Eight Great Ways to Learn Algebra Thinking with Games

By: Mary Kienstra on: July 27, 2017  in: algebra, Engagement, Marcy Cook math, Math, , ,

The best games in the classroom have kids totally engaged and learning while they think they are playing.  With games, kids can practice a variety of skills as well as strategic thinking.  The idea is to give kids eight great ways to learn Algebra.  With games. And this is before they ever see an equation with an unknown.

1. Marcy Cook’s Weight Logic:  This is one of the best ways to engage kids in Algebraic thinking before they have even heard of Algebraic thinking.  These engaging problems are hand drawn and show fruit on balances. In my class, students solve a few of these in succession and then discuss their strategies.  I’ve also created variations of Marcy’s problems to incorporate decimals and fractions into these same problems.  Kids love them.  See my earlier post about this. 

These are the representations in Marcy’s book

These are my variations of Marcy’s problems, as solved by my students

Marcy Cook’s book


2. Solve Me:  Have you seen this site?  The Solve Me site includes mobiles with shapes to represent unknowns.  These puzzles include visual representations to solve puzzles that involve Algebraic thinking.  The illustrations below are examples of two different kinds of mobiles found on the Solve Me site.  The 220 mobiles range from easy to much more challenging, but always engaging.  Since this is a website, it is accessible on Chromebooks or iPads too.  If you love Algebra, you might get hooked on these too!  See my earlier post about this.

Problem 1: What are the possibilities?

Visual thinking


3. MashUpMath: Or as my students call this “emoji math”:   Why is it that when you use emojis for the unknowns, the students can solve these problems easily?  Check out www.mashupath.com for challenge problems and the ebook for a variety of emoji math problems.  Fabulous! These problems seem much more like puzzles and challenge kids to find out the value of each emoji.  Essentially, they are solving for multiple unknowns, yet enjoying it!  See my earlier post about this.

Mashupmath’s emoji math challenges engage kids in solving puzzles.

4. Hands on Equations:  Making Algebra equations a hands on activity is the goal for this strategy. This approach to solving equations is actually a patented kit from Henry Borensen and Associates.  Their website shows how this works.  My students have used the paper/pencil version with the physical pieces to solve Algebra equations, but there is also an iPad app that teaches this method using virtual practice. The Hands On Equation system makes the complex world of abstract math accessible to all students by making it concrete, moving pieces to represent unknowns.  It’s engaging and interesting for kids. I highly recommend it!  See my earlier post about this. 

Students build a model of the equation.


5. Marcy Cook’s Algebra Cards:  These cards are another example from Marcy Cook Math, involving thinking of algebra in a more abstract way.  Students use these cards with tiles to solve a group of equations.  The cards provide essential feedback as the student works to solve them, fitting the digit tiles in.

An example of a Marcy Cook Algebra Tile.


6. Greg Tang Math Expresso:   Sometimes solving Algebra equations involves figuring out which operations to use instead of solving for an unknown.  Anything on Greg Tang’s website is worthwhile, but this one is fabulous!   Since these Algebra problems are online, they provide immediate feedback to students, making these suitable for stations or independent math practice.  These problems also practice order of operations.  See my earlier post about this. 

Greg Tang’s Expresso for solving algebra equations.


7. Double Clothesline:  Another visualization for Algebra Problems uses the double number line, dubbed Clothesline Math.  Andrew Stadel’s Estimation180 website shows examples of using this method with Algebra problems.  Students understand this method and actually transfer this style of thinking to new situations.  See my earlier post about this.

Students explaining using the double number line.

8. Distributive Property with Drawings:  Teaching multiplication by drawing boxes with the distributive property translates very well into solving algebra problems using the same method.  What if all early elementary teachers realized how important this strategy is?  When kids understand the box method of multiplication, they can use it with unknowns and eventually with polynomials.  Win. Win.  See my earlier post about this.

Examples of solving algebra equations using the box method of multiplication.


Strategies for visual algebra are varied, yet essential.  Students can learn these methods in a game format at younger ages, making algebraic thinking part of their cognitive repertoire.  As the algebra becomes more difficult and more abstract, kids already have some concrete strategies that can use.  And when math seems like a game, kids are even more engaged.

What other visual strategies for algebraic thinking do you teach?  Let’s make a list!





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