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The Problem with Sparkle

Professionally, few things make me happier than seeing early elementary school students excited during math class.  The combination of their natural curiosity and eagerness to share what they know reveals an innocent phase of their schooling and life.  Therefore, it might seem paradoxical that I think Sparkle should be played sparingly (if at all) in kindergarten and first grade classrooms.

Sparkle is a counting activity that often generates excitement among early elementary school students.  One version of the game is played as follows:

  1. After arranging the class in a circle, the teacher calls out a number, e.g. 14, and assigns a student to begin counting.

  2. The starter calls out One and the classmate standing next to them says Two.

  3. This continues around the circle from three to 13.  Instead of saying Fourteen, the next child says Sparkle, at which time they sit down, eliminated from the game.  If a child says the wrong number or forgets to say Sparkle, they are also eliminated.

  4. The next student then begins counting at one and the process repeats itself until only one student is standing. 

Although many kindergarten and first grade students find the game fun, Sparkle holds little mathematical value beyond rote, linear counting.  This is problematic for math learning.  When students understand counting as a scripted chant, they lack the flexibility to see the number line for what it is:  a math model that can contain stops with increasing and decreasing shifts.  Teaching children to count linearly to a high number is easy; it’s much harder to help them build comfort starting, stopping, and changing directions within a small set of numbers.  The former is mindless memorization; the latter requires a deeper understanding of the number line.

Because there is some mathematical value to counting fluently through a sequence of numbers, teachers can easily rationalize the game as a regular class activity.  The problem with this logic is that the game’s rules only allow a few students to immerse in frequent practice.  Children only participate when it’s their turn and frequently become unfocused once they’re eliminated.  Proportional to the amount of time it takes to play the game, the majority of students get very little practice.

For Sparkle to be fun, mathematically meaningful, and time efficient, the rules need to be tweaked, so that students stay engaged after they’re eliminated.  Incorporating white board exchanges into the game is one way to do this.  After a child is eliminated, they sit down with a board and marker.  Periodically, the teacher stops the counting progression and asks all Sitters to write the next number in the sequence.  Another method to hold student focus is to weave in a wildcard reentry for one student who gets every Sitter white board exchange correct. 

Below are some additional ideas to deepen the game’s mathematics and rigor.

  • Replacing standard form (eleven, twelve, thirteen etc.) with unit form (Ten One, Ten Two, Ten Three, etc.)  For more rigor, the teacher can direct students to alternate between standard and unit forms – Eleven, Ten Two, Thirteen, Ten Four, Fifteen, Ten Six, etc.

  • After a student is eliminated, the counting progression continues to the next number in the sequence instead of starting back at zero.

  • Redesigning the game to include backward counting, e.g. Students count from one to 20.  When they reach 20, they count backwards to zero.

  • Eliminated students officiate the game.

Creating a Joy Factor is a vital part of any dynamic elementary school math class.  Still, there’s a clear difference between students having fun during the subject and having fun while learning the subject.  The greatest math activities stimulate student enjoyment and provide meaningful mathematics experiences. Games that don’t strike this intersection are better off not played, or reserved for special occasions.