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Psychology of games in math and education: 6 reasons they really work

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Why do math games really work in the classroom? At school, kids go from total apathy to delight and excitement when they put their math books away and play a game instead.


The reason games work is rooted in basic psychological principles of human behavior:

  1. People love rewards. Games reward positive behaviors by providing immediate feedback for appropriate responses. When kids get an answer right on an assignment or test, they typically have to wait for the teacher to grade the paper, offer feedback, and return it to them. Often, by the time the student has received the paper back, they have already forgotten about the assignment and the enthusiasm has worn off. The immediate rewards that games offer reinforce behavior in powerful ways. And behaviors which are reinforced are likely to be repeated.

  2. People hate punishment. English teachers learned a long time ago how too many red marks result in students becoming discouraged in their writing work. Instead of so many red marks, some teacher workshops have encouraged teachers to refrain from using red pens, and only use black or other colors. In addition, they are told to focus on what students did right, rather than what they did wrong. Games in math and other subjects which focus on rewarding what is done right result in higher learning curves than those which only focus on the negatives.

  3. Games are chemically based! This article actually supports the idea that the neurotransmitter dopamine is increased in interactive game play, creating positive feelings, and boosting learning potential. We’re wired for it.

  4. Games can apply all of the basic principles of the learning process. Attributes such as motivation, positive reinforcement, and involvement are always present in a positive learning environment. Games which utilize these techniques result in higher retention and learning rates.

  5. Games are social. Games like “Restaurant Math,” or other in-class games, as well as online and mobile games encourage interactivity not only with the game, but with other students and peers. Peer interaction is a powerful motivator.

  6. Games are fun! Perhaps one of the most obvious reasons kids do well with math games is that they are having a blast! Add up the effects of a rewarding, engaging, social experience, and you have a fun experience. Shouldn’t all learning be more fun?

What about the problem of kids being on their mobile devices and computers too much? Is it really a problem? Perhaps it can be, if your child is forsaking many other valuable experiences and finding it difficult to be social or meet basic obligations.

However, if your child is reluctant to do math, which do you think would be more appealing to him or her: a math book with a hundred problems to work through, or a fun math game with bells and whistles?

In this discussion of the important components of learning, you’ll notice that some of the most important ones are those already present in games: interaction, independence, interactivity, reward, and frequent feedback.

So, in our day and age of endless technology, rather than punish kids for being so glued to their gadgetry, perhaps the thing to do is to fill it with educational, fun applications that they can actually learn from.

An occasional game of “Angry Birds” is fine, if your child spends time on skills that really increase his or her learning and retention. Online and tablet-based games are a great place to start. Look for fun, engaging games that apply all of the components of effective learning processes.

Despite concerns about too much screen time, let’s remember that learning math from a book is not inherently better for some reason than math on a screen. Math is a concrete skill and one that should be taught in an interesting way, especially with reluctant learners.

Of course, computer games are not the only solution. Involving students in the process of mathematical reasoning both in the classroom, in the real world, and through games can incite interest in learning math that was not present before. Most students require a number of different modalities in order to effectively learn math, because math problems in real life present themselves in many and varied ways.

At a recent teacher workshop, a speaker asked, “How do you get and keep students’ attention today in our endless world of gadgetry?” The answer: You have to be the most interesting channel. Games can be that interesting channel, and help create students who love to learn.

Note: Content contribution from Noelle Eberts, who has a passion for connecting children to the possibilities that math can unlock. She writes independently for and is a great resource for all kinds of kid's math games. Noelle is a part-time math tutor and a full-time Mom.

Contact: Marv Dumon at



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