up in a 5×5 configuration. Students go around picking cards and adding to a group total. The first student to add exactly thirty-one to the group total, wins.
  • Hundred (or Multiplication) Chart Connect-4 from Joe Schwartz – This game takes a staple of most math classes, the hundred (or multiplication) chart and makes students see it in a new way. The materials and set-up are simple, but the thinking is deep!
  • Dominoes – This time-honored game is perfect for students working through the standards of counting and cardinality. As you may be able to tell by now, flexibility is a feature we value in our games, and it is also a feature of Dominoes because there are many games that can be played with these simple tiles. For older students: Playing dominoes can also be a fun way to introduce polyominoes (Henri Picciotto has some great activities related to pentominoes).

Upper Elementary

  • Equate – This game is essentially math scrabble, but the algebraic thinking that goes into each move is a pleasure to experience.
  • Prime Climb also from Math for Love – This game has a simple goal: land both your game pieces exactly on 101. But getting there is why this game is a favorite of ours! Students must use all four operations to move their game pieces towards the end goal of 101. Strategy includes which operations to use at which times, because since you have to land exactly on 101, you might have to go backwards in order to reach your goal. It also includes some of the more vindictive aspects of Sorry! (such as jumping and bumping), which never hurts!
  • 24 – I have never actually counted how many calculations my students have done while playing just one card of this game. I would bet it was A LOT!


From Twitter:

8 thoughts on “Beat the Back to School Blues…Play a Math Game!

    • The other one we played before the break and we asked families to play over the holidays at home was a small game of Snakes and Ladders (up to 30). Very simple I know, but for young children, just getting into the habit of counting on by first moving to the next square – by playing a game – is an important step. And getting familiar with turn taking, dice throwing, numbers up to 30….

      A few of us made our own big version in the class yesterday too.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Math Games | Denise Gaskins' Let's Play Math

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