Back to School Math Game Hacks

Written by Donna Boucher

Donna has been a teacher, math instructional coach, interventionist, and curriculum coordinator. A frequent speaker at state and national conferences, she shares her love for math with a worldwide audience through her website, Math Coach’s Corner. Donna is also the co-author of Guided Math Workshop.

Addition | Math Games | Subtraction

Kids learn better when they are engaged, and math games are extremely engaging. But we want to make sure that the practice is meaningful and that we’re using our time wisely. These 5 math hacks should help with that!

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1. Use Ten-Sided Dice

I discovered 10-sided dice a few years back and remember wondering why I hadn’t found them sooner. Think about it, a regular die only has the numbers from 1-6. That’s very limiting. For example, you can’t make all the combinations for 10 using the digits 1 through 6. If you’re practicing your addition or multiplication facts, you never get above the sixes. Ten-sided dice have the digits 0-9, which is a perfect fit for our place value system. Of course, you can always use a traditional dice to allow the students to work with smaller numbers.

2. Say NO to Flying and Falling Dice

Dice, dominoes, playing cards–they are all magically engaging to students. You can turn a simple computation activity into a “game” by allowing students to roll a die to create the numbers. Another benefit is that the supply of numbers is endless. Unlike a worksheet, which has a set number of problems and can’t really be reused, rolling a die to create numbers produces unique numbers each and every time. Unfortunately, dice can be mishandled. Try containing the dice in a small, covered plastic container. Students shake the container, set it down, and peer through the bottom (which is facing up) to see the numbers.

3. Keep it Seriously Simply (KISS)

Math games with a zillion pieces and complicated instructions aren’t fun for anyone. If you have to spend 20 minutes explaining how to play a game, that’s not good use of your instructional time, and the kiddos probably won’t remember how to play it anyway! Look for games that are low-prep for you and have simple instructions. Familiar games that can be adapted for different skills are great. For example, War, which is basically a game of comparison, can be used to compare single-digit numbers, multi-digit numbers, fractions, products, or even geometric attributes. Other familiar games include Scoot, Bump, Four-in-a-Row, and I Have/Who Has, just to name a few.

4. Hold Them Accountable

While math games should be fun, the emphasis should be on the math, and that’s why it’s important to hold students accountable for the time they spend playing math games. Asking students to communicate about their game play in some way sends the message that the purpose of the game is to learn, not just have fun or win. Furthermore, communication is an important component of the math process standards. This can be accomplished as easily as having students bring their math journals with them when they come to a workstation to play a math game. Take, for example, a war game comparing 3-digit numbers. In their math journals, students could write each comparison as they play (eg. 325 > 198). At the conclusion of the game, students could explain how they use place value to compare numbers.

Many games utilize recording sheets. Develop a procedure for how students should incorporate these sheets into their math journals. They can glue or staple the recording sheets in. For larger recording sheets, have students fold the sheet so the title of the activity is showing.

5. Math Talk is a Must

Math games provide the perfect opportunity for meaningful mathematical discourse, but that takes careful modeling and a little extra planning. Use Math Talk cards to provide students with the language they should use while playing the game. Establish math conversations as a non-negotiable early on. Using the War game for 3-digit numbers as an example again, students should be expected to read their numbers out loud and explain which number is greater, rather than just looking at them and making the comparison mentally.

Ready to put it all together? Tonight I have a little freebie for you that you can throw in a math workstation on Monday. The game is called Difference From 100, and there is also a version for 1,000. Think about the skills students must use to play this game. They’ll need to add and subtract. Estimating will help them determine how to combine their numbers to get closest to 100. Finally, the strategy component requires critical thinking skills. Great practice! Notice that I included Math Talk right on the card to remind students of the vocabulary they should be using. There is no recording sheet for this game–students will record their thinking in their math journal.

You can grab both the 100 and 1,000 versions here.

1. I love the idea of keeping it simple! There are so many card games kids can play and create their own record sheet in their math journals! I love when kids already know the rules of a game and I jut have to change up the deck of cards depending on what we are working on.

Tara
The Math Maniac

• 100% agree with you Tara. Using entertainment to educate is gold on it’s own but if the concepts we’re trying to teach are simplified, then it’s just gets even easier for the student to absorb them.

2. Just found your blog and love it. Thanks. Agree with you about the value of 10 sided dice and like your idea for using a plastic containing. I have a stack of cheap, disposable plastic sweet bowls for playing dice games. The children have to roll the dice into the bowl. It reduces the noise and keeps the dice from rolling away. However, I also had a rule that if the dice bounce out of the bowl, then it is ‘miss a turn’. Kids really respect the rule and keep to it.

• Ooh, I like the “miss a turn” for unruly dice rule, Diane! Thanks for sharing!

3. Donna, thanks for sharing about the importance of math talks and holding students accountable. Math talks align very well with the Standards of Math Practice and are a critical part of math instruction. They are essential in having students learn and better understand. I also love what you said about holding students accountable by asking them what they learned when doing math games.

I definitely need to include 10 sided dice into my manipulative kit. Currently, I do not have any but LOVE how you suggested using them. I will be purchasing these ASAP. They will be a great tool. Thanks again.

4. Love your dice tips! I also have a set of place value dice: 100s, 10s, and 1s, which help with a lot of fun games. Thanks for sharing!

• Yes! I love the place value dice as well, Deirdre!

5. I’m starting Math with Someone this week and we’ve been working on how far from 1,000. This will definitely be an awesome addition!

6. Gotta get a set of ten sided dice. Love the place value activity with the the difference to 1000. This past week I was really surprised at how inflexibile my students are with numbers, they are looking for one right answer, solving in one way. This will be a great activity to encourage them to look for other ways.

Brandi
The Research Based Classroom

7. I am a big fan of 10 sided dice as well. I have a set that I have left intact and another set that I have written on in permanent marker in order to turn the “0” into a 10! I also love how you incorporated the Math Talk word bank into your instruction sheets. What a great way to focus student conversations and math language even when you are not sitting with them!

8. Hey I love the idea, this is really interesting and this dice game will also help kids in easily solving their maths problems.

9. Stop by your local comic book shop or gaming store…us D&D geeks have 3, 6, 10 & 20 sided dice sets!

10. I love the idea of including the math vocabulary that should be used on the direction sheet. Never thought of that before. Thanks for sharing.

• My pleasure! Glad you picked up a useful tip. 🙂

11. On the second sheet of the second page on the download it says to create “two 3-digit addends”. Is this a typo?

• Are you talking about the Difference from 1,000 game? No, it’s not a typo. Players add two numbers together first and then find the difference of their sum from 1,000.

12. I love the addition of math vocabulary to promote math talk. Will be adding that to my game directions.

13. Thanks for all you do to promote mathematics, especially mathematical thinking and math talk! Although I teach HS, I can often take what you recommend and modify it for my older kids. I share your fb page and website with my friends – several are elementary school teachers and others are home-school moms!