Games We Play: Connecting Mathematics and Culture in the Classroom

By Barta, James; Schaelling, Diane | Teaching Children Mathematics, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Games We Play: Connecting Mathematics and Culture in the Classroom


Barta, James, Schaelling, Diane, Teaching Children Mathematics


Throughout time, humans have invented games to play. Games can reflect many aspects of culture as the values, interests, and activities of the specific groups who played the games are studied. Anthropologists studying ancient peoples often discover that each group played games unique to its time, place, and environment. The rules for these games were invented and ritualized over time and typically modeled some aspect of reality, such as trading, hunting, warring, or strategic planning. The game materials were often found in the natural environments in which they were played.

Games help build community. They allow us to practice and enhance skills, challenge our intellect, and improve our ability to solve problems, all while we are having fun. Nearly everyone can remember the joy that he or she experienced as a child playing games. Games with sticks and balls, cans, ropes, or chalked hopscotch squares, to name a few, provide hours of enjoyment. They are a part of everyday life through which we learn many things.

Games also involve a great deal of mathematics, so much so that play is considered one of the six "universal mathematical activities" of all cultures (Bishop 1991). Games are rule governed and allow us to estimate, predict, and plan. They incorporate virtually every curricular standard set forth by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989), most specifically, estimation, probability, and operations. It seems only natural that educators should increase their use of games in the classroom, since playing them is an important human activity that affords substantial opportunities to experience and explore mathematics within the context of culture.

Students in Diane Schaelling's combined first- and second-grade class at Edith Bowen Laboratory School in Logan, Utah, use games to learn about both mathematics and culture. This article describes the mathematical experiences of her students as they were taught a version of one traditional Native American game adapted and played by various Native American groups. By illustrating how diverse indigenous cultures used mathematics to play games, Schaelling is able to connect mathematics and culture in her classroom. She teaches her students the games that these people played - and often still do! - and extends learning opportunities for her students by challenging them to create their own counting games.

Mathematics as Culture

Traditionally, in many classrooms, culture and mathematics are seldom mentioned in the same breath. When such a connection does occur, students learn about multicultural activities typical of people of the past. The mathematics is often far removed from the world that the students are experiencing. Although learning about multicultural mathematics activities from the past is important, students also need to understand that using mathematics is part of a living tradition. In addition, students who experience multicultural mathematics activities only of people unlike themselves may erroneously conclude that only "other" people invent mathematics or that people today do not continue to develop mathematical applications perfectly suited to their particular "culture." If they believe this fallacy, they may believe that they themselves are incapable of inventing ways to use mathematics.

Mathematics is a vital aspect of culture. It reflects the culture of the people doing it and is created congruently with all cultural aspects of those using it (Barta 1995). Teachers can stimulate their students to create culturally relevant mathematical activities that are based on artifacts easily found in the environments where the students live. Often, toys and materials that surround the students at home become the most effective vehicles for instruction. The teacher guides, facilitates, and extends the students' investigations that use these items and later encourages them to share their personal discoveries. Multiple concepts are explored simultaneously as students invent their own procedures. …

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