Apr 19

Online Playful Math: Engaging students in virtual math

When schooling quickly transitioned to online platforms last year, The Robertson Program was forced to reconceptualize how we would continue to engage educators and children in math and science education. Historically, we conduct our work in person because an essential part of teaching and learning is developing meaningful relationships. Could this be accomplished online? And could we have a direct impact on students’ learning?  

In May 2020, we launched Online Playful Math (OPM)The program uses a combination of Zoom and an online platform to engage small groups of Grade 2-8 students in math games. Facilitated by two instructors per groupstudents play math games tailored to their ability. This provides children an opportunity to practice skills and strategies they’ve developed but not yet refined, as well as build conceptual understanding. Instructors support the children’s development by asking them to explain their thinking and strategies.  

Instructors and students remain in the same group for the duration of the program, giving children time to build connections with one another, and time for instructors to build relationships with the students. Most importantly, the program provides opportunity for spontaneous math learning that results from game play. More information can be found on our OPM webpage.

Watch OPM in Action

Larisa Lam highlights the learning opportunities embedded in the games students play with instructors during OPM sessions.

Virtual learning presents a challenge because only certain children with specific skills are successful in online learning. Children who can learn independently, are highly motivated by intrinsic sources, and have strong time management, literacy, and technology skills have shown to be most successful in online learning1. This poses a problem because many children attend school to learn these exact skills. Given the limited information on the way children learn through virtual mediums, we set out to create something that was as dynamic and engaging as an in-person classroom could be. This is especially important in underserved communities where there is growing need for quality programming and tools so all children have the opportunity to learn and love math.

The Robertson Program has always known a play-based approach is key to engagement and accessibility for student learning – and not just in the early years!  A well-designed activity or game can be highly effective in teaching math2. Games have multiple components that foster learning and engagement. These include: an authentic challenge, multiple entry points for a variety of learners, the opportunity for children to have a variety of choices, including strategy, chance, collaboration, and learning from peers. Best of all, games bring people together – something severely missing from children’s lives when they stopped attending in-person school.  

However, not all games played in person translate well to online. After pilot testing with a small group of children, we learned that games involving speed were too difficult to implement and games requiring students to take turns ensured everyone got a chance to participate. Collaborative games have also been successful because they help to build relationships. In “solitaire pyramid,” children work together to remove all the cards from the pyramid by using adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing two cards in the pyramid to make their target number. Children enjoy giving each other hints and strategizing together.

We built a growing library of more than 13 games that instructors use and adapt each week with students. These games support many math skills, including numeracy, spatial reasoning and algebra. For example, in the place-value game “closest to,” children try to get closest to a target number. They can start off by making the highest number or the lowest number and then transition to getting closest to any number in between. There are also many adaptations to this game, such as adding up the sum of three rounds to make the largest number, or using a combination of operations to try to get to a target number. This game is easily played in-person or online. 

Try an OPM Game - Closest To!

The video above demonstrates how this strategic game,  develops students’ place value comprehension, probability skills, and social-emotional skills. Download the playingcards.io file and upload it at www.playingcards.io to play Closest To online with your students.

We planned to provide OPM to communities hit hardest by Covid-19. Families and educators of children from low-income or historically marginalized populations face access barriers to technology, internet, and quiet spaces for learning. We reached these communities through partnerships with non-profit organizations and offered the program at no-cost. We also collaborated with the Master of Arts in Child Study and Education program at OISE, University of Toronto, to recruit teacher candidates as OPM volunteer instructors.  

We were somewhat skeptical about whether the program would work, whether children would engage, and most importantly whether meaningful relationships could be formed. But in one year, more than 100 students have participated in Online Playful Math!  We’ve heard from parents who say OPM has had a real impact on their children’s learning. One parent let us know their child really appreciated the effort put forth by instructors to break down the steps required to complete a math problem. Another parent said her child loved how the math was presented in fun activities. 

“I believe OPM helped my son to enjoy math as a game and see different ways of math as a fun subject,” a parent told us. “It gave him something fun to look forward to do during this difficult time.”  

OPM has showed us children are amazingly resilient, adaptive, and eager to learn. In a time when children and families are dealing with uncertainty in so many ways, we’ve been invited into homes and allowed the opportunity to test out ideas about math learning online.  

Larisa Lam

Larisa Lam

Director, The Robertson Program

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