Sunday / July 21

’Tis the Season to Experience the JOY of Math Games!

December is a busy time of year for teachers and their students. Teachers are well into the curriculum and are looking to continue to connect with students, reignite engagement, and manage focus/attention during the upcoming holiday season. One great way to do this is with math games! Math games ensure students are engaged in both mathematical thinking, discourse and also building relationships with their peers. They also provide the opportunity for you to get to better know your students as they engage in playing math games! 

Here are some questions to consider when selecting and using games along with tips that will help you on your journey: 

  1. How will this game help me to better get to know my students? 
  2. How will games build my classroom community and my students SEL skills? 
  3. Which games will increase student discourse so I can better understand what they already know and what they need to know next? 
  4. How will I use games to help my students and their family develop a positive math identity?  

The best games are simple like Multiplication by Heart, Prime Climb, Tiny Polka Dots, Card Games, and dice games. You can also find a wide variety of math games from The Math Learning Center for grades K-5 they share with families. Here are some more examples and tips for making the most of math games: 

Tip #1: Use math games to create windows and mirrors for your classroom community 

When selecting, consider games where students learn about each other, and you also learn about them as well. I call those “mirrors and windows” (Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990)—mirrors help students see and share something about themselves; windows are when students learn about another classmate or culture.   

One ideal game for this is “Guess My Pattern Block Design.” Students sit back-to-back while one partner builds a design. Then that student offers verbal instruction for their partner to recreate the design without seeing it. The key is to ask them to design something that is a reflection of them or something they care about.  For example, a student might design a dog, fish, flower, or word from pattern blocks. As they give their partner step-by-step directions, they are using precise math vocabulary and sharing an interest they have. As a teacher you get windows into the interests of your students when they play this game.  

In addition, all cultures around the world play math games that can be brought into the math classroom. Have students take turns bringing in games from home that involve math. One example is Mancala which dates back to 700 AD from Ethiopia.  The objective of the game is to collect as many seeds in your store as possible. Another one is KenKen puzzles from Japan which serve as a great way for students to review operations with whole numbers. Similar to Sudoku, students use a limited number of digits only once in each row and column to correctly complete a puzzle. Students can play on their own or with a friend to help build their fluency skills.  

Providing students with the opportunity to share a game from home and teach it to their classmates will help every one of your learners be seen and heard, and what could be more joyous than that? 

Tip #2: Use math games to bring joy while also building Social Emotional Learning skills. 

Playing games not only helps students practice mathematics content and math practices, they will build SEL competencies including: 

  • Social Awareness 
  • Self-Regulation 
  • Turn Taking and Fair Play 
  • Relationship Building 
  • Time Management 
  • Problem Solving 
  • Growth mindset by learning from mistakes 
  • Active Listening 

(Dana Center, 2016), (CASEL, 2020)  

For example, games provide students the opportunity to bring awareness of their own and others’ strengths, which produces joy. Similarly, games help students develop a growth mindset and perseverance skills. If you have ever seen students engaged in math games, you can see the number of times they will persevere to win a game.  They will pick up cues from their partner which help them to develop better strategies during the game while also growing themselves.  

Games also help to form better relationships in your math community. Placing students in random groups each time you play a game gives them the chance to play with all their classmates while also building relationships. Allowing them to play wherever in the classroom they like (desks, the floor, a corner of the room) removes many barriers and helps them get to know one another. The relationships they form when engaged in meaningful math games spill over into the whole classroom community to create a more joyous space.  

Tip #3: Use math games to support mathematical discourse. 

It can be difficult to get all students talking during a math lesson, but I have yet to walk into a classroom where students are playing math games and are not talking and laughing. Harness that energy. Use games to provide opportunities for students to share strategies, compare their thinking, and practice math vocabulary. At the end they can also talk about why they played the game, what they practiced, and how it helped them grow as a mathematician.  

One example is playing math games using playing cards. In primary grades, students each pull two cards and compare them, add them, or subtract them during their turn. Another game is Race to 100. Students add up values as cards are drawn one at a time. First person to get 100 wins. As students determine new values, they talk about/verbalize the strategy they used. “I know 23 + 8 is 31, because 23 + 7 is 30 and one more is 31.”  

Another way to get discourse going and also use math vocabulary is playing math vocabulary games. One of them is memory, where they match the math word with the image and explain how the image is an example of the math word. They could also play math Pictionary, which will help them to better retain the new math words they are learning in a meaningful way.  

Tip #4: Use games to build positive math identities.  

An important piece of experiencing joy in math is building a positive math identity.  What better way to do that than through math games. As students play games they get practice, learn new strategies, and in the debrief share ideas about their learning.  Because games are in many cases low stakes and they play many iterations, it gives students multiple opportunities to learn from their mistakes and also come back stronger each time.  Games also allow each and every student to shine as they play because in many cases there is a round or a game they win which helps them to feel successful.  All of these intentional actions help to develop a positive math identity.    

Many families have also not had the joy of playing math games, so sending games home with students is a great way to build that connection and bring joy into the home. Playing games at home as a family also helps your students experience math in a positive way. It builds their math identity and may even change the way their family members think about math.  When sending games home, here are things to consider: 

  • Is the game engaging for both adults and kids? 
  • Is it easy to play and still rigorous so students are thinking deeply and using their math skills and strategies? 
  • Do your students want to bring in games they already play so they can introduce them to the class? 

Salute is a favorite game for finding unknown addends…three students play, two hold a card on their foreheads. A third student says total, and the other two use the card they see to figure out what card they are holding. Another is The Product Game, where students have a game board with the factors one to nine at the bottom.  Students multiply two factors to capture a product from the top grid on the board, and the first player with four in a row wins.   

This is a time of JOY, of giving and thanks. What better gift can you give your students than the gift of learning and joy all through the use of math games!     


Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom,6(3). 

Written by

Georgina Rivera is co-author of the first book in the new Five to Thrive series: Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Math. She is a mathematics educator, coach, presenter, author and servant leader. She currently serves as an administrator for a Pre-K through eighth grade school in Bristol, CT and has previously been the Elementary STEM Supervisor for Bristol Public Schools, a district wide elementary mathematics coach, and a middle school mathematics teacher. She is a presenter at the local and national level on best practices in mathematics teaching and learning, professional learning communities, mathematics coaching, leadership, culturally relevant practices and equitable math teaching practices. 

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