Making Learning Math Fun Through Game-based Learning

GlobalEd Leadership is pleased to introduce you to Lilian Nyaranga. Lilian is the founder of the Elimu Shop, which creates innovative and engaging resources which make STEM subject learning interactive, fun, and motivating to all learners. Lilian studied education for her undergraduate degree, majoring in math and chemistry at Egerton University, Njoro, Kenya. She also completed a Master’s in Curriculum Development from Kenyatta University.  Lilian taught for more than 15 years in leading high schools in Kenya and South Africa, as well as worked as an Instructional Coach and Curriculum Designer for NGOs where she created professional development programs and developed math curriculum. 

Throughout my teaching career, I was troubled at the consistently poor math outcomes among students in Kenya. In a report by UWEZO (2014), three out of ten children from grade 3 could not successfully complete class 2 math. The report also raised concerns about equity and quality in the mathematics classroom. For instance, twice as many children aged between 10 and 16 from non-poor households passed exams for both numeracy and literacy skills as compared to children from poorer households.

In the 2016 Kenya Council of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations results, about half of the candidates scored grade E in mathematics, the lowest grade. Performance was equally poor in other sciences. This is a worrisome trend because achieving Kenya’s Vision 2030 greatly depends on science, technology and innovation. Poor results suggest that most children will not be able to pursue courses in the STEM professions, limiting the country’s ability to become competitive in the 21st-century global economy. 

Based on these concerns and country-wide trends, I resigned from my job at the end of 2016 and enrolled at Sinapis Entrepreneur Academy for a 4-month entrepreneurship training, and in 2017, Elimu Shop was formed. Elimu is a Swahili word meaning education. The shop was inspired by my early love of board games and puzzles, as well as my interest in exploring how to build children’s excitement and confidence in math. I was also interested in fostering children’s ability to embrace their mistakes as learning opportunities and to see themselves as problem solvers and creative thinkers. 

The Elimu Shop creates game-based or gamified resources which increase engagement and deepen understanding of concepts. The first board game, MathFlash, consists of 96 math activity cards, board chips, dice and the game board. The children play in teams and take turns in asking math activity questions from the playing cards, which allows them to earn or lose points. Children develop basic numeracy, collaboration, reasoning, problem-solving and social skills. 

The school director Dr. Susan Kanayo had this to say about the game and the children’s learning 

One thing we noticed about MathFlash is that it has various activities that keep children engaged and competitive. It’s a game that creates togetherness or ‘ubuntu’. It has more power when it is played in groups. It has sharpened our children’s critical thinking and confidence in math. Our children can think fast. This is something we value in our school because this skill can be used in other circumstances, when the challenges of life come our children will be able to think fast on their feet. The more they played with the game the more they improved. The game does not only teach math skills but important life skills. 

We opted to create a physical board game instead of the popular digital games, to ensure that as many children from different social backgrounds were reached, regardless of technological access. This is corroborated by a recent study by USAWA (2020), which stated that on average, only 22 out of 100 children were accessing digital learning. I see this game as providing a break from technology and encouraging relationship building through interactions between parents, siblings, relatives and friends at home.

The Elimu Shop has also created other original gamified puzzles available in digital and physical formats, called AddSub and MulDi puzzles. The first versions were released in January 2021. These puzzles use the basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, with the goal of developing basic numeracy skills and number sense, as well as building a strong foundation in algebra. The puzzles help children learn to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and logical thinkers. They also build soft skills like resilience, learning from failure, and self-awareness. 

I chose to create educational games because, beyond providing entertainment, research shows that using play in a learning environment can help increase student engagement, foster social and emotional learning and motivate them to take risks. Through games, learners can learn skills like collaboration, communication, creative problem solving and reasoning. Games can also help develop resilience in children by keeping them engaged, develop relationships and teach them how to fail positively, all of which are needed to thrive in the modern world. 

In Kenya, however, the idea of using play in an educational context is still relatively new. As such, we have faced some 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. We focus on demonstrating how our games are aligned to school, national, and global goals while improving buy-in from school leaders, which in term influences parents. For example, with the newly implemented Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC), which emphasizes making learners competitive in the global world, we are working to show educators how game-based learning helps develop these skills, competencies and values through alignment to CBD guiding principles. 

i. They ensure diversity and inclusion 

The games ensure learner diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, social class and religion. We have been able to reach children in urban, rural, disadvantaged communities and even global with our gamified resources. The games also recognize the difference in learning abilities and needs of learners. Plans are underway to develop an app for the games; this will ensure diverse learners are reached with the resources. 

ii. Differentiated learning 

The different levels of the game are appropriate for each learner. We are constantly adjusting and updating to ensure all learners’ needs are met. 

iii. Parental engagement 

Parents struggle with how they can support their children at home in the learning process, increasing teachers’ workload. The games that we create can be done in home environments, and parents also enjoy working on the puzzles and playing board games.

We have been able to build partnerships with community organisations to further help in creating awareness for school leaders and parents. For example, InspireHer Stem works in mentoring girls in STEM in urban slums and rural communities and Big Picture learning, which works with children and schools leaders in urban slums in equipping children to realise their potential and acquire skills to fit in the job market. Through these partnerships, we have been able to facilitate training with school leaders and parents on how to incorporate intentional gamified learning in their children’s learning. We have also partnered with school leaders from forward-looking schools like Children in Freedom School an innovative transformative Afrocentric blended learning school based in Nakuru and Bright Beginnings Daycare, an ECD centre that is focussed on developing a holistic child, based in Kilifi, Kenya. We have also created a social media Facebook group and page with over 5,000 educators and parents. These platforms enable collaboration through sharing ideas and resources in teaching and learning. While games cannot replace classroom learning, they can enhance classroom learning when paired with strong planning and lesson integration to ensure alignment with learning objectives. 

To learn more about Lilian and Elimu Shop, please visit their website or follow them on social media.