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Stacking the Deck for Learning

A simple deck of cards can offer an abundance of opportunities to enhance learning.

By Lani Aquino

Teachers are always on the lookout for affordable and engaging resources to use in their classrooms. While having every gadget and gizmo to enhance learning would be amazing (but also overwhelming), sometimes it’s the simplest of resources that can be both multi-functional and easily obtainable. Most junk drawers or game cabinets have a spare deck of cards or two, and any local dollar store is likely to offer some at that just right price point.

While cards may make some think of games like blackjack and poker, there are a lot of other creative and educational options for gameplay and usage that can impact learning. Playing cards can be helpful resources for math, ELA, and/or classroom management in any subject area. These compact decks can serve a variety of purposes, and the following list of options is a great starting point for adding some affordable fun to learning.

  1. 3 Quick Math Games from Scholastic offers options for single play or up to four players. Nifty Fifty has players using the whole deck and choosing 4 cards at a time. Cards are combined to represent the tens and ones place, and then the 2 digit numbers are either added or subtracted to see which player can get closest to 50. Make Ten Solitaire can be played solo or in twos. Cards are placed face up into a 3x5 grid. Players choose two cards that add up to 10 and claim the pair. New cards go into the empty slots. 21 has the same concept as the casino game, but points are awarded based on how close to 21 each player gets. All three games are fun ways to do some basic skill review.
  2. 20+ Best Math Card Games from Math Geek Mama has a great variety of options. There are single player and larger group choices, and a variety of skills and levels are covered. Sorting, counting, addition, subtraction, absolute value, decimals, place value, multiplication, and more are all skills that are addressed through fun and learning.
  3. 10 Card Games to Boost Second Grade Math Skills from Education.com has some engaging choices that could easily be adapted to different grade levels. Students can try their hands at Subtraction War, Ring Your Neck: A Math Game where the player with the lowest score wins, Play Toss Up! where quickness in addition and subtraction is key, and more.
  4. 5 Language Activities You Can Do With a Deck of Cards from Busy Teacher offers some excellent way to use cards with ELL students. Go Fish is a perfect way to help students navigate the language with simple yes/no questions. The ideas shared for working on content vocabulary and prepositions are an easy way to have students hone their basic language skills.
  5. Nine Nifty Ways to Use a Pack of Cards in the Classroom from Teachstarter is a great resource link to have on hand. The step-by-step instructions for Number Sense Activity, Addition or Subtraction Battle, Multiplication Spiral, and more are available. Students can easily build their skills in mathematics while working on problem-solving and cooperative play.
  6. Use Playing Cards to Start a Story from Classroom Freebies shares a fun way to get the creative juices flowing for writing by dealing out a few cards. Students use their given cards to boost their creativity and put their problem solving skills to work. Card values could indicate the number of characters, twists, settings, and more. Several plotline mats are available or custom mats could easily be used to fit any writing task.
  7. Practice informational writing by having students create new games or tweak the rules of old favorites. Students can be tasked with writing out step-by-step instructions for games their fellow classmates will be playing. The necessity of attention to detail will be easily seen as the other players are set to literally follow directions for adaptive gameplay.
  8. Student names can be written on individual cards, and teachers can randomly pull from the deck for responses, order of presenters, and more. This can be helpful when the same students are always vying for center stage and more diversity in responses is needed.

A single deck of cards can have a multitude of uses. By clearing out a junk drawer, asking for donations, and/or hitting the dollar store, teachers can add some easily storable and highly engaging resources to their proverbial bag of tricks. Whether math, ELA, or management are in need of an affordable boost, a deck or two of cards can be a great way to deal out some fun in the classroom.

If you enjoyed the thoughts and ideas shared here, check out the trainings and tools (for teachers and for families) that we offer.

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