Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

GOT GAME? 3 Tips for Making Games Effective for Learning

I was in the toy aisle at Target the other day and spied a giant set of dominoes. It was a thing of beauty to behold. I was instantly transported back a gazillion years to my grandma's kitchen table. We sat hunched over the domino tiles. Her left hand cupped her never-empty coffee cup. There was a small plate of windmill cookies off to the side. She used her index finger to sweep up my cookie crumbs while I labored over my next move. My grandma and me, we were fierce domino players. 

Because she was a fourth grade teacher, when my grandma taught you how to play a game, you learned strategy. It was discussed and developed. I learned to visualize several moves ahead. I learned patterns of play. I learned what tiles were best to hold back until the end and which tiles were best to play first.

To this day, I adore playing games because of my Grandma Eller. As a classroom teacher, they are one of my favorite ways to teach concepts, strategy, collaboration, and problem-solving skills.  Over the eons of my teaching career, I've discovered three important factors that make or break classroom game-playing experiences.

Modeling is imperative. When I teach a new game to my students, they, as a class, play against me. I put the gaming materials on my document camera and project them onto my Smart Board. Before the days of technology, we sat on the floor in a circle and played. 

I usually begin by close reading the game directions with my students. We highlight key words. We ask questions to check our understanding of the directions. 

While I teach the game, I make my mathematical thinking visible. I think aloud. I question aloud. I want them to see how my thinking helps me play the game better. I ask them to predict any trouble they think players might run into.

Then we play against each other. The whole class is one entity that plays against me. Students take turns coming up to play for the class team. We stop, when necessary, to fix up any misunderstandings of the directions or errors in mathematical thinking.

Finally, I turn my students loose to play.  They scatter around the room. I monitor their efforts. This is important. It keeps students on task, helps their understanding (because questions always come up), and informs me of their mathematical thinking. I'm assessing them. 

We are so inundated as teachers, we often take this opportunity to multi-task while students are playing, but it's important to focus on their play. 

After students are about half way through a game, I call them back to my large group teaching area to discuss any "A-has" they've made about mathematical content and game strategy. We record these on chart paper or the board. Sometimes, we make plans for how we'll change our play when we return to the game.

The strategizing session is important because it helps all students be successful during game play by making the problem-solving nature of game play transparent.

Finally, at the end of math workshop, we come together again to share out. This is the segment of the game play where we cement the mathematical learning. Closure is a vital part of playing learning games, because it refocuses the entire time period on the mathematical learning. 

I usually ask, "So what mathematical learning did we do today?" We chart our responses. Sometimes I use a visible thinking stem. "At first I thought________________, but now I think__________________" in order to name and notice changes in our thinking. These get recorded on our math wall. 

Game play will always be one of my favorite ways to teach concepts. I think it is potentially powerful for the learner when the three steps are followed. But it is also my favorite because I'm transported back to the taste of almond windmill cookies and the click of domino tiles...and my grandma's laughter, warm and loving. 

If you're looking for classroom games, take a look below. There's a freebie in the line up, too, that is perfect for teaching back-to-school procedures. Enjoy!

This month, I've linked up with some fabulous teachers for Teacher Talk. There are some great classroom ideas here! Check them out below!


  1. I loved this post! Especially the way our early interactions with grandparents and other family members can set us up for life with positive feelings for the things we did together! Your strategies for using games in the classroom are right on target and so useful for anyone about to try this!

  2. I LOVE board games, too! Our family is always playing; our current favorites are Rummikub & Bananagrams. And yes, it is all about learning the strategy! You must make math so much fun for your students!

    1. Games are the best! I try to make learning fun, because it can be misery for some students, otherwise.

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