I played one of my favorite games with my kindergartners today – mancala! This is a classic game that is played around the world. It is an example of a game that is fun, requires strategic thinking, and teaches and reinforces so much curriculum!
In February and March we do a lot of work with counting. I read tons of counting books to my students. One of them, Moja Means One by Muriel Feelings, offers a wonderful introduction for mancala. It is a great counting book that teaches kids to count to 10 in Swahili. On the “number 2” page the subject is mancala, framing the perfect introduction for the game.
I begin by having the kids watch me play an entire game by myself. This gives me an opportunity to teach the rules, model the play, and repeat the instructions many times. I find that the kids are very interested in watching me play against myself, which is fun in and of itself! For this step I have a game board attached to my whiteboard with magnets. I also use small magnets as the game pieces, which allows all the kids to see all the moves at the same time.
There are many versions of mancala. After some experimenting, I adapted the rules to make them kindergarten friendly. I find that this version encourages forward and strategic thinking, as well as careful counting. The strategy is intriguing enough to really grip my students that are ready for a challenge, but the rules are simple enough for my students that need more practice with the general game play.
Here are the rules we use:
1. To set up the game, place three counters (magnets, beans, buttons, etc) on each small circle.
2. On a given player’s turn they choose one of their small circles. They empty that circle, and spread the counters, one by one, in each circle to the right. If they happen to turn a corner, they do put a counter in their own home base, but not in their opponent’s base.
3. Play continues in alternating turns until one player’s small circles are completely empty. Any remaining counters on the opponent’s side are void.
4. Each player counts all of the counters in their home base. The player with the most counters wins!
There are two special rules that bring the strategy to the game.
1. If the last counter you play on your turn lands in your own home base, you get to go again. (This may mean that you could have two, three, or even more turns in a row!)
2. If the last counter you play on your turn lands in one of your own small circles that is empty, that player gets all of the counters in the opponent’s circle directly across from it.
Once I teach all the rules by playing versus myself, with all the kids watching, I then challenge them to a game. We still play on the whiteboard. I call one student up at a time to play a turn for their team. I play all of my own turns. I tell the kids that they can make suggestions to the player representing them, which then keeps all students engaged, even when they are not taking the turn personally. This round of play is great for discussion. I can point out opportunities to make strategic plays, and I can encourage the kids to listen to their peers when they make good suggestions.
Once we finish this round, I pair the students up and have them play with partners. I needed to come up with a way to make enough mancala games for my whole class. I cut pieces of poster board in half. I made one game board in its entirety with the holes actually cut out. This is the board I use when teaching the game. I also used this board as a stencil to make all the other game boards. This is a super easy way to make the rest of the boards.
I also added a few special things to my game boards to help the kids. I color coded the players’ circles to help them remember which circles and bases are theirs – red or blue. I also added arrows on the sides of the boards to remind students which direction to head on their turn.
I set up small bags of counters – dry beans, buttons, math counters, etc. Each bag needs 36 counters. I usually keep a bag of extra counters as well. That way I don’t ever need to count and check bags. I just have the kids let me know if they are missing any counters.
As the kids play, I can move around the room and assist as needed. I find that some kids get the game right away and take off running, while others really need support.
After the initial introduction day of the game, we can play and play and play! It is a wonderful game to have for centers, free choice, and review. With repeated play, I can encourage more strategic thinking and planning ahead, and the kids get better and better! We love mancala!
What are your favorite math games to use in your classroom?