Math Games Help Students Who Struggle with Dyscalculia

written by: Dr. Tony McCaffrey
Inspired by the game Settlers of Catan, I constructed a game-world that requires using math as the players manage their crops, livestock, natural resources, and defenses. Thus was born Skellig, in which each player manages an island—or skellig, using an Irish word for rocky island.

Three of my students have been diagnosed with dyscalculia, and they have exhibited no difficulty engaging in all of the bookkeeping required to keep track of their wealth and inventories. The bookkeeping requires the use of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It also involves knowing when to use which operation: addition for a credit, subtraction for a debit, multiplication for balancing out trading ratios—“If 4 sheep are traded for 1 cow, how many sheep will be traded for 3 cows?”—and division for determining how many pigs you need to secure enough meat for the week. Perhaps it is the concreteness of the tasks that helps these students with dyscalculia successfully complete their bookkeeping.

Each player designs and sketches an island to their liking and then selects (or creates) a crop (fruit, vegetable, or grain), livestock, and a natural resource. For example, we have chickcows (a cross between a chicken and a cow) and regular cows.

The game begins as a barter economy in which once a week each participant sails their boat full of goods to the central island Communio and barters for enough food to eat a balanced diet for a week. Their health points go down if they do not trade for the proper amount of each food group.

Players have to keep track of all their transactions by using paper receipts and then record those transactions on paper ledger sheets. Later in the school year, they learn how to create spreadsheets that operate as ledgers. Making the spreadsheet operate like a ledger includes inserting formulas in the proper cells that will keep track of a running balance after debits and credits are entered. These formulas involve variables that refer to cell locations where actual numbers reside. Again, my three students with dyscalculia exhibited no problems understanding the use of these variables in the formulas that referred to cell locations; whereas they generally have difficulty with a traditional approach to algebraic variables (i.e., solve for x).

Students have to bargain for each trade, as there are no set prices. How many sheep is a cow worth? No fractions are allowed (trading half cows, for example) in the trading. They can use only ratios with whole numbers (4 sheep:1 cow).

Every week each player also randomly draws a card from the Good Random Event pile and the Bad Random Event pile. For example, “Your herd doubles in size” is a good event. “Your boat springs a leak so you cannot trade this week” is a bad event.

Further, each player can protect their island’s goods and launch attacks against other islands to take goods. Players hire troops and purchase military equipment such as cannons, guns, swords, minefields, and troop-carrying boats. My students helped design the rules of engagement by adapting rules from Risk and Battleship. Each battle requires a great deal of bookkeeping to keep track of all the resources that were gained and lost in the battle. The battles also require careful strategizing to weigh the costs and benefits of waging an attack.

As the game progresses, the class discusses topics such as capitalism, market economies, supply and demand, monopolies, taxes, and possible roles that the government might take in intervening in an economy.

Overall, teaching basic mathematics through Skellig appeals to those with learning differences as the game embeds the math skills inside a world consisting of many transactions that need to be recorded, compiled, and computed. In that world, any topic from basic mathematics can be incorporated into the Skellig world in a concrete manner: including percents, proportions, graphs, statistics, negative numbers, and so on.

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