My favorite math activity for young children
Experience has taught me that there are many parents of young children who are already worried about SAT scores and college admissions. Some of you may find you way to this blog. This post is for you. I originally wrote it in response to a question on Quora. I decided to be lazy and let it do double duty. :)
My favorite math activity is “The Chips Game”. I didn’t invent it; I read about it somewhere – I wish I could remember where - and have since adapted it to suit many purposes.
To play the chips game you need 3 colors of poker chips and dice. One color of chip is worth one point, a second color is worth ten points and the third color is worth one hundred points. Roll the dice. The number you roll is the number of chips you earn. You earn one-point chips. Once you have 10 you can trade them for a ten-point chip. The goal is to trade in 10 ten-point chips for a hundred-point chip. Notice that place value and “regrouping” are intrinsic to the game.
It sounds too simple to be either fun or educational, but the game is highly adaptable and the real value lies in the modeling and conversation that happen when you play. For example, when you play with your three-year-old (which I’ve done) you can emphasize the counting. If you roll a 12, then at first you would count out 12 chips and then trade 10 of them, but eventually you should model taking a ten-point chip and two one-point chips. Allow your child to do what feels comfortable, but when it’s your turn model the next step up. When you play with a fourth grade student (which I’ve also done) you can multiply the dice and talk about probability: “What must I roll to catch up with you? Am I likely to roll at least that?”
You can start with one six-sided die and then add another six-sided die so that the child must add the numbers on the dice. You can use dice with more than six sides. You can have a die that represents the number of chips you earn and a second or third die that represents the number of chips you LOSE, which introduces subtraction with regrouping and negative numbers as well as making probability conversations more interesting.
Note that whether or not you win is completely based on luck. There is no skill involved. Very young children may not understand that and they find games that they win more often than not to be more fun, so when you play with your three-year-old for the first time, cheat so that s/he wins. Also if you feel his or her attention start to wane before anyone earns a hundred-point chip, then either quit while your child is ahead, or add more dice to get there faster.