Maintaining a steady stream of engaging math activities is difficult. Math can become monotonous if there’s a lack of variety, yet children need to practice many skills repetitively before mastering them. So, my job as a teacher is to regularly embellish basic skills lessons in unique ways. I must experiment and adapt regularly, because different groups of children have different interests.
A few years ago, as part of this tinkering, I decided to try a new game, wherein we pretended to negotiate the prices of classroom objects. The children loved it immediately, and it’s been a hit with every group of students I’ve had since.
I use only a pile of coins, a number line, and whatever objects I choose to purchase. I begin by discussing the number line, focusing on three points: the numbers are in order, from left to right; each number we count is one more (one bigger) than the number it follows; and the numbers are less (smaller) if we move backwards on the number line (to the left). Number lines are tools that I expose my students to regularly, so our discussion for the purposes of this activity is usually very brief.
Next, I pull out an object (it can be anything), choose a student and say something like, “I want to buy this from your store. Now, you want to get a lot of my money, so you want me to pay a really big number. I don’t want that. I want to give you less—a smaller number of coins.”
Then the negotiations begin. I scaffold it heavily at first, saying things like, “I’ll give you one penny for this. Is that enough? Or do you want me to give you more pennies?” I point to the numbers on the number line after each offer. When we use comparative language (i.e., bigger, smaller, more, less), I gesture toward the left or right side of the number line accordingly. After each agreement is reached—most children accept my second or third offer, if not my first—The group helps me count as I pull out the appropriate number of pennies.
To keep children engaged, I use dramatic language, such as “What!? Are you crazy? I don’t want to give you that much money!” or “That’s all that you want? Really!? That’s not very many pennies.” I also use somewhat repetitive language. I often say the same thing two or three times in a row, but with slightly different words, interchanging words like more/less and bigger/smaller. I might say, “That number is too big for me. I want to pay less. I want to give you a smaller number of pennies. What if I give you a much smaller number, like two pennies?”
As the year progresses and my students develop more advanced math skills, I incorporate additional challenges. Instead of using a number line with numbers 0-20, we might reference a chart with numbers up to 100. Or, after we’ve had some practice with the concept of place value, we might use dimes and pennies to count by tens and ones as I’m preparing to make purchases.
Conceptual pedagogies aside, I mainly attribute the consistent success of this activity to the playful nature with which we carry it out. It offers many opportunities to alternate between silly jokes and math practice. Once, I purchased a student’s shoes, sending the entire class into a giggle fit. So, of course, I then pretended to be in a shoe store and went on to negotiate the purchase many more pairs. Young kids are an easy crowd, once they get to know you. Any time you can make them laugh while they’re learning, you’re doing pretty well.