OK, so I came to this by being responsible for public maths events for maths year 2000. We had 22 shopping centre events, at the end of January 2001, where we set up staffed table stands with maths activities. It was humbling to see ordinary shoppers give up on Sainsburys and spend the day doing maths puzzles and games. So, the I end up being a part time shop keeper selling maths games and puzzles. It is just great to keep being reminded that people love doing this stuff.
Intriguingly, it turns out, there is a body of research which seems to suggest that not only is it just good fun (which frankly is enough), but, it actually does you good. On the face of it, the idea that you would take thoughtful puzzles and games, which are designed to get you to think about mathematical ideas in a flexible and non-repetitive way, with the varied motivation of a game format, seems like it should be beneficial for doing better at school maths. Ramani and Siegler (2008) ran a stuidy in the US called ” Promoting Broad and Stable Improvements in Low-Income Children’s Numerical Knowledge Through Playing Number Board Games”. They detail the design requirements for games to be effective in supporting younger pupils in developing number concepts. Essential is the relationship between the design of the board and the sequencing of numbers (they suggest linearity is key … like a number line), but effectively it is an issue of good design. They question the effectiveness of many computer based games, which are effectively repetitive memory based, drill and practice. As the title suggests, they note that middle income children are more likely to play games at home and this generates a difference by social class.
Similar finding come from New Zealand, where Sally Peters (1998) (worked with pre-school children using a linear number based board game “playing such a game for roughly 1 hr increased low-income preschoolers’ (mean age = 5.4 years) proficiency on 4 diverse numerical tasks … The gains remained 9 weeks later.” Again the suggestion that lower income families see less benefit is due to their being less likely to play such games at home. Leicha Bragg (2003) looking at motivation and games playing comes to the perhaps obvious conclusion: “Games have the potential for students to associate learning of mathematical concepts with enjoyable mathematics episodes. This may assist in developing a positive attitude towards mathematics and learning.”
Jan Winter et. al. (2004) looked at home school linking projects, “Games and authentic family activities thus formed the two main kinds of mathematical activity in the children’s out-of-school lives.” The relationship between home practices and school practices was key to supporting “knowledge exchange”. So, schools need to be more receptive to home methods, and homes need to be able to provide opportunities to share them and playing number games at home was seen as a key mechanism to allow this. Indeed the study cites the IMPACT project which was a precursor to the Ocean Maths project in Tower Hamlets, East London. Booklets of homework activities were provided for students to work on with someone at home throughout keys stages 1, 2 and 3. I was responsible for the year 8 and 9 materials and a key design requirement was that the final activity would be a playable game. Bernie and Hall (2008) conducted a review of this project. “In 2005 the project received the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Educational Award in recognition of its success. The majority of participating schools have witnessed improvements – in some cases dramatic – in levels of mathematics attainment.” Engaging with maths at home, of which the playing of maths games is a key component, has been a clear success.
There seems to be a wealth of evidence suggesting that playing maths games is supportive of young people’s maths at school. The overwhelming success of the Ocean Maths Project for which we designed a good part of the materials suggests that we have a view on what constitutes good design and to that end we select games which are thoughtful and provide correspondences between the game structure and the mathematical ideas, and provide opportunities to think flexibly. The research suggests that taking these opportunities at home is successful and following on with games playing in school tightens the links and thus the benefits.