I’ve said it before. I will say it again. Games and puzzles are really and truly the best way to have mathy moments with your kids. First and foremost, they allow you to spend time with each other. Then there’s the math part, which can be sneaky, right? I mean, you and your kid are just having fun, playing a game…your kid doesn’t even KNOW that he’s practicing mental flexibility or grouping or visualization or computation skills or anything else that actually applies to mathematics! I implore you, though, to be aware of how YOU play…
A couple nights ago the eight-year-old asked if we could play Yahtzee. We had a brand-new still-in-plastic-wrap Yahtzee game, and he had never played before. Cool. I was so excited. I have warm memories of playing Yahtzee with my grandmother. Now I could be part of creating warm memories with my son. This was going to be great!
We opened up the box, pulled out the scorecard and dice, and started rolling. I immediately began to strategize. Should I go for the small straight or focus on a full house? Should I take a hit in the one’s category or save that for when I might need it later? I was giddy with the excitement of playing this game again – does that sound weird? It was true!
Then I rolled a Yahtzee.
The 8-year-old got very very upset. He declared that he was not playing anymore. There was a lot of whining. I’m not sure if there were tears because he was now hiding under his blanket. I pointed out that this was a game of chance (which is only partially true), and that things could turn his way. He would have none of it. He was done. He said he was going to get us a game of strategy rather than chance. He went upstairs and came down with Stratego. I don’t like playing Stratego. I’m sure I could parse that to find the underlying issue for my dislike of Stratego, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is my kid had given up on a game that he was losing and now wanted to play a game he was sure he could win. At least that’s how I saw it. I was angry. (I had been invested in that game!) I was worried. (Can my kid really not deal with losing?) I was tired. (I was willing to push bedtime for Yahtzee, but not for Stratego.)
I took a deep breath. I muttered a little bit. And I played that game. I did not play well…my strategy was to get us to bed ASAP. While I quietly fumed and worried and yawned, the 8-year-old happily played. When he beat me, I congratulated him. He went up to bed smoothly and swiftly.
I am writing all this detail about our failed attempt at Yahtzee because while games are awesome for developing math skills, like anything else we do with our kids, our own issues and history and temperaments affect what happens. If we can step back (or slightly to the side) then our own worries and issues (i.e. my kid can’t deal with losing, I can’t deal with losing, I hate this game, I hate all games, etc. etc.) can fade a little bit. I faked it the other night by pretending I was okay with playing Stratego. And thank goodness I did, because here’s what happened next…
The following night, the eight-year-old asked if we could play Yahtzee again but a different way. Hmm. A different way? How so? He suggested we be a team and work together to roll all the categories. Oh. Now there’s a nice idea. So that’s what we did.
He rolled. Together we decided whether to go for the full house or the large straight. He rolled again. We got the straight. I rolled. Together we decided to shoot for 4 of kind while hoping for a Yahtzee. We didn’t get the Yahtzee. And on it went. We succeeded together. We were disappointed together. Along the way, the 8-year-old added dice and tallied our score. We talked about percentages and odds. We discussed whether it was better to record the two 1’s or the two 6’s we rolled in one turn. We laughed. We cried. (Okay, we did not cry. But we did laugh. That part was nice.)
Today we taught the 5-year-old and his dad how to play Yahtzee. They were a team and the 8-year-old and I were a team. When Dad rolled a Yahtzee and started doing a victory dance, we all joined in. No one ran upstairs for a different game.
(Mathematically…Yahtzee is a fantastic game for early elementary kids. Be flexible. Meet your kids where they are…meaning adjust the rules if you need to. At the very least, Yahtzee is an exercise in counting. It’s also provides practice with connecting visual representations of numbers (dots) with symbolic representations (written). It’s also super fun to make a lot of noise while rolling the 5 dice out of the cup. Older elementary kids will benefit from practice with quickly combining numbers and beginning to think about strategy. Because the game comes with scorecards, kids will also get to practice organizing their “data” and lining up numbers vertically. Bring in ideas of probability by asking kids to think about the chances of rolling the number they want. The chance of rolling a particular number on one die is 1/6. The chance of rolling a particular number on at least one of two dice is 1/6 + 1/6. The chance of rolling a particular number on both of two dice is 1/6 x 1/6. Again, it doesn’t actually matter how much math you understand. Your child will benefit from simply playing, even if you never talk about the math they are doing. Sneaky!)