Future Reflections                                                                                     Spring/Summer 2004

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How to Use a Popular Game as a Teaching Tool—and Still Have Fun!

by Sally Miller

Anna Miller
Anna Miller

Editor’s Note: Sally Miller is the president of the South Carolina Parents of Blind Children, the parent of Anna Miller, and a regular contributor to Future Reflections. Sally is always finding creative ways to turn life experiences into learning opportunities. Here she shares her ideas on how to turn the popular game, Mancala, into a math-teaching tool:

While attending the NFB national convention last year a teenager recommended a great game to my daughter. I’d like to share with you how we learned to play this fascinating game—and how we adapted it to meet my daughter’s math needs.

The game is Mancala, a folk game that helps concentration skills, develops math skills, and is easy to learn.  It can be played by both young and old, blind and sighted. It requires no adaptations or modifications. I started hunting for this game as soon as we got home. Much to my surprise I didn’t find it in an expensive toy store (although I later bought one there, too), but I found and bought a cheap plastic game board and pieces at an outlet store at the cost of $1.99.

To play the game you distribute four small plastic animal playing pieces into each player’s set of six cups, and begin play. The objective is to get more playing pieces in your own Mancala (each player has one of these storage bins at the end of the playing board) than the other player. Sounds simple? Well, it is. Two players take turns picking up all the pieces in one of the cups, distributing one piece in each cup and the Mancala, in a counterclockwise direction. As you move around the board you begin to discover strategies to keep more pieces in your own Mancala than you give to the other player. When one player has moved all of his playing pieces out of his cups, he declares “Mancala,” and the game ends. We found that if Anna placed her hands loosely over the Mancala at each end of the board at the same time she could estimate who had gotten the most number of pieces in his or her Mancala, and therefore, be declared the winner. This is an easy concept to reinforce in this manner.

It was fun, and since each game can be won in a matter of a few short minutes, we played it again and again.

Then the unthinkable happened. We lost one of the playing pieces. That put an end to that game. We needed to find a replacement—FAST! What would it be?

More out of desperation than anything else, we chose pennies. There are usually plenty of them and they would fit in the cups. We gathered forty-eight pennies and began to play again. That’s when we found out what a fortuitous choice we had made. On each turn, as she moved her pennies around the board, my daughter counted the value of the coins.

For example, if there were four pennies she counted 4 cents; if there were 9 pennies she counted to 9 cents. Slowly we introduced a few dimes to help her distinguish between the two types of coins. We advised her to count the coins of more value first (the dimes) and then the coins of lesser value (the pennies). For example, one dime and three pennies would be counted 10 cents, 11 cents, 12 cents, and 13 cents. We reinforced the concept of counting pennies by ones and the dimes by tens. We used different quantities of dimes and pennies to vary the game.

Eventually, we began to add some nickels to the mix, reminding her to count by five’s, and to count coins with the highest value first (dimes), lesser value next (nickels), and the lowest value last (pennies). The more our daughter handled the coins the more confident she became.

Quarters were the last coin we added. We discussed their value (25 cents) and counted up to the four quarters by value (25 cents, 50 cents, 75 cents, 100 cents or one dollar). And then, we gradually added quarters to the dimes, nickels, and pennies. Our daughter was so fascinated by all of this that she didn’t realize she was learning while having fun.

In the future we plan to use this game to work with multiplication. For example: 2 sets of 2 equal 4 (2 playing pieces each in 2 cups) and is the same as 2 + 2 = 4; or 2 x 2 = 4.

Mancala is easy to learn, and people are fascinated by it. As a result, they want to learn to play. Children of all ages can participate: children can play with adults; children can play with children; adults can play with adults. We hope you have as much fun with this game as we have, and that it will help you make as many new friends as it has brought to us.

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