Skip to content

Count Down – Part Two – Games

August 31, 2011

International Mathematics Olympiad Logo

This is my second post on the book Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Completion by Steve Olson. As noted in my previous post, this book is both a quick read and interesting so I encourage others to read it.


In this post I wanted to focus on a second aspect of the book that I find interesting, games and their role in developing mathematical thinkers. This is a recurring theme thought out the book as the Olympians often spend their time playing various games. Yes there is a competitive aspect to games that the Olympians play. Indeed the author goes into detail outlining the pros and cons of competition but there is also an analytical side of gaming which helps develop mathematical reasoning. Take for example the game Twitch which requires lightning-fast reflexes and quick thinking.

A writer who had been following the U.S. team was one of the players. As he tried to keep up with the endlessly flashing cards, his head felt as if it were about to explode … The kids on the team, on the other hand seemed to get calmer as the game got more intense. They played their cards quickly, but their movements were concise, economical, controlled.

Personal Lessons

Why do games stick out as a key aspects of book? Why write a blog on it?  To put it simply I have seen the results of playing games on our family and more specifically in the development of mathematical understanding in our son. The analytical aspect of games has provided a venue for our son to develop his thinking, try different strategies and develop greater understanding of mathematical concepts. It is important that while there is benefit in just playing the game I have found the real pay off (from a mathematics learning perspective) is in debriefing about the strategies used and tying the game play to mathematics concepts. Questions like … Why did you do that? Do you know why I did made that move? and What can you tell about that shape? … help to enhance mathematical learning and understanding.

In the end there is nothing to lose by playing.  After all the games are …. wait for it …. fun … and shouldn’t that be part of learning.

Which games

There has been a few games that I have found quite beneficial over the years and have included in a list below. Beside each game is one (or more) mathematics concepts addressed in the game. As noted above … with students it is important to take the time to highlight how game play and strategy is tied to mathematics.

This list is not comprehensive or exhaustive by any means. I would welcome people to add any games they find good for stressing mathematics concepts below as well. All of the games help develop problem solving and reasoning skills. Many of these game are available electronically. For kids I find the “physical” version the preferred one but others may find the electronic version equally as good.

Cribbage – Mental mathematics, skip counting

Blokus – Spatial reasoning, 2-D shapes, translations

Payday – Place value, financial literacy

Rush Hour – Spatial reasoning, translations

Yahtzee – Probability

Labyrinth – Translations

Monopoly – Place value, financial literacy, skip counting

Top This – 2-D Shapes, Spatial reasoning

Risk – Probability

3-D Tic Tac Toe – Spatial reasoning

Happy gaming!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 9:49 pm

    I thought this was an absolutely terrific post. Games are fun and of huge benefit to encouraging mathematical development.

  2. September 1, 2011 8:48 am

    I could not agree more. Thanks for the comment.

  3. September 1, 2011 9:23 pm

    Sounds like we have similar experiences involving games with our kids. Blokus is a favourite of mine too. I prefer the 2-player version since students can focus more on winning strategies vs. teaming up against one player. Chocolate Fix (a logic puzzle/game) and Pentago (a five in a row game where you place a marble and then rotate one quadrant of the game board 90 degrees cw or ccw) is another. My thoughts on games & math were too long to include here so I posted on my blog (shameless plug: In it, I uploaded a list of games/puzzles that make up part of a kit we’ve put together for teachers. Love to hear of any free options as well (e.g. Toads & Frogs to introduce quadratic functions).

    • September 1, 2011 10:53 pm

      Thanks Chris. Always glad to have a shameless plug 🙂 I really enjoyed seeing your list. I am in the process of ordering the tessellation related games listed as I had not heard of them. Got to love the way connections are made on-line.

      One book that I purchased a while ago was on card games. I think it is out of print now but I am sure there are others. Lots of card games that are great for mathematics concepts. I know the casino here in Victoria will give classes their old cards (not sure if there are social issues for some but free is a good price). A quick search on the net will give lots of suggestions. I am not sure that as many ideas exist for high school mathematics which deals with functions, etc. but I am sure there is lots for probability. Always welcome suggestion.

      • September 1, 2011 11:42 pm

        If your interested in tessellations, check out the mirrorkal Escher puzzle The puzzle pieces, or cubes, have mirrors inside so moving one piece changes what you see in adjacent positions. It’s where I started to build a collection of games in my classroom. Students who were finished early helped themselves to these puzzles. Looking back, probably not the best use of them but it was a start. In addition to problem-solving, introduced kids to Escher which was actually my original intent.

  4. Nick permalink
    September 2, 2011 12:27 pm

    Collectible card games like Pokemon or Magic:The Gathering are full of math too. As one example, there is a big element of probability when it comes to shuffling your deck of cards, so you need to balance your cards to ensure you aren’t too dependent on a specific draw. You also need to think carefully about what cards to play and when. You have to think strategically, sometimes it’s better to sacrifice some life points and hold a defensive card in reserve.

    Card games like poker and president have similar aspects of strategy and probability aspects too.


  1. How come we’re playing games today? I thought this was math class. | Reflections in the Why

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: