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Sick as a carrot

Traditional maths games and puzzles are much more effective if they're given an imaginative twist, says Mark Edwards

Most children love good stories that will engage them through their setting, mood, atmosphere and characters. Literacy teachers are well aware of this and know that children can be motivated to write through the use of good literature.

For reasons that are not easily explained (and ones that certainly can't be reduced to a "tick-box" ), the human mind seems to relish metaphor and imagery - witness the phenomenal success of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. But why should literacy teachers have all the fun? Mathematical thinking skills can also be developed in the same way.

I noticed at Christmas that a certain board game - one which involves a high degree of skill in the probability section of the national numeracy strategy - has re-surfaced in a Lord of the Rings guise. It would seem that board game producers have spotted that children are far more intrigued by games that involve character and setting than those which don't.

It seems people are more motivated to win games or solve puzzles and problems if they have some sort of emotional connection with what is going on. Whether it is real or not is irrelevant; the point is that on some level, we are fully engaged. Our conscious mind might say "it's only a game" but another part of you feels that yes, this is important stuff. So somehow, we do what's required.

Nim is a centuries old game that can be played with stones, buttons, matchsticks or any similar easily accessible items. Two players begin with 20 objects on the table. They take it in turns to remove either one, two or three objects from the group until only one is left. Whoever is left with the last one to take loses the game. A few games combined with a bit of logical thinking will ensure that the person whose turn is first can guarantee winning every time.

I first became aware of Nim when working as an advisory teacher of mathematics in the 1980s, when schools were encouraged to develop mathematical thinking using games and puzzles. However, I was surprised to find there was little enthusiasm for this and similar games among most primary children. There was initial interest but little motivation to avoid being left with the last matchstick.

I can't remember if I saw the idea, or whether it just came to me in a flash of inspiration, but the next time I introduced Nim to a group, I presented it as Poisoned Carrot. Instead of using matchsticks, I cut out 19 bright orange carrots, and one nasty-looking black one, and then placed them face-up on the table. Whoever was left with the "poisoned carrot" was the loser.

This simple alteration transformed the game for the children who now played excitedly and were noticeably more adept at working out ways to avoid being left with the last carrot.

I realised it was because there was a deeper connection with the activity than the purely cognitive. The mathematical thinking was the same but the addition of an emotional content gave a new motivation.

It's not easy for the over-stretched teacher to find imaginative ways of approaching the curriculum in today's target-orientated and time-limited classroom. But I believe it's essential if we are to develop children's abilities to think intuitively as well as logically. The world "out there" is constantly telling educators we need young people who can "problem-solve" and "think outside the box", perhaps this is one approach that needs further exploration.

Mark Edwards is an in-service trainer and writer

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