How to Differentiate Math Games

One of the reasons I love using math games in my classroom is that there are so many ways to differentiate math games to meet the needs of the students.  Often, kids can be playing the same game, and with some minor variations, they can be playing it at different levels.  I love that because it makes classroom management so much easier!

Here are some ideas for differentiating the math games you use in your classroom:

Change the Numbers.  Bigger numbers = more challenging (or smaller numbers, if you’re playing with decimals!).  For example, if you are playing a basic multiplication game with dice (roll the dice, first one to say the product wins), give the strugglers 6-sided dice, on-grade-level students 10-sided dice, and give 12- (or more) sided dice to those who need a challenge.  If you’re playing an addition game, some students can work with single digits, others with double digits 0-4 (so, no regrouping), and stronger students can work with double- or even triple-digit numbers.  But everyone is playing the same game.

Differentiate for Interest. Once students become familiar with math game routines and you have a variety of math games in your classroom, you can allow students to choose (or choose from a select set) which game to play during math game time.  This allows for differentiation by student interest and makes sure that students will always be engaged in their math game, because they picked it!

Differentiate by thinking style.  Remember what you learned in teacher school?  About kinesthetic/ physical, visual/ spatial, logical/ mathematic, verbal/ linguistic, aural/ auditory, and social/ interpersonal types of learning styles?  Math games are a great way to put that research to good use in your classroom!  Add in some games that are more kinesthetic (like a game where you have to make a geometric shape with your arms), some that are visual (like a “memory” style game), some that are logical (like “24”), some that are verbal (such as a math vocabulary game), and some that are aural (maybe where one partner gives oral clues about attributes and the other tries to guess the geometric shape).   Math games are, by nature, social, but don’t forget to differentiate for students who prefer solitary learning by allowing them the option of playing games by themselves. 

Change what gets recorded.  Another way to differentiate that works for just about any math game is to change what gets recorded.  This is an especially good technique for differentiating for special education students.  Some students might not be able to handle recording any of their game time.  Others might just record their moves/ turns.  For some students, you can have them record both their moves and their partner’s moves/ turns.  To challenge students, you can have them both record the game and write a reflection or written responses to questions at the end of the game.  Pushing students to record the game and their thinking will help them develop metacognition skills as well as the skills the math game is teaching.

Adjust the partners/ groups.   Teachers already do this without even thinking about it!  Sometimes, you’ll want all of the struggling students together so they can work on a particular skill.  Sometimes, you’ll want to pair someone with a student who is slightly stronger at a particular skill, to help pull him or her up.  Some students learn better in pairs, some do better in groups.  Some students will try to “hide” in a group and putting them in a partnership will give them the opportunity to be more verbal.   Depending on the learning goals in your classroom, and those for each student, you can adjust the partners/ groups for math games to help students meet those goals.  

Limit the number of variables/ choices
.  Sometimes the number of choices can be overwhelming to students.  We can differentiate math games by limiting or expanding the number of options within that game.  In my class, we have a fraction game where you draw a card and then cover that fraction of a hexagon.  For students who are struggling, the rules are that you can only take that exact fraction.  If you have a card that says “half,” then you have to take a red trapezoid.  As the students get better at the game, the rules change to allow for more decision making (and, consequently, more strategy!).  Now, if you have a card that says “half,” you can choose the red hexagon, or three green triangles (each one sixth), or a blue rhombus (one third) and a green triangle (one sixth).  And, you can split them up among the hexagons you have left to cover.  As more options are added, the game becomes more strategic and more difficult.

Adapt the support materials.   For students who are struggling with a concept, give them a math game and concrete materials to play it with.  For example, for students who are working on understanding the base ten system, they might play a place value game that uses base ten blocks.   As students begin to understand the concept better, they will gradually stop using the blocks and switch to drawing them instead.  As they master the concept, they can keep playing the same game, but on the abstract level- using only numbers instead of drawings or concrete materials.   This is a great strategy to use when you want the whole class to play the same game.  Start everyone out with the concrete materials and teach your students to switch to pictures and then numbers as they get more comfortable.  Of course, they can always draw it or use the blocks again if they get stuck!

Happy (Differentiated) Teaching!!
Christine Cadalzo