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May 4, 2016

Mancala in the Classroom

By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Towards the end of the school year, games are more important than ever in my classroom. Games are perfect rewards, “early finisher” activities, and fodder for the last day or two once the books are packed up and notebooks sent home. I selectively choose games that foster critical and strategic thinking. There are so many great options, and mancala is one of my favorites!

    Mancala has been played around the world for over a thousand years for a good reason. It is easy to learn to play, but so wonderfully challenging! And it can be played with very basic materials. Paper cups and raisins do the trick. Or a paper game board and unit cubes. Or with chalk and pebbles outside. Whatever you have on hand will work. Here are some ideas for introducing this amazing game to your students.

     

    How to “Build” a Mancala Game

    There are a lot of options to create mancala game boards for your students to use. I like that it sends the message that games can be made from recycled or humble materials — no need to buy an expensive toy to have fun. The simplest way to go is a paper game board, like this one you can download, print, and possibly laminate for long-term use.

    One year, my students brought in egg cartons that we painted and turned into mancala game boards. We did this project towards the end of the school year, and they brought home their games as a “present” to play over the summer.

    Another option is to cut down small paper cups to about an inch high and glue or tape them to a cardboard base.

    To create the mancala board pictured below, simply cut down a dozen three-ounce paper cups and two larger paper cups. Glue the cups to the lid of a gift box, and decorate the game board with markers. 

    For the “seeds,” any small objects will work: marbles, coins, beans, pompoms, M&M’s, beads, etc. The year my students made egg carton mancala boards, I bought a bag of vase gems and let them decorate the glass gems with paint markers. They loved drawing on the flattened marbles, and a bag of 1,000 gems cost about $10 at the craft store.

     

    How to Teach and Play Mancala

    I used to model how to play mancala using a chart paper mancala board tacked to my white board and with small magnets as the seeds. Now I pop a small paper game board under my document camera to model the game.

    I first play the game “against myself” — my right hand plays against my left hand — a conceit my students find hilarious. I don’t explain the rules right away. Instead I ask my students to watch carefully and to give a thumbs-up when they think they understand the rules. After watching a game, we chart the rules my students “discovered” and I clarify any misunderstandings and add any rules that they are unsure about. Then we play again, my class against me. After playing the game together, most students are ready to play with a partner.

    Another option is to play online and project the game on a whiteboard for your students to watch. There are many online options; I like this uncluttered version that lets you select the difficulty level for your computerized opponent.

     

    The Many Benefits of Mancala

    Fine Motor Skills: My friend Danielle, an occupational therapist, plays mancala with her students all the time. She makes sure that they follow an important rule: picking up all of the seeds in a pit with one hand and distributing those seeds using the same hand. She says this forces children to work on in-hand manipulation skills, specifically translation. That is the ability to move objects (in this case, game pieces) from the palm to the fingertips and back. (For more on in-hand manipulation skills, here is a helpful resource with specific activities.)

    Math: Mancala has many natural math extensions. It can help children practice an important math fluency skill called subitizing. Subitizing is when a child can naturally “see” the number of objects in a set without counting the objects. For example, a child could see three seeds in a mancala pit and recognize the three seeds without counting them individually. (Here is an interesting article about subitizing from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.) Mancala also provides a natural context for multiplicative thinking in older elementary students. With six pits and four seeds in each pit, students will progress from counting seeds to skip-counting to using multiplication facts.

    Global Studies: It is believed that mancala originated in Egypt, and archeologists have found 1,300 year old mancala boards in Ethiopia. Mancala is an interesting example to introduce children to globalization and the spread of culture. Similar games are played in South Asia, Western Africa, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. Students can research the various versions of the game played around the world. A Google image search will also turn up an incredible array of game boards of various ages and origins, that make for a great art history object study.

    Critical Thinking: Just like chess, which has well documented academic benefits, mancala teaches children to think ahead before acting — a challenging skill for many third graders! Planning out moves and considering an opponent’s strategy all build rigorous strategic thinking and problem-solving skills.

    Do your students play mancala? Do you have other favorite games to recommend? Please share your suggestions, comments, and questions in the comments area below, or connect with me on Twitter or Facebook. I’d love to hear from you . . . and happy gaming!

