Who says the only way for students to learn their math facts is to memorize them via traditional methods? While learning math facts is an important part of improving math comprehension, students can also play math games to further their comprehension of math curriculum.

Whether students use computer gaming consoles to play educational math games or prefer the pen and paper methods, evidence suggests playing math games improves math skills. This article explores the benefits of traditional pen and paper math games.

Many people enjoy working on grid puzzles as small, quick challenges of their mathematical and logical skills. Here is one you may not have seen, the OkiDoku. How does it work? Looking at the grid above, try to find four different numbers and put them in these 16 squares in a way that will satisfy the following two conditions:

- Each of these four numbers must appear exactly once in each row and in each column.
- The blocks with thick borders are called cages. Each cage shows a target number and a mathematical operation. The operation applied to the numbers in the cage should produce the target number. For example, there is a cage in the first row with a target number of 20 and a mathematical operation of multiplication. The puzzle solver should put three numbers in the cage so that the product of these numbers is 20.

Give it a try.

The most famous of all grid puzzles is the Sudoku, a logic puzzle found in a vast majority of newspapers. Some of you may have encountered a mathematical grid puzzle called KENKEN® that appears in more than 100 national U.S. publications. KENKEN® was invented by Japanese teacher Tetsuya Miyamoto and introduced in the United States by NexToy, Inc.

Professors Dani Novak and David Rosenthal of Ithaca College have created a similar puzzle called OkiDoku and used it to make learning math an enjoyable experience. Several other grid puzzles appear at a popular puzzle website called ConceptIsPuzzles. On the average, a whopping 20 million puzzles developed by this website are solved every day by adults and kids around the world. Clearly, there are many people who choose to solve grid puzzles as a recreational activity.

## Motivation to Learn

Because many students enjoy working on these puzzles, they can be easily motivated to adopt learning strategies that will improve their puzzle-solving skills. Grid number puzzles provide strong intrinsic motivation to solve for unknown numbers from a handful of clues. As many math problems have a similar form, students who enjoy solving these puzzles can develop positive attitudes toward other forms of math in non-puzzle contexts as well. I have taught puzzle math to students in grades three to six. In these classes, I have found that students show a significant positive change in their attitudes toward math after a year of recreational math activities. Professor Harold Reiter of University of North Carolina, along with Professor Novak of Ithaca, also found that teaching puzzle math has a positive influence on student attitudes towards math.

## Educational Value of Puzzles

Even without supervision, students can learn to be creative and persistent after working on many hard grid puzzles. In my classes, I augment self-exploration of grid puzzles with a guided exploration that teaches problem-solving, reflective learning and algebra techniques.

Let me illustrate this with the puzzle shown at the beginning of this post. Even though we can use the creative problem-solving and logical reasoning approaches that we usually use in solving puzzles, we can progress a bit faster on the above puzzle with some help from algebra.

Suppose the top number in the 11+ cage is *x* and the bottom number in the same cage is *y*.

We know that each row has to have the same four numbers. So the product of all numbers in each row is the same. As the product of first three numbers in the first row is given to be 20 and the fourth number is *x*, the product of all numbers in the first row is 20*x*. As the product of the first three numbers in the second row is given to be 35 and the fourth number is *y*, the product of all numbers in the second row is 35*y*. As the product of all numbers in the first row is the same as the product of all numbers in the second row, we know that 20*x* = 35*y*. We have also been given the clue in the 11+ cage that *x* + *y* = 11.

So what we have is a set of equations:

20*x* = 35*y*

*x* + *y* = 11

This is now an algebra problem. The use of algebra to solve a problem that students are deeply engaged in allows them to appreciate the power of algebra and also provides a strong motivation to study algebra.

Continue reading Recreational and Educational Value of Math Puzzles