Many children experience difficulty grasping mathematics as an abstract concept. Without any grounding in reality, mathematical principles can escape even the most engaged students. Sure, they know that four times four equal sixteen…but why is that important? What impact does that have on the world around us? How can we use that knowledge in our everyday lives?
Sometimes it’s only by putting mathematical ideas into practice that students can grasp their true relevance. And since teachers don’t get many opportunities to introduce students to the world beyond the classroom, the next best thing is to bring the outside world in.
Role play is a valuable and underused resource when it comes to mathematical education. By recreating realistic situations in the classroom – such as a shopping transaction – children can test their knowledge and its real-world implications in a safe environment. This provides a practical context for the lesson and allows students to explore various applications of new theories or ideas. It also adds an element of communal fun that will ideally encourage students to engage willingly with their education.
One of the greatest benefits of mathematical pretend play, according to Helen J Williams, is that it provides a “risk-free context” in which children can freely pursue lines of thought they might otherwise dismiss; this is atypical of most mathematical learning, which is often neatly divided into right or wrong. Role play also engages the emotions, which potentially aids in the creation of memory and thus results in better recollection of mathematical lessons.
Before introducing role play to your classroom, it’s important to remember that not all role play activities are useful, and not all mathematical topics lend themselves to this style of teaching. Here are a few tips to help you successfully introduce mathematical role play to your elementary students.
- Allow uninterrupted play time.While it’s important for the teacher to observe, direct and participate in role play, students left to play and think on their own will often explore topics in much greater depth than they’d usually be comfortable with in a guided lesson.
- Encourage getting into character. Children who take on other personas will often take greater risks with their learning.
- Get creative. Tried-and-true role play scenarios like ordering from a cafe and store can work, but they tend to have much more limited mathematical implications than a broader scenario, like preparing a rocket for takeoff (which can involving measuring parts, calculating fuel and supplies, beginning a countdown, etc.)
- Be flexible. Role play is spontaneous, so it won’t always take the direction you envisaged. But don’t be too hasty to shut down an activity that’s straying from the course; sometimes these unplanned mathematical detours can prove just as valuable.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.