Did you know that kids use math everyday...for fun? Kids are constantly engaging their brains in running calculations, optimizing variables, and analyzing algorithms...when they're playing games!
Okay, okay... They may not be pulling out their graph paper and sketching out derivative functions while tapping away on their Nintendo Switch. But they are using a lot of the same brain muscles as if they were.
My dad really liked chess when we were growing up. He was also great at board games that required a lot of strategy and thinking ahead, and he didn’t care much for Connect 4 (much to my dismay). His mind was able to inventory familiar situations and repeat appropriate techniques. He was able to predict and foresee probable outcomes and respond accordingly.
We would throw any semi-strategy against the wall like spaghetti, trying to see what could stick my dad in the loser's box. A lot of games required strategy, and for us, that meant guessing at random or acting on whatever occurred to us at the moment.
But my dad, as an adult who was relatively good at strategy games, was different. He would take the time to go through different scenarios in his mind until he came up with a move that would, without fail, outsmart us.
He was doing math, and none of us were even aware of it. As we got older, we started doing the same thing; and of course, it’s fun to see your kids grow up—and steal you’re your competitive advantage away. (Anyone relate?)
And that's what we do as kids, isn't it? Our decisions start to evolve from chance to choices, from guessing to estimating as we start to compute the world around us.
These skills are constantly being exercised when kids play games. A game is like an environment, where a reward is hidden behind a challenge. All games, except for ones of pure chance, demand some level of skill building, and a lot of that skill revolves around mathematics.
Strategy games involve probability—predicting how your opponent will proceed. They involve multiplying expected benefits against probabilities of occurrence and coming up with expected values for different courses of action.
Some games involve patterns and require categorizing information in a mental database and seeking variance. This is not unlike detecting outliers requiring further investigation in statistics. Games that force players to make decisions in the face of familiar situations require algorithmic-like computation of expected outcomes and manipulation of small, isolated variables to achieve better results.
Physical sports and games use all of the above-mentioned skills in addition to an applied physical component. Every shot of a basketball from the three-point line will be slightly different, and the more that players can familiarize themselves with the tiny variables that make the difference, the more reliably they can sink a basket.
The games we play in our classes at Mentorhood are more blatantly mathematical. We require students to use specific mathematical tools and skills to work through the challenge behind which the game’s reward is hidden. There are hidden components, too—some games require prediction and strategy that more subtly taps into applied math than the arithmetic skills at the surface of the game.
The power of the challenge-reward combination is incredibly motivating—first for the students, and then for the teacher, seeing how engaged and joyful the learners become at the prospect of a game. It’s encouraging to walk students through arithmetic challenges when they are excited about how they will fare in the game as a result. We see students wrestle with material they were previously uninterested in when the concept is framed in a game style.
Our full year classes for our younger students will always have a game component, and we also offer games-only classes for students up to third grade. We also offer one-on-one lessons and are happy to incorporate game play into our lessons at the request of the parents and learners.
We strive to make math fun, accessible, challenging, and rewarding in every capacity we teach. Adults who still love math never lost that sense of fun with it; we see mathematics as being embedded with its own challenge and reward system. The ability to unearth a truth buried behind a mystery in order to enlighten a conclusion is thrilling. We want to make that exciting feedback loop accessible for our learners by framing their lessons in engaging, approachable, and rewarding ways.
Games are fun and exciting, but truly, games don’t make math fun. Games highlight the fun that is already a part of the math we use every day.
Whether playing games with us or at home, encourage your learner to start thinking about the math they are using. After all, a small variation in their left sneaker placement might just land them their next three-point swish.