4 Reasons Play and Math Go Together

March 8, 2022

We could all be having so much more fun. — Paul Lockhart, A Mathematician’s Lament

Everyone deserves a chance to experience what makes people fall in love in mathematics. We founded Math for Love on that principle, and we’ve been looking, relentlessly, for the best ways to share the beauty, joy, meaning, and power of mathematics.

Increasingly, the invitation to play with math feels like the secret sauce to transforming how math gets taught and learned. The connection between play and learning generally, and play and math specifically, goes back a long time, and the connections between play and early learning have been extensively researched. If you look at the language and approach from some of the most dynamic thinkers in the field, the invitation to play is front and center. Martin Gardner’s legendary and hugely influential column in Scientific American was called Mathematical Games for a reason; similarly, Mathigon calls itself “The Mathematical Playground,” and extraordinarily popular math Youtubers like 3blue1brown and VSauce put playing with mathematical ideas front and center. (Sidebar: how else is it possible that VSauce made a video about the highly technical Banach-Tarski paradox that has 37 million views!?)

But even if a vanguard loved the idea, and even if some teachers used the spirit of play to animate their math classrooms, could a play-based approach be implemented at scale? And if so, would it be rigorous enough, and not just a flaky excuse to skip the real work of learning math?

These were genuine questions. I’m now ready to answer them: yes. We’ve seen districts implementing mathematics with a play-based approach, and seeing results in student attitudes, teacher morale, and straight-up test scores.  There’s a huge, untapped possibility to improve math teaching and learning that is more playful and more rigorous than how most of us learned the subject back in the day.

Here’s how I know, and how to make it happen.

1. Play helps students like math more, and care more about learning it

Teachers who taught using our Math for Love Summer Curriculum have been nearly unanimous: a play-based approach is simply better. It’s healthier, everyone has a better time, the students learn more, and they feel more positively about math and about school. The survey feedback from teachers on this topic are astounding: 97% of the teachers told us that students feel more positively about math and their capacity to learn.

The long-form feedback from teachers tells a story that’s even more affecting.

  • “I wish I could explain the vibe I felt at each site…it was calm, fun, warm–it felt like school used to feel. Thank you for supporting us in making this happen. If it doesn’t impact math achievement (which it surely will), it had a profound impact on teacher morale and student belongingness.”
  • “I absolutely loved the Math for Love curriculum. The students loved it as well. They often said the new games and activities were their favorite parts of the day… [T]he students engaged in critical thinking, mathematical discussions, risk taking, and working through challenges. In my opinion, that is the best way for us to engage students in math. It was the most fun I had teaching math.”
  • “The kids were so happy and had fun, and LOVED telling me how they figured something out… I know that the kids will return to school with a greater acceptance of math, and without that, “I hate math,” attitude.”

2. Play helps the test scores go up

For close to 1500 students who participated in Seattle’s 2017 Summer Staircase, which used our play-based Math for Love Summer Curriculum, the move from pre-assessment to post-assessment showed an 18-point gain. That’s a 38% increase from pre to post, which is enormous. The improvements were shared by students across all ranges of background, demographic, or test scores on entry. The number of students who scored 90 or higher more than tripled from 94 to 301. The number of students scoring below 50 more than halved from 714 to 345.

It shouldn’t be surprising. Building the kinds of skills that these tests often look for requires a lot of repetition, and it’s way more fun to practice those skills with games like Salute or Odd Pig Out, as well as openers and rich tasks.

It’s good to be able to say that the work that’s playful, joyful, and empowering also raises the test scores.

We heard from so many people who said they wanted a math program that would be humane for students and teachers stressed out by all the craziness of the last few years. And it’s good to be able to say that the work that’s playful, joyful, and empowering also raises the test scores.

The invitation to play with rigorous ideas is motivating, and motivated students are easier to teach… since they want to learn.

