Ages: 5 and up
Cost: ~$30 (Buy on Amazon)
Math Ideas: Line and angle relationships, spatial reasoning
Questions to Ask:
If you put a mirror here, where does the laser go?
Can you trace the path of the laser with your finger?
Why are all the mirrors diagonal?
What changes when you hold the laser still and only move the mirror?
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?"
"It has lasers..."
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.
How to Play
Laser Maze is made by Thinkfun, who also made Rush Hour, a game I shared back in February. The game structure is similar: you are given a game board, a bunch of pieces, and a deck of cards, each of which contains a puzzle you must solve.
In Laser Maze, you get a laser toy, as well as several different types of mirrors, gateways, and obstacles that you must navigate in order to light up a target. The game cards show you the location of some of the pieces, as well as a list of the other pieces you can use to solve the puzzle. Sometimes you know the direction a piece faces, and other times that information remains a mystery.
Thinkfun has a great tutorial video if you want to see the puzzle in action. I highly recommend it.
Where's the Math?
Laser Maze is another of my favorite type of games, where the math is hidden in the structure of the game. Like Blokus or SET, there are no numbers in the game, so it doesn't feel like a "math game" to kids. But when your child plays these games, they are constantly interacting with mathematical ideas.
In particular, Laser Maze helps kids develop an understanding of angles. In order to redirect the laser, they must use a mirror which sends the laser out at a 90° angle. So the laser is always moving vertically or horizontally along the game board, yet all the mirrors are diagonal. Why is that?
The fancy mathematical term is the angle of incidence, which basically means the angle that is made between the line of the laser and the surface of the mirror. If you've ever lined up a ricochet shot while playing pool, you've thought about the angle that the cue ball will hit the rail, and you know that it should bounce off the rail at the same angle. This idea is intuitive to adults because we'e had so much experience with angles, mirrors, and billiards.
Your kindergartner, however, needs to spend a lot of time exploring these tools before the idea of an angle begins to crystalize. In fact, an angle is a much more abstract concept than many other topics in geometry. Unlike a square or a parallelogram, which are objects that can be seen and pointed to, an angle isn't an object, exactly. You can see the two lines that form an angle, but the angle itself is actually that empty space between the lines.
The structure of the game limits the laser to 90° turns, but if your kid is like mine, they will probably take the pieces off and start playing with them at all sorts of angles. Whoa, there's a red dot on the ceiling! How does the dot move when I aim the laser this way? What if I rotate the mirror a bit? Can I get the laser to hit my parents in the butt? (Yes, that is very much where my son's sense of humor is)
You'll notice as you play that you can't actually see the laser's path when it shines, only the final spot where it lands. This might seem disappointing to your kids, but this is actually an asset to the game, from an educational perspective. Since your child can't see the laser's path, they must visualize the line shooting out of the laser, as well as the laser's path after it bounces off the various mirrors. The better your child can visualize mathematical relationships in their head, the better equipped they are to analyze math problems that invoke those relationships.
Of course, if you really want to see the lasers, you can always buy some ninja smoke bombs or dry ice and turn your living room into a scene from a heist movie...
Questions to Ask
First and foremost, I'd ask "Why are all the mirrors diagonal?" This structure, which is fundamentally important to the game, is worth discussing early on. Let your child explore the game for a bit, then see if they have noticed the relationships between the laser's angle and the mirrors' angles.
The back of each card shows the solution to the puzzle, including a red path of the laser to its destination. Whenever your child is stuck on a puzzle, you can simply ask them "Can you trace the path of the laser with your finger?"
As your child traces the path physically, they'll improve in their ability to visualize that path mentally, which will allow them to solve harder and harder puzzles.
My son immediately wanted to take the lasers off the board and play with them around the house. Great! You can still prompt some great spatial reasoning with a few guided questions. You could set up challenges such as "Can you shine the laser into this mirror and make it hit the microwave?" Perhaps you and your child could even trade challenges, like a game of Laser HORSE (which is a great band name).
My son kept moving the laser and the mirrors at the same time, leading the endpoint of the laser to move erratically throughout the room. I found that he really benefitted from my suggestion to only move the mirror, not the laser. By keeping the laser still and focusing on the way that the mirror's angle affects the trajectory of the line, my son started to develop an intuition for the angle of incidence. Of course, I'd never bore him by trying to get him to learn that mathematical vocabulary. I just want him to stay excited and keep exploring.
Which he's happy to do. Because, again, there are lasers.
Click here to buy Laser Maze on Amazon