6 Components of Effective Math Games

By Sarah Schwartz — November 13, 2023 5 min read
 interactive elementary maths
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In Erin Bryan’s 5th grade math classroom, TGIF takes on a whole new meaning. Fridays don’t just herald the coming weekend. They’re also game days.

“They all come in here on Fridays pumped,” said Bryan, who teaches at Kenston Intermediate School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

The math card games and board games that Bryan has collected—or designed herself—give her 5th graders an opportunity to apply the new knowledge they’ve learned throughout the week in different ways, and to solidify practice with basic skills that underpin future units, she said.

“It’s something that makes me happy too, because I can see them making those connections without me,” she added.

Math teachers say that games offer a chance for students to practice math in a lower-stress setting than a classroom lesson, and convey the idea that math can be fun. But figuring out how to fit in time for gameplay during the day—and exactly what games will support instructional goals—can be a challenge.

“If you’re teaching upper elementary or middle school math, you also have a host of standards you need to meet,” said Jill Neumayer DePiper, a senior research associate with the mathematics team at WestEd, a research and technical assistance organization. “There isn’t an abundance of time for any sort of game, and any sort of play.”

In a new project, DePiper and her colleagues at WestEd analyzed five summer and after-school math programs that featured games as a learning tool. By reviewing program data, observing the games, and surveying and interviewing teachers and students, they identified common practices that made these math games effective.

These games hit a “sweet spot,” DePiper said, in which students get to engage in meaningful play while also addressing math goals.

Effective games support math and social-emotional skills

The WestEd team examined five programs that included game play, or professional development about games:

  • Math for Love, an online repository of free games and activities;
  • Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival, a math education nonprofit that hosts school- and community-based math events;
  • Almost Fun, a site that provides free learning resources for middle and high school students;
  • NBA Math Hoops, a basketball-themed math board game; and
  • Math Teacher Circles, a national network of locally organized teacher collaboratives hosted by the American Institute of Mathematics.

The researchers identified six effective practices among these games—three focused on the social-emotional aspects of game play, and three related to mathematical practices. The games:

  • Prompted turn-taking to encourage relationships and social interaction;
  • Set up opportunities for students to cope with making mistakes;
  • Included a built-in reason for students to collaborate;
  • Encouraged and prompted generalizations about mathematical properties and relationships;
  • Prompted students to change strategies during the game; and
  • Provided ways to change the game’s parameters to allow it to evolve and remain challenging.

“Being simple to learn was also critical,” said DePiper. Teachers and students have 180 days of work to do, so they can’t spend precious minutes deciphering and learning complicated rules, she said.
This takeaway resonated with Bryan, the 5th grade teacher. “You want [the students] to be engaged; you don’t want them to be so confused by the millions of directions they have to follow that they lose enthusiasm,” she said.

Laurie Corradetti, a 3rd grade teacher at Oak Park Elementary in Lansdale, Pa., said the focus on the games’ opportunities for collaboration made sense to her. Most of the games she plays in her class rely on turn-taking, she said, giving students a chance to practice working together.

There’s another social benefit to a small group setting, Bryan said: Students who may be hesitant to volunteer an answer in front of the whole class are more willing to participate with just a few classmates.

“Allowing them to fail, but in a comfortable place, and understand how to persevere—I think that’s a huge life skill,” Bryan said.

Skills vs. concepts

When it comes to math content, games should focus on helping students understand overarching concepts—not just skills, DePiper said.

An example, she said, is a Math for Love game called “Don’t Break the Bank.” It requires students to strategically place numbers within a grid so that the sum doesn’t exceed 999.

The game’s primary goal is addition practice. But to be successful, students also need to think carefully about place value, DePiper said.

Still, teachers said that games focused on skill practice do have a place in their classrooms.

Bryan’s 5th graders play a variation of the card game War, designed to help them practice calculating the volume of a shape. In groups of three, one person’s card represents the length of a shape, the second the width, and the third the height. All three draw cards and then calculate the volume of their rectangular prism together.

Practicing this way helps them get comfortable with new skills, Bryan said. It also reinforces basic multiplication facts, she added—knowledge that’s necessary for much of the work that her 5th graders will take on throughout the year.

Even in these skill-based games, there’s still opportunity for the kind of reflection on strategy that the WestEd researchers highlighted. Bryan regularly asks her students, what could you do differently next time to get better? How would your strategy change?

Teaching with games does require some extra planning from teachers, said Corradetti. “But I think the outcomes definitely outweigh that,” she said.

Corradetti and Bryan observe these outcomes in their classrooms. Students get excited about game time. They make connections to games when they learn new topics. And the teachers see students answer questions more quickly and confidently.

“It’s not like I’m walking around collecting the data, it’s more of a mental note. I’m seeing it in their work,” Bryan said.

As for research, the next step for DePiper and her colleagues at WestEd is attempting to formally link game play to student outcomes. They’re planning projects that would measure the games’ effect on students’ test scores and math confidence.

Some online games have linked play with increases in student performance, DePiper said, but whether in-person classroom games would have the same effect is an open question.

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