    Towards the end of the school year, games are more important than ever in my classroom. Games are perfect rewards, “early finisher” activities, and fodder for the last day or two once the books are packed up and notebooks sent home. I selectively choose games that foster critical and strategic thinking. There are so many great options, and mancala is one of my favorites!

    Mancala has been played around the world for over a thousand years for a good reason. It is easy to learn to play, but so wonderfully challenging! And it can be played with very basic materials. Paper cups and raisins do the trick. Or a paper game board and unit cubes. Or with chalk and pebbles outside. Whatever you have on hand will work. Here are some ideas for introducing this amazing game to your students.

     

    How to “Build” a Mancala Game

    There are a lot of options to create mancala game boards for your students to use. I like that it sends the message that games can be made from recycled or humble materials — no need to buy an expensive toy to have fun. The simplest way to go is a paper game board, like this one you can download, print, and possibly laminate for long-term use.

    One year, my students brought in egg cartons that we painted and turned into mancala game boards. We did this project towards the end of the school year, and they brought home their games as a “present” to play over the summer.

    Another option is to cut down small paper cups to about an inch high and glue or tape them to a cardboard base.

    To create the mancala board pictured below, simply cut down a dozen three-ounce paper cups and two larger paper cups. Glue the cups to the lid of a gift box, and decorate the game board with markers. 

    For the “seeds,” any small objects will work: marbles, coins, beans, pompoms, M&M’s, beads, etc. The year my students made egg carton mancala boards, I bought a bag of vase gems and let them decorate the glass gems with paint markers. They loved drawing on the flattened marbles, and a bag of 1,000 gems cost about $10 at the craft store.

     

    How to Teach and Play Mancala

    I used to model how to play mancala using a chart paper mancala board tacked to my white board and with small magnets as the seeds. Now I pop a small paper game board under my document camera to model the game.

    I first play the game “against myself” — my right hand plays against my left hand — a conceit my students find hilarious. I don’t explain the rules right away. Instead I ask my students to watch carefully and to give a thumbs-up when they think they understand the rules. After watching a game, we chart the rules my students “discovered” and I clarify any misunderstandings and add any rules that they are unsure about. Then we play again, my class against me. After playing the game together, most students are ready to play with a partner.

    Another option is to play online and project the game on a whiteboard for your students to watch. There are many online options; I like this uncluttered version that lets you select the difficulty level for your computerized opponent.

     

    The Many Benefits of Mancala

    Fine Motor Skills: My friend Danielle, an occupational therapist, plays mancala with her students all the time. She makes sure that they follow an important rule: picking up all of the seeds in a pit with one hand and distributing those seeds using the same hand. She says this forces children to work on in-hand manipulation skills, specifically translation. That is the ability to move objects (in this case, game pieces) from the palm to the fingertips and back. (For more on in-hand manipulation skills, here is a helpful resource with specific activities.)

    Math: Mancala has many natural math extensions. It can help children practice an important math fluency skill called subitizing. Subitizing is when a child can naturally “see” the number of objects in a set without counting the objects. For example, a child could see three seeds in a mancala pit and recognize the three seeds without counting them individually. (Here is an interesting article about subitizing from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.) Mancala also provides a natural context for multiplicative thinking in older elementary students. With six pits and four seeds in each pit, students will progress from counting seeds to skip-counting to using multiplication facts.

    Global Studies: It is believed that mancala originated in Egypt, and archeologists have found 1,300 year old mancala boards in Ethiopia. Mancala is an interesting example to introduce children to globalization and the spread of culture. Similar games are played in South Asia, Western Africa, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. Students can research the various versions of the game played around the world. A Google image search will also turn up an incredible array of game boards of various ages and origins, that make for a great art history object study.

    Critical Thinking: Just like chess, which has well documented academic benefits, mancala teaches children to think ahead before acting — a challenging skill for many third graders! Planning out moves and considering an opponent’s strategy all build rigorous strategic thinking and problem-solving skills.

    Do your students play mancala? Do you have other favorite games to recommend? Please share your suggestions, comments, and questions in the comments area below, or connect with me on Twitter or Facebook. I’d love to hear from you . . . and happy gaming!

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