Although T & I are well-convinced of the truth that it is dangerous to train children to expect education to be amusing, it is also true that amusements may often be educational. For any other homeschoolers out there, I wanted to share some of the games that we have been playing with #1 lately.
There are a number of well-known games out there for very young children, which are “educational” only in a preschool sense. For instance, Candyland teaches color recognition, taking turns, following a twisting path, etc. Chutes & Ladders (or for my Limey readership, Snakes & Ladders) also teaches counting to 6, and simple moral lessons if you pay attention to the pictures at the beginning and end of the Chutes & Ladders.
But what really jumpstarted game-playing recently for our #1 (now six years old) was Maya Madness. He got it for Christmas last year, but only recently did I notice it in his closet and give it a try, and he loved it! It’s a pretty simple game (I really don’t understand why the publisher categorizes it for ages 10 and up); each player marks his position on a numberline that is marked from -10 to 10, draws a target number on a round token, and tries to reach that target on their numberline by adding and subtracting cards that range in value from -5 to 5 (as well as a few special cards, like skip, reverse, wildcard, and go-directly-to-0). When you reach a target, you score a point and draw a new target. First to 5 points wins.
There are a lot of great features about this simple game. Children learn addition and subtraction organically, by concretely seeing them in action. Thus they get very comfortable with them — and learn how they are related (“5+3=8”, “8-3=5”, “8-5=3”, “-5-3=-8”, … are all variations of the same fact that 5 and 8 are 3 apart). Depending on the arithmetic skills of the child, they might need to rely on counting up and down the numberline, but before long, the brain will recognize patterns, and direct addition and subtraction will become natural. Use of negative numbers also becomes natural (on a numberline, it is obvious that “minus 5 minus 2 is minus 7” works just like “plus 5 plus 2 is plus 7”). Children also learn to strategize one or two moves ahead. In the beginning, help them to think according to this pattern: “Right now you’re at X, and your target is Y. What will it take to get you there? [that’s a subtraction word problem, by the way] Now that you know what you need, what cards do you have? [there’s another word problem]” Before long, they will be able to strategize on their own, such as:
- I’m at 8 now, and my target is 3, so it will take -5 to get there. The cards in my hand that can do that for me are -2, -2, and -1
- I’m at 2 now, and my target is 5. I don’t have a 3 that can get me there in one move, but I can get there in two moves with my 4 and -1
- I’m at 8 now, and my target is 10. I don’t have any positive cards, so the best I can do to keep close is to play my least negative card and hope for a better draw next time.
I do have some nitpicks about this game: separate numberlines are provided for each player (made out of folding cardboard, which tear too easily at the fold — why couldn’t they have packaged the game in a rectangular box that didn’t require the numberlines to fold?). But the rules are ambiguous as to whether all players should be at the same point on the numberline at all times (i.e. players are oija-boarding the position on the numberline, each trying to reach a separate (secret) target), or each player moves on his numberline only for the cards he plays himself. We just let each player control their numberline separately, and I advise that for younger children, because it’s simpler (and less antagonistically competitive).
My bigger nitpicks have to do with the math that is taught, which seems to me to have missed some opportunities. With the numberline limited to 10, there is no practice for larger sums (for instance this game will never teach 8+7=15, or 13-4=9). Also, there are no negative targets, so the game does not give as much practice in the realm of negative numbers as it does with positive. Something I think I’ll try: use scissors and post-it notes to write ‘+’ on one side of a quarter, and ‘-‘ on the other. For each new target, you flip the coin to determine which side of the numberline your target is on (or how about this: for each new target, roll a die, and use + for odd, – for even). This would make the “Reverse” cards (which toggle your numberline position between positive and negative) more useful. Also, I could make my own jumbo numberline that goes from -20 to 20. And use a couple of regular decks of cards to extend adding and subtracting all the way up to 10 (‘in the black’ cards are positive, and ‘in the red’ cards are negative, faces can be the various kinds of special cards). I could call it “Maya Insanity”! (Gamewright, Inc: are you listening? If you make this game, I will buy it and recommend it!)
Anyways, #1 loved this game so much, he was clamoring to play it all the time, he kept a log of how often he won, he brought it to Cadet game night, he brought it to friends’ houses — the only way to get him off this kick was to introduce him to another game, which I’ll talk about in another post!