Managing Math Games: 6 Structures for Elementary Teachers

I love using math games in my elementary school classroom. But they can be difficult to organize, especially if you’re trying to differentiate and manage student behavior at the same time. Here are some structures for managing math games in a way that helps everyone have fun while learning or reviewing math concepts.

1. “I’m Done” Work

Best for: 
every day routine
differentiating by standard
developing concepts over time
spiraled review
building understanding within the current unit
How it works: After the lesson, the students work on their independent/ partner work in their math book.  When they complete it, they keep the book open to that page and turn it upside down on their desk.  Then, they can go to the carpet/ math game area to choose from the menu of math games for that unit.  While the students are playing, a student “checker” goes around to check the work in the math book.  They leave a sticker for work well done and put the book back in the person’s desk.  If there are mistakes, the checker calls the person back and helps them understand their error. Students can choose from a “menu” of math games related to the current unit, or those from previous units that relate to the current unit.  The teacher can differentiate by assigning students specific games to play.  When games from previous units are added, students are exposed to a spiraled review. 

2.Math Game Day

Best for:
reviewing previous content
sparking strategy conversations
writing reflections
Friday afternoons
that last week of December/ June
How it works: Instead of teaching a typical lesson with new material, use the math period to have a game day.  The whole class plays the same game, but in pairs or small groups.  You can start off by playing a round or two of “Class vs. Teacher,” being transparent with your strategy and thinking aloud, so the kids see how the game is played and start thinking strategically.  Once the students start playing in their groups, you can circulate to ask questions and assess learning.  Stop for a mid-workshop interruption or two to point out excellent strategies, ask higher order questions, and have students verbalize their strategies.  At the end of Game Day, students can complete a reflection or write about a strategy they used. 

3.Differentiation Rotations (for math games)

Best for:
differentiation within one standard
differentiating above/ below grade level
pushing for mastery before an assessment/ end of unit
when you need EVERYONE to get it
review day
How it works: This structure is basically a leveled differentiation of Game Day.  It uses the whole period, just like Game Day, but in this version, students can “level up” when they master one variation of the game.  For example, if you are working on multiplication, students can start with a basic game like Circles and Stars (Roll the dice, draw that many circles.  Roll it again, draw that many stars in each circle.  Count/ add/ multiply to find the total/ score.)  and can work their way up to a version where they are multiplying with hundreds and thousands or with three factors. Vary the same game to create different stations for each level.  

As you circulate and see that a student is becoming fluent at one station, they can “level up” to the next station.  As the period progresses, you’ll be able to see who is stuck at a certain level and provide them with a student mentor to help them become more fluent.  I always like to be transparent with students and tell them which level they should be able to reach in order to be on grade level, and which levels are actually above their grade level.  By keeping a record of where each student is at the end of the period, I’ll know where to start them off next time, which games to send home for extra practice, or what reteaching/ enrichment needs to be done.  You can also get a sense of where the class is as  whole and whether or not they are ready to move on to the next concept. 

4. Family Time or Home/ School Connection

Best for:
family night
vacation “homework”
strengthening home/school connections
building school community
supporting a student who is far behind/ ahead
How it works: Create bags or boxes with math game materials for students to take home and play for homework or over vacation.  Use a sign out sheet and a student record/ reflection sheet to keep kids accountable.  If your school has a game night, you can set up stations with different games for families to play, and even have game materials for families to take home.  If you have a student who is far behind or ahead of grade level, you can send a relevant math game home for practice or enrichment.

5.Indoor Recess/ After School

Best for:
if you have volunteers/ non-teaching staff
indoor recess
making down time productive
How it works: You don’t have to be the only one managing math games! Volunteers or aides can play math games with students during indoor recess or after school. This requires reaching out to volunteers or other staff, but the benefits for student learning can really pay off! You can also leave a substitute a carefully chosen math game to play.

6. Creating Time for Math Small Groups

Best for:

when you need to pull a small group for reteaching
when you want to pull a small group for enrichment
How it works:
Whenever teachers talk about small groups, we always ask, “But what is the rest of the class doing during this time?” Playing math games! And of course, they already know the rules and routines because they play math games all the time. Now you can have a leisurely small group conversation about why all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares or have unlimited time and patience when explaining rounding for the umpteenth time…sort of.

For even more ideas on managing math games in the elementary school classroom, check out this Pinterest board.

Happy (Math Game) Teaching!!
Christine Cadalzo