Preparing the Ground for Math Success: Games that Familiarize Your Child with Numbers and Numerical Patterns

by Tina Blue
July 31, 2005

      One of the things that prevents grade-school children from learning math is that they have not made friends with numbers.

      When I was growing up my siblings and I frequently played cards and board games with dice. But most of the kids I end up tutoring in math don't play such games. In fact, when I ask the parents if they have playing cards or dice at home, the answer is almost always either a straight "No" or a thoughtful, "I don't know. Maybe. I'll look." These parents are not playing such games with their kids, nor are they teaching them to play such games with each other.

      When we were kids, one of the things my siblings and I did was to institute ongoing summer card tournaments. Our favorite games were Rummy and Crazy Eights. We started off playing to 1000. When that proved too easy, we kept raising the bar. Eventually, we were playing to 10,000 or 20,000 points--sometimes even more. Now, a 20,000-point tournament might take all summer, because of course we did lots of other things, including playing outside, but during quiet time in the house, especially on rainy days, we were often playing cards.

      Think about what this means. We were constantly looking at the patterns of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs on the cards, so that we got so we could instantly recognize a group of items as being 2, 3, 5, 8, 6, or 9, etc., in number.  We were adding up or subtracting points at the end of each hand, as well as adding and subtracting them while figuring out our running scores.  And since Rummy points are scored in terms of 5, 10, 15, and 20, we were also practicing adding and subtracting by such multiples.

      Crazy Eights points are added and subtracted according to the specific number on the card, so we also had lots of practice adding and subtracting numbers that were not multiples of 5.
      For a few hours every single week, especially during the summer when kids are in danger of forgetting skills learned during the previous school year, we were counting, adding, subtracting, and playing around with multiples of 5.  We were also constantly practicing numerical pattern recognition.

      Dice games also encourage pattern recognition and adding and subtracting--even a little bit of multiplication. When you see a die-6, you don't count the number of dots on the die. You know immediately, just by looking, that it is a 6. Similarly, when you roll two sixes, you don't count up on your fingers to see how many that adds up to. You just know, instantly, that you have rolled a 12.  Or if you roll 2 fives, or, in games that use more than two dice, 3 or 4 snake-eyes, you know right away what total number you have rolled. You aren't thinking, for example, that "2 x 4 = 8," but you know you have rolled 8 nonetheless.

      If you roll, say, a 4 and a 2, you think "6" and start moving your game token six spaces on the board.  You don't have to count the dots. You know.

      Sure, a young child just starting out with such games might count the dots, but not for long. The thing about playing such games is that the child will be drilling these basic math facts without realizing that he/she is doing so. Drill is drudgery. It is necessary drudgery, and there is no escaping much of it. But playing games with dice and cards can allow for a fair amount of drill that doesn't feel at all like drudgery.

      Think about the marvelous dice game of Yahtzee. That game involves so much numerical recognition and manipulation that it should almost be marketed as a math tutoring device.

      And then there is a game that we all played as youngsters, but that too many children never play at all now--or if they do, they play it in a way that doesn't involve actual learning.

      I am talking about "school." Didn't you play school as a youngster? And when you did, what "lessons" did the "teacher" assign and check? Math, right? (Actually, math and spelling. Those are the sorts of things that a child acting as teacher can easily assign and easily "grade.") But nowadays when I see kids playing school, the game usually consists of the "students" misbehaving and the "teacher" chewing them out, sending them to the principal's office, or otherwise disciplining them. I don't see them doing "lessons" very often. Stop for a moment and think about the implications of this: To many American kids, "playing school" means misbehaving if you are a student and disciplining the students if you are the teacher. Lessons, learning, seem not to be a part of the process at all in children's minds.

      (And maybe when they play doctor these days they spend their time filling out insurance forms!)

      So why aren't more kids playing card and dice games at home?

      Well, one reason is that there is no one to teach them how. We aren't born knowing how to play Rummy, Crazy Eights, or Yahtzee.  Kids need an adult or an older child to teach them and to play with them until they get the hang of it. And if other card-playing/dice-game playing children are not around to play such games with, then the adult's or older child's commitment to the game must be ongoing.

      Think about the American family. How many families do you know where an adult or an older child takes time out from his or her busy schedule to play games with a young child for several hours a week?

      Most children of grade school age spend much of their time watching videos or playing video games, or else playing organized sports.  Some do get to play outside with friends in unstructured ways, of course, but children's play in general has become uncomfortably scheduled and organized in this society. And when kids are not involved in an organized activity, all too often they are parked in front of a TV screen or a computer or video game monitor.

       When was the last time you saw kids playing cards or playing a board game with dice for any length of time?

       Cards and dice games should be introduced early. A child as young as 4 or 5 can learn to play the games I have been talking about--and at that age they haven't yet been taught to hate math or to think they can't understand numbers. 

      And even children of 4 or 5 can learn to enjoy playing school, including doing very simple math problems like "1 + 1" or "1-0."  For older kids--first grade on up--you can buy math workbooks for the early grades and give them to the kids to use in their school games. My kids loved to play school with store-bought math workbooks when they were little. I bought them workbooks for math, but also for spelling, writing, science, and history. They learned a lot while just playing school. Probably one of the most important things they learned was to think of learning as a kind of play.

      Another kind of game I used for teaching my kids math (as well as many other sorts of things I wanted them to learn) was Dungeons and Dragons.  Brian, a college-aged friend who was into that sort of thing, came over and taught me and my two children to play D & D when Michael was 10 and Becky was 9.

      I have to be honest. I am not big on playing games as an adult. Almost the only game I really like to play is Scrabble, and no one will play that with me because they figure I have an unfair advantage. But I played cards and dice-games with my kids, and I learned D & D right along with them, too, so they and I could play it even when Brian was not around.

      Why D & D? Well, the game involves constant adding, subtracting, and multiplying. Even better, it involves percentages and fractions. In the process of figuring up points and "purchasing" items for quests, the kids got a vigorous math workout--one that would last for 2, 3, even 4 hours at a time! 

      Once the kids got good enough at D & D to run the games and to act as Dungeon Masters themselves, they formed their own D & D cell with four friends from school.  For over a year the six of them, ages 10 to 13, would get together in my home every Sunday for about 4 hours and play D & D. 

     And, though they did not realize it, to practice math.

     So if you want to give your child a head start in developing basic numeracy--or if your child has already fallen behind and you want to help him/her catch up--hurry out and buy a pack of cards and some games that use dice. Then sit down and play these games with your child. Teach some of his/her friends, too, and eventually they can play together, even when you are not free to play. Also teach your child to play school. Start off by being the student yourself, and guide your child in "teaching" you. Encourage him/her to play school with other kids. Buy them some neat looking math workbooks for their game, because it's so much more fun to play with "official" looking worksheets. 

     And as your kids get a bit older, consider introducing games that involve more difficult mathematical task.

   Just don't tell them it's good for them.

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