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Use games to add fun to math lessons at home

Dan Finkel runs Math for Love with his wife, Katherine Cook. They develop games and lesson plans to change how math is taught. (Courtesy)

Dan Finkel has a message for families stuck at home to try to stay up on academics: Keep math fun.

Finkel is a Seattle-based math educator, game designer and founder of Math for Love. He advocates for a more playful approach to math both at school and at home. Part of that is playing games.

“Especially with young children, their natural inclination is to play,” Finkel said. And when they play, they learn. Often, he said, their play includes mathematical thinking, like sorting things.

“Mathematics is a very natural way for them to think,” he said. “But we sometimes teach math in a way that removes that natural inclination to play.”

So, while families are home thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, along with using the materials teachers sent home, one way for parents to help their kids practice math is to play games with them.

There’s practice baked into a lot of the games that would be on a worksheet, Finkel said, but with the game, “Kids will be naturally motivated to do it and wanting to do more.”

Plus, “It’s pretty nice to just have fun with kids,” he said.

It’s fairly easy to spot a game that involves arithmetic – and many are classics probably already in the family game cupboard. Yahtzee is a great choice, Finkel said, as is cribbage. (“I know what adds to 15 just instantly because of playing cribbage so much as a kid,” he said). Even Scrabble can be great for the right kid: Scoring is all about math, and there’s lots of strategy to getting the highest score possible with the bonus tiles.

For games like Yahtzee where you have to tally up your score at the end, there might be an inclination to reach for a calculator. That’s OK, Finkel said, because part of learning math is learning to use tools appropriately. But, if you want to encourage your child to not use a calculator, consider offering bonus points for doing the math themselves.

Arithmetic and numbers are just part of math. Other areas include shapes and geometry, logic and argument, as well as structure, patterns and classification. “Games can hit these areas in different ways,” Finkel said. He suggests games like Risk, backgammon, chess, Go, King Domino and Blokus.

As long as there’s a choice, there’s mathematical thinking involved, he said. And for games that don’t have a choice, there’s often a way to add one. In Candy Land, for instance, instead of drawing one card, draw two.

“Having one choice just makes the game that much more interesting. You have the question of what’s the better move, and that makes the game that much deeper,” Finkel said.

But the key is to have fun, he said. Parents don’t need to do this perfectly. “If you feel like you’re not having fun and your kid’s not having fun, just take a step back.”

And when it comes time for parents to help children with the math work their teachers send, there will be things that won’t look like the way you learned it, Finkel said. The best course of action is nonjudgmental curiosity.

“Adults often confuse familiarity with understanding,” he said. Remembering the math rules is one thing, understanding them and being able to pass on that understanding is different.

“This is an opportunity for me to demonstrate for my kid how an adult learner is able to approach something with curiosity and enthusiasm,” he said.

This is a stressful, complicated situation, he said. Parents can become overwhelmed with all the stuff they think they should be doing for their children right now. With that in mind, Finkel has three rules for math at home:

Keep it playful.

Stay curious.

Keep it light and nonjudgmental.

“That’s how this can really be an opportunity for all of us even though it can be a challenge at times,” he said.