Games for School

I provide child care for a few families in my area, and recently one of the 5th grade kids was doing homework through a game. He told me it was algebra, and it mostly looked like fractions using sides of a die. It seemed that the goal was to drag a static die to the correct value, but there were a few levels where it mostly just looked like he was dragging it to random spots on the screen.

So I started wondering about how I could improve such a game. The challenge I faced, as I’m sure all educational games do, is that what’s to stop a student from just dragging and clicking until the land on the right answer? That’s a terrible way to learn. It reminds me of when I somehow miss the directions of a tutorial and left to jump around for 10 minutes until I do the right move or go to the right place. The success of completing that segment doesn’t actually feel good because I didn’t find the solution; I just happened upon it.

Some possible, but not great, solutions to this problem:

  • Time the level? Kids would just wait until the timer runs out.
  • Add hints? Kids might feel a bit of a confidence boost, but these hints have to be the same ones their teacher taught them for them to remember.
  • Don’t show success rate until the end? Then it’s like a quiz and kids don’t like that.

Maybe the answer is a combination of all of these somehow. Math homework is stressful enough though, and adding a timer and not giving immediate feedback on if the answer is correct would probably make kids hate math even more.

My favorite math activity was in 1st-5th grade when I was home-schooled, and the lessons had me use actual building blocks and make equations on the table. These weren’t LEGOs (although they looked pretty similar), but each block was a different color. For example, I remember the block of 100 squares being a maroon red. I think the straight block of 10 was yellow and the 50 was blue. I found a newer version of what these look like on Amazon and they’re just as cool as I remember them. So I’m totally a more visual learner and this is why I had a lot of frustration with math the rest of my school years. It was very hard to see the equations.

If I think about the things that make math fun for me, it’s when there’s pictures or visuals that show the numbers. I like DIY stuff and construction. I don’t mind adding fractions of flour and sugar. I love zeroing out my budget. The big difference here is that this math has context and a purpose. If educational games, particularly math ones, could be designed with a purpose that kids relate to, that would increase their engagement. I don’t mean “get the right answers to get through the story of this young kid and his dog”. I mean “you invite 8 friends to your party, but the cake is cut into 12 slices. How many slices can you and your friends eat before there’s no more cake? How many friends won’t get a second piece of cake?” I know that’s not the best question, but it involves the student (“you”) and makes them consider others (their friends) while thinking about a food they probably like during a time of year that will definitely come to pass. Every student can relate to having a birthday. There’s always that one mom that won’t let your friends have seconds until everyone finishes their first piece (like come on, if they’re being slow they probably don’t care for more).

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