3. A playful approach helps teachers better understand where their students are, and what they need.

One of the moments I began to fully appreciate just how valuable a play-based approach was for formative assessment came when a teacher reluctantly joined our first series of Math Teacher Circles in 2012, at the urging of her co-teacher. She learned a game in the sessions (Don’t Break the Bank) and took it back to her classroom. During our next meeting, she reported back. “I found out some of my students don’t know how to add.”

It was March. She taught third grade. She had students who had been hiding and faking it for months. But when the game came out, they WANTED to play. And that meant they asked for help. And they didn’t just ask her; they started talking to their classmates to get in on the game. Not only could she diagnose a problem… it was solving itself, since the students now wanted to learn.

Fundamentally, the invitation to play with rigorous ideas is motivating, and motivated students are easier to teach at every level, since they want to learn. They’re also more forthcoming about what they know and don’t know, since a playful environment is fundamentally low-stakes, and that allows people to learn what they don’t know, rather than worrying about how it makes them look stupid. And many times, the activity that diagnosed the issues helps to suggest what to do about it too.

4. A playful approach helps teachers grow in their practice

Some of the most amazing responses we had from programs using the Math for Love curriculum was that teachers who used it in the summer continued to draw on it in subsequent years. The teachers told us this, and so did the math coaches and administration, who send us emails months into the next school year to say how blown away they are that teacher practices are growing and changing.

100%(!!) of teachers reported that they intended to use at least one of our lessons or games in the upcoming school year, and over 4 in 5 said they intended to use many. And that’s exactly what happened.

This isn’t a small thing. Effective professional development is hard, and there are too many inertial forces that prevent people from changing even when they want to. When teachers have training, administrative backing, and curricular materials that all support a play-based approach, it impacts how they approach teaching too. And just like play improves student learning and motivation, the spirit of play helps teachers enjoy their work more, approach it more creatively, and learn more about how they want to teach.

On this topic, 100%(!!) of teachers reported that they intended to use at least one of our lessons or games in the upcoming school year, and over 4 in 5 said they intended to use many. And that’s exactly what happened.

  • “Not only was it fun, engaging, and effective for the students, it helped my ongoing dream of encouraging more play-based, gamifying of our math program. To that end, we have more teachers open and receptive to the use of games during this school year. Our instructional coaches… are also on board with this and I AM THRILLED!”
  • “…The program did what it was supposed to do for summer intervention AND it helped shift teaching practices for the general school year too in that the value of math games and routines was made evident😊”
  • “I felt respected as an educator because we were provided with excellent materials and then we were allowed to teach to our students needs how we saw fit. On the whole, it was a successful program and I really hope this model is emulated during the regular school year.”

“I really hope this model is emulated during the regular school year.”

Our program is available now for summer programs (or as a supplemental curriculum). But it’s unlikely we’ll have the capacity to write a full-year play-based curriculum. My hope is that the ethos of approach learning through play and the understanding that play supports rigor and motivates deeper learning can animate the curriculum produced by larger entities. A play-based approach mimics what mathematicians and scientists actually do in their work. And when you take a play-based approach in the classroom, you get students learning more and having a better time.

(By the way, if you’re interested in talking to me about adopting our curriculum this summer, just email me at dan@mathforlove.com)

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Jen Baker
2 months ago

YES! This is extremely exciting. I work at a school that has a high focus on 2e kids and we are a play based Forest School. Please, let’s talk!

2 months ago

I’m finishing my Masters in Education in Special Education thesis on this very subject and I’d have to say that current research backs up everything you are saying. However, as we all know, this doesn’t necessarily translate into school districts showing leadership in this regard. If the gaps in learning that have grown over the past two years can’t be a wake up call, I’m not sure what will. I’d love to hear more about what school districts are doing.

Axel Shaw
Axel Shaw
2 months ago

Your website makes me so happy, Dan. As a Math teacher to primary kids (here in New Zealand), you have fed my practice for years. I am very grateful for all the work you and your team put out to the world. I love Maths (as it’s called here), but it was not always the case. As a matter of fact, like so many of my students, I used to hate it and fear it. It wasn’t until recently, as an adult, that my love for it sprouted – thanks to people like you (this makes a great story, which… Read more »