Mancala

Players: 2
Ages: 5 and up
Cost: ~$15-20 (Buy on Amazon) or make your own from an egg carton!
Math Ideas: Subitizing, mental counting, strategic thinking
Questions to Ask
    If you pick this cup, where will your last stone be placed? 
    How can you string together three moves this turn?
    How many stones do you need to win?

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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. 

How to Play

Mancala originated in Ethiopia hundreds of years ago, so there are many variations on the game. So if you grew up playing a different version, play on! All the variations of Mancala involve rich mathematical ideas. 

Two players sit in front of a board with six cups on each side, as well as a larger cup, known as the mancala, on ether end of the board. 

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On your turn, you pick up the stones in one cup on your side and move counterclockwise, placing one stone in each cup. You place stones in your mancala, but not your opponent's. The goal is to get as many stones in your mancala as possible.

There are a couple of rules that really deepen the strategy of the game. First, if your final stone is placed in your mancala, you get to go again. In this way, you or your child can string together two, three, or four moves in a single turn.

Secondly, if your last stone lands in an empty cup on your side of the board, you get to collect that stone, as well as any stones in the cup across from you, and place them all in the mancala. As a result, the game can swing back and forth quickly, which keeps it exciting from beginning to end. This rule also gets the players equally focused on offense and defense, as they try to protect the stones on their side from their opponent's captures.

As I said, there are many variations, so play however you want! If you need a visual demonstration, this video is a nice, concise explanation of the version I play.

Where's the Math?

I wouldn't expect any kid younger than five to fully understand Mancala. Despite this, I still play this game with my three-year-old daughter. She doesn't fully understand the intricacies, of the game, but Mancala is the perfect way for young kids to practice counting.

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A lot of young children struggle to match objects and words when counting. My daughter can count a set of three stones, but if I ask her to count eight or ten, she's sure to rush through, counting "sixseveneightnine" without matching each number to a stone.

But the physical act of placing the stones in the cups slows her down, allowing her to accurately count eight, ten, or more stones. The ritual of placing each stone also helps with her fine motor control.

My five-year-old son is able to think more strategically, and he is entirely focused on landing his final stone in that mancala! As a result, he has to mentally count the stones in each of his cups, then visualize placing each of those stones in a cup to see whether he'd land in the mancala or not. Keeping all that mental math straight is a challenge, but he doesn't mind, just so long as he lands in that mancala and gets another turn to plan out his moves.

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As I said before, the strategy gets even deeper from there. I have come up with puzzles for older kids such as this one: can you figure out how to move all five stones into the mancala on a single turn?

Questions to Ask

Since my daughter is still developing her counting skills, I like to ask her a lot of prediction questions. Prediction questions are a fantastic way to get kids of all ages to reflect on how their choices affect the future. When you ask your child to predict, they double the amount of thinking at each decision. First they think, "What will happen if I choose this?" and then after they choose, they think "Did my prediction match the outcome?"

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With my daughter, I like to ask her to predict on my move. I'll pick up a set of six stones and say "where do you think the last stone will go?" She usually gets the answer wrong, but who cares? She's three. And over time she'll get better at looking at the pile of stones and internalizing its quantity. Her predictions will improve with time.

With older kids, I like to ask questions that get them to evaluate multiple options on each turn. After all, the more time they spend weighing their options, the more math they're doing in their heads.

If I see that they have a good move, I'll say, "I really hope you don't see that great move you have!" Nothing gets a kid searching faster than a fearful comment like that.

I also like asking questions at the end of the game, when both players count up their stones. Kids come up with lots of counting strategies, and I love to question them about how they're counting. For example, they might group by fives, group by tens, or simply count by ones in a disorganized fashion. 

When kids count in a disorganized fashion, sometimes I'm a little mean. I interrupt their counting with a question, distract them, and then say "Oh, I'm sorry. You were counting. What were you up to?" Usually they stare at the pile of stones, start over with a sigh, and do a better job of setting aside the ones that they've already counted.

If your young child has too much trouble counting big sets of numbers, you can say "Let's set up a new game with the stones from our mancalas. Once we've set up, how can we tell who won?" This way, your child just has to repeatedly count to four. Once they finish setting up, you can talk about the fact that the winner is the person who has leftover stones after setting up their side of the board.

A nice brainteaser for older kids is this: "When we play, somebody always wins by 4 or 6 or 10 or 12 stones. Why does the winner always win by an even number of stones?

I love Mancala because it's such a flexible game that allows kids at different age levels to enjoy it for different reasons. Since the games only last five or ten minutes, it's a mainstay in my household and my math classroom.

Click here to buy Mancala on Amazon