Learning Through Play: Sneaky Math Games

Posted by Linda Schmidt on

When our kids are really little it's easy to figure out what an educational game looks like.  They're learning colors, numbers, spelling, etc., and there are a whole slew of great games that are overtly educational.  Below are some of my favorite games that are clearly about learning and reinforcing math skills.  (Shown are Math Bingo, Make a Pie, Math Dice, Prime Climb, Mobi, and Monster Math Scale)

Math Games

But what happens when kids are getting a little older, and they don't want to play games that are so obviously educational?  Is there still something to learn from playing games that seem like they're just for fun?  You bet!  Particularly when it comes to practicing math skills, there are some intriguing options out there, and I like to refer to them as "sneaky math games."  In these games, the object is to win by getting the most points, and that process of figuring out HOW to get the most points is actually a great way to exercise some math skills.  Here's an example of what I mean.

Incan Gold is a game that we played a lot with our kids when they were 8 or 9, and we still enjoy it as a family.  In this game you're exploring a tomb and trying to make it out with treasure.  Each turn is super simple: you decide whether you will exit the tomb or continue exploring, and hopefully discover more treasure.  If you decide to exit, you will be able to grab treasure on your way out. The person with the most treasure after 5 rounds will win the game. 

Where does the math come in?  During every round you're collecting treasure and counting your total points, which is pretty straightforward math.  But there are three "denominations" of treasure, so you'll need to make change and exchange gems.  Now we're figuring out how money works.  My favorite math part of this game, though, is the sneaky way it introduces division and the concept of remainders.  Treasure collects along the path as everyone is exploring together.  If you decide to leave the tomb at the same time as another person, everyone who leaves will need to share all of that treasure equally.  Huh, that's interesting!

Incan Gold in action

So now we need to figure out the total amount of treasure on the path, then we need to divide it evenly among everyone exiting, AND we'll need to leave any remaining treasure on the path. That's some real math going on there, but as far as the kids are concerned, they're just exploring, getting treasure, and avoiding things like giant spiders.

Here's another angle to consider.  A lot of times when we play games where the object is to get the most points, we're faced with multiple moves that all have the potential to earn us points.  But which move is the BEST move?  To try to figure that out, we'll need to play through the options in our head, and think about what our opponents might do on their turns.  Now we're getting into MinMax territory, meaning players are trying to minimize their losses, while maximizing their gains.  The thought process goes like this:  "If I go there I'll get 3 points, but it will allow her to go over there and she'll get 2 points, so it's better for me to make this other move that will block her and gain me 2 points."  

Depending on the game, this can involve a fair amount of mental math, and is fantastic practice for solving more complex math problems.  Order of operations?  Conditional statements?  If your kids have been playing increasingly complex strategy games throughout their childhoods, they'll be well positioned to tackle these more advanced math concepts, and that's a big WIN for everyone!

Mental math games

Shown above are Hey That's My Fish, Butterfly, A Pet's Life, and Point Salad, all really enjoyable mental math games for young strategists in the 6-10 year old range.  



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