War (and variants)

My greatest parenting regret is that I taught my son how to play War.

Don't get me wrong, he loves the game. In fact, that's precisely the problem. For weeks after I taught him the rules, War was the only game he let us play, and it got old fast.

If you haven't played War, it's a ridiculously simple card game. You deal the whole deck out to two players, and then both players flip over the top card. Highest card wins. If the cards are the same rank, both players put three cards face down and then flip over the fourth card. Again, the highest card wins the whole pile. The game continues until one person has all the cards.

The game is entirely driven by luck, and it can drag on for twenty or thirty minutes as one player, deck spilling over with forty-something cards, tries to win those last few pesky cards from their opponent.

To stave off the boredom, I started looking up some variants on War. As it turns out, some of these are really fun! Most importantly, they create opportunities for you and your kid to have a little math talk while playing.

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Laser Maze

I walked into the playroom holding a board game, which is a pretty routine occurrence in our household. "Hey J, do you want to play a game?"

"No."

"It has lasers..."

"OK!"

Since I showed my son this game, he has introduced it to his little sister, his cousins at the beach, and two different friends who have come over on playdates. He has also wandered our house, finding new mirrors he can use to bounce lasers onto furniture, framed photos, and annoyed family members.

In short, Laser Maze is a hit in the Haines household. J definitely doesn't think of Laser Maze as a math game, but I can already see him learning new concepts about angles of reflection and spatial relationships.

Occasionally he even lets me play, which is really fun because, again, there are lasers.

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One Dollar Words

I truly believe that one reason I was a strong math student is that, when my mind wandered, it wandered in a mathematical direction. I noticed patterns, I developed strategies and shortcuts, and I generally became fluent at basic calculations, all without drilling my times tables. 

My hope is that when you introduce your kids to little math games like One Dollar Words, their minds will start to wander mathematically as well.

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Race to the Treasure

The first five years of your child's life are the most developmentally important years, and the foundation they build through play and exploration will form the basis of their learning for years and years to come.

That's why I am a big proponent of the Tammany Hall approach to the first five years: Math Early and Math Often.

So when I found Race to the Treasure, I knew I had to share it with my kids, and with you! If you're looking for your child's first board game, you could hardly do better.

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Fifteen

Sometimes, your kids have finished the maze and the crossword on the kids' menu and have started arguing about who is on whose side of the booth. Or maybe they are asking you when dinner will be ready in alternating 20-second intervals. 

In either case, you just need a quick, simple game to occupy their minds. Something that doesn't involve a bunch of pieces or instructions. 

If you find yourself in that situation, I'd like to recommend Fifteen.

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Yahtzee

Can a three-year-old play Yahtzee? Well, no, not exactly. The rules are simply too complex.

But can a three-year-old have a rich mathematical experience while playing a modified version of Yahtzee, or by helping their parent or sibling play? Of course!

You may have noticed that I am pretty liberal with my age recommendations for games. This is intentional; I believe that kids can gain mathematical ideas and insights from a game, even if they don't have the attention or skill to complete the game in its original form. 

Once you know how to play a game, you can modify it to meet the needs of your children. To illustrate what I mean, let's talk about Yahtzee.

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How Many?

It's no secret that I love the work of Christopher Danielson. His website, Talking Math With Your Kids, was the inspiration for this newsletter, and I've already shared one of his books, Which One Doesn't Belong?, in a previous edition.

Christopher is out with a new book, How Many?, that I honestly believe should be in any child's book collection. If you invite my kid to your kid's birthday party, you already know what present they're getting.

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Mastermind

My wife really shouldn't let me go to Target. Every time, she sends me to get one simple item, and every time I show up at home with a new board game. I keep telling her "It's helping the kids learn!" but honestly they'd probably learn plenty from the other 28 board games we have...

But you, dear reader, get to benefit from my game addiction! A few weeks ago, I spied a game in retro packaging that I'd never seen before. I eagerly snapped it up and brought it home.

Within minutes of playing the game, I couldn't wait to see what my own students could do with the mathematical implications of the game. It's a great game for a 3rd or 4th grader, but the mathematical ideas that the game uses are taught in high school and college courses on discrete mathematics. Not that your kid will know that! To them, they're just guessing which colors match your secret code.

