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All Games Build Math and Critical Thinking Skills

June 29, 2020

Games, problem solving, and critical thinking

In a prior life as a math coach working with elementary and middle school teachers, I spent a lot of time playing all kinds of games, with all kinds of kids, in many different classrooms. Through these experiences, I learned one really important thing: any game is a math game. In previous blogs we’ve talked about the many things you can learn from games (read those here), but at this moment I think it’s really useful to stress a larger point, which is that every game really is a math game.

Every family plays games (and if you don’t, hopefully we can convince you to start!). Maybe you prefer board games to cards, or games of chance to physical sports. It doesn’t matter what you play; in every instance, the case can be made that you are building highly valuable math skills. “But wait,” you might be thinking, “in the games we play we don’t keep score, or even count, so where is the math?” The math I’m talking about isn’t necessarily about numbers, or scores, or counting. The mathematical ideas I’m talking about are more general than that: they involve problem-solving, and critical thinking. Math is about numbers, sure, but it’s also about thinking, and reasoning, and planning ahead. And, since most games, inherently, are about winning, they create a safe space to learn to strategize, think critically, and solve problems in a fairly natural way. When you are motivated by wanting to do well, then you are motivated to try to figure out the best next step, to try to outmaneuver your opponent, to spend resources wisely, and approach the game strategically.

And since you’re spending time playing math games, it would make sense to try to wring out as much thinking and learning from them as you can. Here are some ways that you can foster learning and build stronger thinking skills, as you play!

Explain your short-term thinking

Sometimes, when you make a move in a game, it’s totally expected - it’s what every other player would have done in the same situation. Other times, you make a decision to do something different, maybe unexpected, because you think it will pay off in the end. In these situations, it’s useful to say why you made that move. And when one of your kids makes an unexpected move, ask them to talk about why they made that decision.

Why do this? Talking to your kids about why they’re doing what they’re doing is valuable for many reasons. This kind of discussion helps kids to uncover the many different purposes for the many different kinds of decisions that get made in a game, where they begin to understand that there are often far more possibilities than they might have otherwise found on their own. As you explain your moves, your kids will learn more advanced ways of approaching the game. As your kids explain their moves to you, you get to understand how they are thinking, and maybe even learn a tactic you might not have thought of yourself!

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Explain your long-term thinking

Model thinking several moves ahead for your kids. As you are deciding your next move, speak your thinking process out loud: “If I do this, and then you do that, then I think this will happen…. But if I do this, then you’ll do this other thing, and then this will be the result….” Use this technique to help your child consider what might happen beyond the move they are making now, to plan ahead, and create new strategies for successful game playing.

Why do this? Because planning for outcomes is a huge part of thinking critically and solving problems! As adults, when we think through a complex issue that requires us to take action, we not only consider the possible outcomes in the short term, but also the long term. Kids are often short-term thinkers, but we need to teach them that the long view can be quite valuable, and “playing the long game”, with patience and thoughtfulness, is a skill that needs to be carefully nurtured. Teaching children to look ahead in a game, where there are no stakes beyond winning and losing, gives them a chance to practice an important life-skill: seeing how something might matter to us in the future can be just as important as how it affects us in the here and now.

Change the rules and build thinking skills

What?? Yes! In a previous blog, we talked about how games teach us how to follow the rules, for the sake of fairness, and having a game that is actually playable. Remember though, a game is just that... a game. So, if everyone agrees to a little rule-bending, then why not? (In our experience, every family has their own “house rules” for Monopoly, and lots of other games too!) Every now and then, revise the game; it’s totally okay to do, and it teaches your kids to analyze and adjust to a new and interesting situation. You can change the rules a little, or a lot, or, if you are feeling crazy, you can let your opponent suggest a rule change!

Why do this? From a purely practical standpoint, it’s useful to teach kids that things change all the time, and games aren’t any different. Rules change, problems evolve, and games are, once again, a pretty low-stakes opportunity to practice reacting to changes, planning what to do next, and figuring out how to retool your tactics. This is also a great way to start to talk about game structures, and fairness. You can discuss things like “Okay, we changed the game in this way, but is it still fair, or does it now favor one player over another?” and you can even incorporate that into your thinking about the overall strategy required to play this new game. This brings into play all kinds of “meta” thinking: if I change this rule in my favor, and then you get to change your own rule, will it cost me more in the end than if I never changed the rule at all? All this makes for some fascinating exploration!

These are just a few ways that you can get a bigger bang for your buck out of the games you are already playing. All of these approaches build problem-solving, critical thinking, and analysis skills - all of which are a part of math, science, and day-to-day life!

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And if you are looking for a different kind of game that the whole family can play (and talk about!) together, try our paradox challenge in our TpT Store!