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Played Any Good Games Lately?

Dr. Martha Hildebrandt, Assistant Professor
Mathematics and Education Departments, Chatham University
Reprinted from C-MITES News, Fall 2011

Games are an activity everyone enjoys, and they serve an important purpose not only as recreation but also as a learning experience. Games hone problem solving skills, encourage logic and reasoning, challenge mental abilities and foster competition. So whether someone is playing a quick round of Sodoku or is engrossed in a “virtual” game, learning is taking place.

As a mathematics educator and parent, I see tremendous value in playing games. While children love technological adventures and can spend hours manipulating a computer screen, I would like to encourage you to build up a repertoire of hands-on games that you can play with them. The benefits are two-fold: these activities allow quality interaction with your children, and secondly, give you insight into the way they think and how they process information.

While I would encourage designated family game nights where an evening is devoted to playing your favorite board, card or trivia games, I would like to suggest some quick games that are easy to implement and can be played on the run, since much of our lives seem to fit into that category. These games can be adapted to different age levels and the rules are fluid, so feel free to modify them to fit the needs of your own students. Most involve numbers (as that is how I think!) but I’ve tried to include some language games I have collected over the years to try and broaden my own sons’ experiences!


Everyone is familiar with the simple game of creating squares from a dot matrix. (You have probably played this on a paper napkin in a restaurant!) Create a dot grid of your choice (5 X 5 or larger) and the rules are simple. Each player in turn connects two adjacent dots. When a player completes a square they claim that square and are allowed to draw succeeding segments until no new squares are formed. The winner has the most squares. Now, we change it up! Put values into each square so that some squares are worth more and it is possible to win even if you don’t have the most squares. Make it more challenging by introducing some negative values or a fraction or two! The strategies change as some squares are to be avoided while others are highly desirable. Your children can make their own playing field, though a word of caution: set parameters on the numbers they can choose lest some squares contain values in the millions!


Draw the familiar tic tac toe grid, but instead of X’s and O’s, one player uses 1, 3, 5, 7, or 9, and the other player uses 2, 4, 6, 8, or 10. The players place one number in turn on the grid (each number is used only once), and the winner is the person who writes the third number that gives a sum of fifteen to the three values in that row, column or diagonal. The numbers will not necessarily be his or her own, i.e. the player who writes 5 in a row with a 6 and 4 would win, though 5 is the only value in his or her set.


Choose a three letter word and write it at the top of a piece of paper (napkins work well here too!). The next player must change one letter to create a new word. Play passes around until no new words can be formed. See how long a chain the group can make. As a variation, let each person make his or her own chain; specify which letter must be changed. For example rotate through last, middle, first, or try a four- or five-letter word.


Have children choose 5 numbers less than 50 (adjust this limit depending on the ages and abilities) and then pick a target number less than 30 (again this can be varied). See who can use all five numbers and any of the four operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division to equal the target value. Points are earned for the use of all five numbers with fewer points awarded when four or three numbers are used instead. (Each number may only be used once in an equation.)


Play in pairs, one die per pair. The first player rolls the die and states the number shown on top. The other player than turns the die so that any one of the four adjacent sides is up and adds this number to the previous number. Then the first player turns the die again to an adjacent side and adds the number on top to the previous sum. A player wins by reaching 20 or by forcing his opponent to get a sum over 20.


Assign a numerical value to each letter of the alphabet, for example you can use 1 to 26 or let A-E each equal 1, F to J equal 2 etc. See whose name is most valuable, or find words that have a specific value such as 10 or 100, depending on the numerical equivalents you’ve given the letters. Or have children write a three word sentence with the greatest or lowest value.


This game originally was called “Boxcar Addition” and the goal was to add the numbers on the boxcars as they whizzed past! I don’t think we spend much time at railroad crossings anymore, so this has been adapted for driving around most anywhere. Combine the numbers on the license plate on the car in front of you to equal a target number that is chosen for the day—or just add them up. The operation can vary for any given day.


Since many plates now have three or more letters, create a sentence using words that start with those letters in the same order as they appear. If the plate reads ELM you could say “Everyone loves math” or “Ed likes Mondays.”

These are just a few of the activities that are easy and fun ways to keep active minds engaged even when you have just a few minutes to fill. Enjoy!

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