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Math + Multiculturalism:

Native American Stick Dice Game


Today's Snack: Although you wouldn't use the sticks in today's game, enjoy a low-calorie fudgsicle or popsicle from the freezer today. Soak the sticks in water with a few drops of bleach and dish soap, let dry, and maybe you can use them the next time you play this game!





Per pair of students: 6 wooden craft sticks and 12 toothpicks

Colored markers


People the world over have enjoyed playing counting games with small objects that can symbolize different numbers.


We are familiar in our culture with "dice," those six-sided cubes with dots that signify the numbers from 1 to 6.


Many native cultures played the same basic game in which they decorated sticks to help them keep count in a simple game of chance. They called it "stick dice."


First, let's divide into two's. Each pair will get 6 craft sticks and 12 toothpicks.


Let's choose one of these Native American graphic patterns and decorate your six craft sticks with colored markers so that they look identical. You can make squiggles, circles, triangles, or lines in whatever colors you like. Just be sure to make all six sticks look pretty much the same. Be sure to decorate one side ONLY. Be sure to leave one side blank. That will be important when you play this game.


Don't do anything with the toothpicks. They're just to help you count.


Spot a beautiful Native American pattern, and decorate your six sticks:









Now that they are decorated, let's call them your "stick dice."


To play the game, make two piles on the floor - your six stick dice, and your 12 toothpicks, which we will call "counting sticks." Decide who goes first - perhaps the person with the birthday that is closest to today?


The person who goes first should pick up the six stick dice, shake them in your hands a little bit so that they get mixed up, and then drop them on the floor.


Count the number of stick dice that landed with the pattern side up. Count the number that landed with the blank side up. Here's how you score points:


6 pattern side up

+ 0 blank side up 3 points


6 blank side up

+ 0 pattern side up 3 points


3 pattern side up

+ 0 blank side up 2 points


Any other combination 1 point



Let's say the person who went first threw the stick dice, and gets 2 with the pattern side up, and 4 with the blank side up. Look at the chart: that's "any other combination," and it scores one point. That person should pick up one toothpick from the "counting stick" pile and keep it.


Now the next person picks up the stick dice and drops them. Let's say that person has 3 with the pattern side up, and 3 with the blank side up. That person gets to pick up 2 "counting sticks" (toothpicks) and keep them.


Keep taking turns until all 12 toothpicks are gone. At that point, when it's your turn, you can take toothpicks from your opponent's collection, and vice versa.


The game is over when one of you has all 12 toothpicks!


Native people may not have had computers or calculators, but they still really knew their math, and it's because they played fun games like this. Besides helping you with your basic subtraction skills, this game is actually exposing you to higher-level math concepts such as patterns and probability. So you're getting smart while you're having fun! And that's great in any culture!


By Susan Darst Williams Math 2011

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