Using Yahtzee to Teach Math
August 16, 2021
Most modern tabletop and board games aren’t interested in teaching you anything. That’s where Yahtzee is different. Yahtzee’s number-based gameplay system is the perfect delivery method for teaching math. From basic math skills like matching and counting to advanced concepts such as probability, statistics, and game theory, Yahtzee is a great addition to the math teacher’s repertoire.
A collective groan annually cascades around the world as summer vacation nears its inevitable end. But the back-to-school season doesn’t have to lead to misery and toil. Students and teachers alike can keep the good times rolling by playing Yahtzee at school. Don’t worry, it’s not a sign of delinquency or disinterest – in fact, just the opposite. Yahtzee is a powerful tool to teach math skills in a fun and engaging way.
Yahtzee has a long history in supplemental learning. In fact, the original 1956 set was marketed as “the game that makes thinking fun.” The tagline was eventually replaced with snappier language but Yahtzee’s performance as a mathematics explorer remains unparalleled. As a classic numbers game, it can be used to teach math students of all ages, from preschool aged kids through to adults. Standard gameplay involves a variety of mathematical concepts that can be used to illustrate techniques like counting, adding, and other basic skills to more complex ideas like probability and statistics.
Yahtzee is one of the few games that can be truly enjoyed by players of all ages. As a rare example of a board game with a broad intergenerational fanbase, its potential to boost math skills among a large swathe of the population is likewise vast. Educators can exploit Yahtzee’s popularity to reinforce an array of math skills to learners at all levels.
Yahtzee in the Classroom
When using Yahtzee as a teaching aid, it is important to clearly communicate the game’s structure and its relation to mathematical concepts, especially for younger learners. Begin each lesson with a standard overview that covers the major topics in an engaging way:
- Reinforce the definition of the mathematical concept by stating, for example: "Addition is the joining of two or more numbers to get one number called the sum."
- Introduce Yahtzee and explain the rules of the game.
- Model how to play Yahtzee.
- Model how to use the dice properly. Encourage small rolls that stay on the table or risk dice flying everywhere and children spending more time retrieving dice than playing the game.
- Reinforce the definition of the mathematical concept during gameplay and assist the students in identifying it in practice.
Practice, reinforcement, and repetition are the keys to an effective teacher-learner relationship. Yahtzee’s dual nature as a rational numbers game with a free-wheeling sense of fun makes it an ideal vessel for transmitting math knowledge while keeping your students yearning for more.
The basis of mathematical understanding is an ability to count numbers in sequence. Since Yahtzee is built upon a foundation of counting numbers, they are a variety of ways to reinforce the skill through game play.
The youngest math learners can practice counting using the pips on a die. Have them roll a single die and count the dots to determine the number. Increase the number of dice as needed. Gradually move up to skip counting, or counting by intervals other than one, as a more advanced technique. Calculating the Upper Section Bonus is a natural way to introduce the concept. Count by threes, for example, to figure the possible scoring opportunities in that category: 3, 6, 9, 12, 15.
One of the most basic math skills that can be taught with Yahtzee is the ability to substitize, or instantly recognize how many objects are in a small set. Dice provide a perfect example of subitizing in action; when you roll a die and you see four dots on top, you immediately recognize it as representing a quantity of four. You don't need to count each dot on the die face to figure it out – it’s obvious at a glance.
Subitizing allows for rapid, accurate, and confident judgments of numbers when performed for a small number of items. But once there are more than four items to count, judgments are made with decreasing accuracy and confidence. In addition, response times rise in a dramatic fashion, with an extra 250–350 milliseconds needed for each additional item within the display beyond about four. A similar pattern of reaction times is found in young children, although with steeper slopes for both the subitizing range and the enumeration range.
In the 1990s, babies three weeks old were shown to differentiate between one to three objects, that is, to subitize. By the age of seven that ability increases to between four and seven objects. But subitization is also used to help organize very large numbers. One of the most basic applications is in digit grouping in large numbers, which allow one to tell the size at a glance, rather than having to count. For example, writing one million as 1,000,000 instead of 1000000 acts to divide the number into smaller units, making it much easier to read quickly.
Young children will benefit most from subitizing exercises. At this age, rolling an entire game of Yahtzee is not required – you just want to get the kids familiarized with dice mechanics and identifying small number sets. Practice makes perfect – keep them rolling dice and shouting out numbers to flex their subitization muscles. Use a simple scorecard for students to record their numbers.
Subitizing allows students to move away from counting by ones to seeing numbers as chunks and is a vital skill to master in a child’s early mathematics development. The pips on dice are a great example of an organized or structured arrangement. Kindergarten and 1st graders will benefit from daily Yahtzee instruction all year long.
As a child is mastering subitizing small numbers, new skills can be introduced. Simple number recognition is reinforced through matching. Have the players roll a die and identify the number as quickly as they can. They then roll a second die and determine if they have a match. Scale up with more dice and to make matches with specific scoring combinations, like the Full House.