Daily Practice, Daily Play

Have you ever watched a child who is truly gifted at something go off to the practice room, gym, athletic field, or computer? You can barely hold the child back. He or she wants to dive into that studio. There is no need to scratch your head, thinking of ways to get that child behind his saxophone, on the track, or in the computer lab. The student doesn’t view practice as “work.” If you look at the student carefully, the activity is not exactly “play,” either. It’s more like “flow.”

As you recall, “flow” is the condition of being so absorbed in an activity that the purposes and effort in performing an activity disappears in the sheer performance of the activity. There are top athletes who describe their best efforts in the gerundial form, like “The running swept me forward, and when it was time to kick, the track disappeared, and all I could feel was movement.” Parents of children who show gifts and passion for a musical instrument will overhear their child grouse about the hours invested in practice, but will report that the child plays scales and technical passages beyond all reason.

Every teacher or parent reading this who struggles with a child who performs poorly at math, loathes math practice, and is building up a negative self-image around this vital skill is snorting, “Yeah. Must be nice.” The unusual focus that students experience when passion and talent confluesce guarantees exceptional performance, but how does a child get to this point? One way of making this condition possible is to present the child with tasks in the targeted domain (in our case, math fact fluency up to two-step equations) that are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivating.

A much larger company that plays in the math game space, and therefore has a bigger budget to prove its hypotheses, has established the research on the effectiveness of math games that capture the imagination of the students. In controlled studies, this company has established the efficacy of playing their games as a way to increase fluency with math facts. The results are eye-popping: the classes that used the company’s computer-based learning games to achieve fact mastery soared from the high teens and low twenties in percentile of fact fluency to over eighty per cent in all cases. Our posts have showed why this fluency yields power: the prefrontal cortex is free to learn, not tied up in calculation. The company reports anecdotally that students’ enthusiasm for math reflected this growing power. In my first article writing for this space, I shared the targeted gains and unbridled enthusiasm that my own son exuded when I asked him to take www.mathnook.com for a spin. While none of this proves the case that Mathnook produces flow, the indications are there, waiting for you to test out with your own child or classes.