By Sandra Waite-Stupiansky, Ph.D., and Nicholas G. Stupiansky, Ph.D.

Spice up gray winter days by reinforcing math skills with challenging games.

We want to share with you four games that have worked well with our students — without the anxiety of timed tests or skill drills. Each of these can be adapted for students in the second to sixth grades. (Because most of these games rely on symbols rather than on concrete objects, such as counters, playing them with children preschool- through first-grade level would be inappropriate.) To ensure a fair competition, we recommend matching students who are at the same targeted-skill level and designating partners rather than allowing students themselves to choose partners.

Two games the whole class can play are Who Am I? and Cover Up! These work in much the same way Bingo does. The difference is that everyone has the same game card, or "hundred chart," which the teacher can make. Hundred charts are 10-by-10 grids with the numbers 1 to 100 printed in the boxes (see below for the chart). They make wonderful game boards.

Put your hundred chart on an overhead projector and give the children individual charts to work on at their desks. They will also need crayons, markers, or plastic counters to play. Mark all of the correct answers on your chart but don't turn on the overhead projector until the end of the game.

Who Am I?

To focus on the concept of number sense, such as odd and even, and number relationships, such as greater than and less than, try Who Am I? Riddles like "I am an odd number between 50 and 55. My two digits add up to 6. Who am I?" and "My first and second digits are the same odd number. I am a multiple of 3 that is greater than 50. Who am I?" challenge youngsters to think carefully about the numbers on their charts. For each question, children place their counters in the box that contains the correct answer, or circle the number with the crayons or markers. At a designated point, such as when a timer rings or you say, "Game's over!" turn on the overhead projector. The children can check their answers against your chart to see how many they got right. You might also ask the children to create the questions for a future game, which will get them thinking even harder about the numbers.

Cover Up!

Another game focusing on number sense that utilizes hundred charts is Cover Up! Challenge students to use plastic counters or squares of paper to cover "all of the even numbers," "all the multiples of four," "all the prime numbers," and so on. Children can work with multiple partners, but groups of two work best. Remember, everyone can win if they cover the right numbers. The children yell, "Cover Up!" when they are done instead of "Bingo!"

Showdown

Showdown reinforces mental computation of the basic operations addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Each student will need a set of cards with numbers on them, such as the number cards from Uno or a deck of playing cards. This game works best when children play in pairs (or in groups of three if you have an odd number of students). Each pupil turns over two cards at once and has to add, subtract, or multiply the numbers on the cards. Announce before the game whether they are aiming for the higher or lower number. The youngster with the higher (or lower) answer wins all four of the cards. If the answers result in a tie, each child turns over a second pair of cards and then adds, subtracts, or multiplies. If one student challenges the other's answer, they can use a calculator to check for accuracy. If the challenger is right, she gets to keep all of the cards. If the challenger is wrong, she gives the cards to her opponent. The player who has the most cards at the end of the game wins.

The skill levels required can vary in Showdown, according to how high the numbers on the cards are (for example, 0–10 or 11–20) and the operation required.

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Make 12

A game that helps children think creatively and fluently about number operations is Make 12. To prepare, print four numbers, such as 2, 4, 6, and 8, on index cards. Students use the four numbers and any or all operations to reach a target number — in this case, 12 (for example, 8 + 6 = 14 - 4 = 10 + 2 = 12). Single-digit, double-digit, and fractional numbers can be used, depending on the students'level. To give practice writing number equations, require students to write out their operations and answers as in the example above. For a variation on Make 12, play the game with calculators or change the target number (for instance, Make 18 or 24).

Once you get started, you will think of many other games that work for your students and help accomplish your teaching objectives. Games take the drudgery out of practicing math and add the challenge of thinking more efficiently. Not only will you see the students'skill level improve, but their excitement level and motivation will sky-rocket, too.

Tips for Using Math Games

• Avoid whole-class games that result in one winner and lots of losers (such as Around the World) by using the same flash cards for all the children.
• Arrange for children to compete with others who are at the same level.
• Move children to more difficult levels when they start winning consistently.
• Be careful not to match highly competitive children with noncompetitive ones.
• Don't divide the class into boys versus girls. This promotes an unhealthy "we're better than you" attitude.
• Because games can get rather noisy, play them at a time of day that will not bother other classes. Check with the teacher next door to find out when a little extra noise will be okay.