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Guiding Students to Think Creatively in Math through Game Design

Game design is one way to promote creative thinking, content exploration and problem solving in mathematics. It provides an avenue to deepen understanding by engaging students in opportunities to analyze and synthesize their thinking about math concepts.

All students are capable of creating wonderful games that are not only fun but also open the door for mathematical understanding for others. In this process, students research ideas, explore math concepts, analyze what they know, identify challenges and discover ways to teach it to someone else. Working in groups, students engage in mathematical conversations where they can construct arguments, provide evidence to support their thinking, and make adjustments in their understanding. It is also a great assessment tool for the teacher.

My team took this idea and created a program designed to support STEM learning and provide students with a real-world applicable approach to creating instructional math games. Inspired by the Engineering Design principles from “Engineering is Elementary” (Museum of Science Boston), we created a Game Design Manual, complete with lessons and activities developed to meet the standards in mathematics and deepen students’ use of 21st century skills. 

In the primary grades, students learn how to develop an idea, build and test a prototype and learn from mistakes. Intermediate students were challenged to do more than create a game; but also make decisions on how a game could best help teach or provide practice for a concept. They thought about how strategy plays a factor, identified what makes that particular math concept hard and designed and improved upon their game with those ideas in mind. We piloted the curriculum this year in several schools in Ohio and it has been a blast! 

Part of the purpose of a pilot is learning from the experiences and making improvements. One of the biggest challenges teachers faced was how to encourage their students to incorporate math creatively and seamlessly into their games.

Here are some tips we developed to encourage students to explore different types of math when designing their games.

Play Different Kinds of Math Games!

Check out our big list of math board games to give students some real life experiences and examples of different ways to present math through a game. Analyzing games like these will help students apply what they learned to their own design experience.

What to Think About When Designing a Creative and Fun Math Game

Here are some guiding questions to help your students design a game that is fun as well as mathematically challenging.

During the brainstorming and planning process:

  • Where do you notice math in the world around you?
  • How will players go deeper with the math concept?
  • Can you show this math concept without using numbers?

During the evaluation and improvement process:

  • Is the math an integral part of the gameplay?
  • Are the players using different strategies during gameplay?
  • Is the math too easy or too difficult for players?


Download the Guiding Questions!

Highlight Examples from Students! 

Here are some examples of games with great math content integrated into the gameplay. All of these games were designed by students and entered into this year's K-12 Game-a-thon challenge:

  • Card Kick combines physical play with card game elements.
  • In Geofingers, the goal is to be the last finger remaining on the board. Players take turns answering math questions by moving their fingers to the correct shape.
  • Global Math is an interdisciplinary game incorporating geography, coding and computer science.
  • In Math-a-rades, players use yes or no questions to guess the number on their forehead. Players gain an understanding of different ways to describe numbers: even, odd, multiples of other numbers, digits, etc.

I hope these tips help you get started creating unique math games with your students! I can't wait to see all of the entries in this year's K-12 Game-a-thon challenge!

Enter the K-12 Game-a-thon

Twana Young

About the Author

Twana is Vice President of Curriculum and Instruction at MIND Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @TwanaYoung.


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