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Magic Square

I really, really dislike state testing. The kids get stressed, the teachers get practically crazed, and in the end I have a great deal of skepticism about the validity of our particular tests.

The silver lining of state tests is that my principal asks that we decrease the workload on that week so that kids are fresh and ready on each testing day. I take that as an excuse to pull out some of my favorite math puzzles and problems, in order to keep my students' brains working without overwhelming them with new math material. 

One of my favorite puzzles is the Magic Square.

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Peg Solitaire

When I was a kid, my parents bought me a triangular peg solitaire game from a Cracker Barrel, and I never could figure it out. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't end the game with one peg. I always ended the game with two or three pegs, no matter how hard I tried.

Well, I am happy to announce that I dug this game out of the closet recently, inspired to finally conquer my old nemesis. And I did it! At long last, this deceptively challenging game of pegs and holes was within my grasp.

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Table Talk Math

I started this newsletter because I believe that games are the easiest, most consistently entertaining way to introduce math ideas to your kids. Despite this, I know that games are far from the only way to get your kids talking about and exploring math. As a parent, I have many other tools in my toolkit for provoking an interesting conversation. Many of those tools I cribbed directly from Table Talk Math.

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The Between Game

I went on a trip with my son this past week, so I invented this game for those moments when even the iPad couldn't hold his attention any longer.

The goal of the Between Game is simple: yell out the same number at the same time. The only constraint is that you must each choose a number that is between the two previous numbers. That way, the range of numbers shrinks and shrinks until both players think of the same number.
 

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Othello

When playing a game with your child, should you let them win? This is a common dilemma for any parent who routinely plays games with their kids. On one hand, you don't want to beat your kid at Go Fish or Battleship or chess every time; they'd get sick of losing and quit playing with you eventually. On the other hand, you don't want your child to get so accustomed to winning that they can't handle a loss. 

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Dragonbox Numbers

I have a skeptical outlook on the value of screen time. It's probably not hurting my kids too much, but it's probably not helping either. And the math apps I've found have mostly been underwhelming. Mostly, these apps focus on repetitive practice of math facts, which doesn't exactly sound like a rich mathematical experience. 

But Dragonbox Numbers is a different sort of math app. I was skeptical at first, but the game won me over with its well-designed activities that get kids thinking about the relationships between numbers, rather than simply drilling math facts.

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Pyramid Solitaire

I firmly believe that our kids learn best when they have casual, patient conversations about math with an adult that cares about them. But my new baby has been a stark reminder that I am not going to have time to talk deeply about math with each of my kids every day. Fortunately, I have some back-up plans.

Pyramid solitaire is a game my own parents taught me when I was in early elementary school, and I happily played it for years afterward. It's quick, it's tough to win, and all you need is a deck of cards.

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Bedtime Math

I love games. I mean, I started a weekly newsletter just so I had a place where I could talk about games with someone other than my poor wife.

But even I can't pull together the energy every day to get down a board game, dump out all the pieces, and play with my kids. Some days, I just don't have it in me.

I still want my kids to have some sort of mathematical experience each day, though. Usually, I find a way to ask a couple of math questions during dinner or bath time.

But what about parents who are a little math-phobic, or just unsure of what questions to ask? For those parents, I have a great recommendation: Bedtime Math.

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Mancala

Of all the games I've recommended so far, Mancala is the one that I recall most fondly from my childhood. I vividly remember playing match after match with my friend John, arguing over strategy and trash-talking the way that only eight-year-olds can.

I loved this game as a kid for the same reasons that I love it as a parent: Mancala is a breeze to learn, easy to set up, play,  and clean up, and contains far more strategy than you might expect. 

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The 100 Game

Sometimes as a teacher, I find myself with a classroom full of kids and nothing to do. Maybe the fall musical ended at 2:55 but school doesn't let out until 3:15.  

Whenever this happens, I pull out the 100 Game. This game can be taught in two minutes but always keeps my students occupied for at least twenty as they battle each other and develop strategies to try to unseat me, the 100 Game World Champion.

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The Fold-and-Cut Challenge

Last week, my city of Birmingham was predicted to have 0.5 inches of snow, so naturally my school district shut down for two and a half days. Welcome to Alabama.

By the last day, I was going pretty crazy trying to think of activities for my kids to do, so I pulled out an activity I've used with kindergarteners and 8th graders alike: the fold-and-cut challenge

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