Making learning mathematics fun through games

Tuesday, April 27th, 2021 21:02 | By
Children playing MathFlash game. PD/KWACH WAKHISI

As a math teacher, Lilian Nyaranga was concerned with poor performance in the subject. The educationist, author and content developer together with her two partners came up with board games and puzzles that keep students more engaged in their learning process

Mathematics is a subject that is compulsory in our education system. However, it is feared and loathed by a majority of students who find it difficult compared to other subjects.

Many students will score good grades in other subjects, but achieve a ‘D’ or ‘E’ grade in math. 

In a bid to help students build their confidence and love for the math subject, Lilian Nyaranga founded the Elimu Shop, an educational company that develops physical and digital learning resources in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) subjects. 

With over 20 years experience working as a secondary school math and chemistry teacher, an instructional coach, content developer, educational author and entrepreneur, Nyaranga is passionate about quality education for all, especially in improvements in science and mathematics subjects.

“The resources we create are innovative, interactive and focus on game-based learning.

By playing educational games at home or school, learners enjoy themselves and become engaged, motivated, build relationships and enhance mastery of math concepts,” says Nyaranga. 

From failure to winner

Born and raised in Nairobi as the second born in a family of five siblings, Nyaranga says memories of her math teacher in Class Seven and Eight still fill her with anxiety. “He was this harsh and strict teacher.

I dreaded and feared math lessons. Consequently, my performance in the subject was average.

However, things changed when I joined secondary school. I had two wonderful teachers who coincidentally were all female, and my attitude towards the subject changed,” she says. 

Nyaranga offers: “I enjoyed and loved math during my entire secondary school life.

I am lucky because while growing up, I wasn’t made to feel like math and science subjects were the domain of boys and I was consistently among the top performers in the subjects.

It came as no surprise when I was admitted to pursue a Bachelor of Education majoring in Math and Chemistry at Egerton University.” 

Nyaranga also holds a Master’s in Education (Curriculum Development) from Kenyatta University.

She says: “I taught math and chemistry at Keveye Girls High School in Vihiga county and Alliance Girls in Kiambu county under the Teachers Service Commission (TSC).

After about 10 years with TSC, I resigned and ventured into the nongovernmental organisation world, still in the education sector.

I worked at Dignitas as an Instructional Coach and Curriculum Designer working with schools in the urban slums.

It was here that I honed my skills and expanded my worldview about global educational practices and how to develop resources that make children more engaged in their learning process. I grew as a teacher and also as a content developer.”

In 2015, a new school was opening up that practised the skills and knowledge that she had learnt while working at Dignitas.

“I was so excited to join Nova Academies, as a math curriculum designer and later lead math teacher.

I have always been concerned with poor performance in the subject both at the school and national leve,” she adds. 

But what if children could be excited about math? What if they could see themselves as problem solvers and creative thinkers?

What if they could embrace their mistakes as learning opportunities? Imagine the impact this would have on their math outcomes. These questions and more kept ringing in Nyaranga’s mind. 

Towards the end of 2016, she took a bold step and resigned from Nova. She enrolled at Sinapis Entrepreneur Academy for a four-month entrepreneurship training and in 2017, Elimu Shop was formed. 

After several false starts and    failures, the MathFlash physical board game was created towards the end of 2018.

It was tested between 2018 and 2019 and adjustments made to make it more effective. The response from parents has been encouraging.

The game consists of math activity cards, dice and the game board. Children use a chip to move across the board.  

Break from technology

“Children play in teams and earn or lose points depending on how they answer the math activities.

We opted to create a physical board game instead of the popular digital games, to ensure that as many children from different social backgrounds who may be limited by technology are reached.

Furthermore, this game ensures a break from technology and encourages relationship building through interactions between parents, siblings, relatives and friends at home,” Nyaranga explains.  

Works on puzzles -— AddSub and MulDi — started in 2019, but it is during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown that it was perfected. The first versions were released in January 2021.

She says: “These puzzles use the basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division that are aimed at developing basic numeracy skills and number sense as well as build a strong foundation in algebra.”

Game-based learning build skills such as logical thinking, reasoning, creative thinking, resilience, teamwork, learning from failures and communication.

These are skills that are helpful in the real world and in the job market. She adds: “The idea of using play in an education context is still a new area in Kenya and we have faced obstacles in its integration partly because of a lack of understanding of its value as well as misconceptions of play in learning by educators and parents.

However, this is slowly changing. The newly introduced Competency Based Curriculum also emphasises the use of play in learning to build key core competency skills in learners.”  

Nyaranga is convinced that Math is not just a domain of the gifted. Any child can perform well in the subject as long as they are given a conducive environment and helped to develop a growth mindset. 

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