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Gamification in math challenges students to consider new ways of understanding problems and gives them the freedom to make mistakes.

Gamifying math and beating the summer slide

Gamification challenges students to consider new ways of understanding problems and gives them the freedom to make mistakes

Key points:

On October 1st, the announcement rings out: “It’s time to master those multiplication facts, everyone!” The goal? Memorize them all by Thanksgiving and never forget. But reality teaches us otherwise. Just as we don’t become fluent in art, language, or sports through repetitive drills over a few weeks, mastering math requires a different approach.

Research shows that spaced learning, or teaching students by distributing smaller groups of lessons on a given topic over time, is more effective. It allows students to consolidate previously-taught content before learning new content and helps facilitate more deliberate connections between ideas. This approach helps students learn faster and retain information better, according to researcher Dr. John Hattie. Spaced teaching and practice has an effect size of .65, meaning that students can realize 1.5 years of learning in one year of learning this way.

Numbers take on new meaning when children can apply them to everyday life and practice numeracy during play. This is where the concept of gamification meets spaced learning. Using this approach, parents can reinforce foundational math skills over the summer with games that help children maintain and retain key concepts in a fun, exploratory way.

Gamification reinforces learning

While most students wouldn’t put math review on their summer bucket lists, gamification can help reduce math anxiety by making math more enjoyable. It’s also a powerful tool to combat what’s known as the “summer slide,” or the tendency for students to lose previous achievement gains over the summer break.

Formally, gamification is the practice of introducing elements of games into non-gaming environments to capture motivational factors found in games. But in practice, it’s a whole lot of fun! While digital platforms often use gamification elements such as points, badges, leaderboards, and rewards, these elements can also be successfully included in offline learning activities. Not only is it a thrilling experience for students to earn points and move to the next level, but research shows that gamification elements boost achievement. A recent study looked at the effect of gamification on students’ academic achievement and attitudes towards a math course from preK to fifth grade and found that students who learned through math gamification showed significant increases in achievement test scores compared to their peers who did not learn through gamification.

Simple games bolster math comprehension

Playing games that focus on application-based learning and real-world problem-solving allows children to test math concepts in real-world environments. Here are some straightforward games parents and caregivers can try with young children this summer:

Enjoying math in the car

Instead of answering the question, “Are we there yet?” caregivers can engage their children in activities that examine the duration of time. In this real-time activity, caregivers can ask children how to reason through durations of time in the car or on public transit.

  • Sit with your child inside a car, bus, or train. Ask them questions about the duration of time between stops. Ask them if they think it took a long or short time to get from the stop sign to the red light. You could ask them to estimate how long it might take to reach the next stop.
  • If necessary, provide examples of long durations (taking a bath) or short durations (brushing your teeth) to help children better understand the concept of time.
  • After they provide their answer, you could ask them to explain their thinking. By using the words long, big, length, quick, short, slowly, or small, you can help them better understand how to explain durations of time.

Numbers, numbers, everywhere!

Children can identify numbers on signs and license plates and count along the way by identifying numerals and collections of things during a ride.

  • Sit with your child inside a car, bus, or train. Ask them easy-to-answer questions about the numbers they see inside or outside their mode of transportation. For example, you might ask them to count how many trees they see along the street. Or you could say, “I see four things outside my window. Can you guess what I’m counting?”
  • After the child answers, you can introduce another question or invite them to ask you about the numbers they see.

Everyday math games in their own world: Playgrounds and parks

Play provides a natural way for children to explore numbers in their environment, making playgrounds and parks great settings for everyday math games. By engaging in these interactive games, caregivers can reinforce the concepts of length and direction.

Collecting sticks – exploring measurement with length

  • The next time you’re at a playground or park with trees, invite children to collect the sticks they find on the ground and place them in a pile. Using simple instructions, you can ask them to identify a short stick and then ask which stick is longer or shorter. Then, you can encourage children to place all sticks in order from shortest to longest.
  • Afterward, ask children to use the sticks to create an art project that might represent a person, animal, or thing.
  • Invite children to describe the length of each stick as they use it. For example, they might need to use the two longest sticks to represent a person’s legs.

Scavenger hunt – exploring positional language

Children can show their understanding of positional language by listening to your instructions and following directions on a scavenger hunt.

  • Ask children to hide their eyes. Place a toy in an easy-to-find location.
  • Use simple instructions that use positional language to help them find the toy. For example, you could tell them to go through the tube and see the toy beside the bench.
  • After children find the toy, repeat the activity with a new scavenger hunt. You can also invite children to hide the toy and guide you to it with positional language instructions.
  • Positional words include above, across, behind, below, in front of, near, outside, over, under, etc.

These games may seem simple, but they make math more tangible for young children and create stronger connections between what they’re learning in school and what they’re experiencing at home.

Why does gamification work?

Children learn best when they’re having fun. Gamification challenges students to consider new ways of seeing and understanding problems, but it also gives them the freedom to make mistakes and think outside the box. By triggering real, powerful human emotions such as curiosity, excitement, and accomplishment, parents can extend math learning in a safe and engaging way.

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