When it comes to long car rides or waiting at the doctor’s office, books and audiobooks are my first choice for entertaining my son. However, when it becomes necessary to pull out the iPad, I’m grateful for the wide range of educational apps that are a better alternative to the mindless entertainment of Angry Birds. But the problem with educational apps is that most promise a lot more than they can deliver and are frequently little more than dressed up flash card programs. There’s a place for this kind of practice, but from a cognitive standpoint things that involve human interaction and tangible manipulation like board games, songs, and Cuisenaire Rods are going to lead to better retention even for something as basic as learning multiplication facts. For a child that really needs to work on math skills, computer apps should definitely not replace one-one-one tutoring and problem solving.
The DragonBox games, however, are a big exception to my general “no app” math learning policy. Unlike math flashcard programs, which focus on rote arithmetic practice, DragonBox introduces the fundamentals of algebra and does so with unique visual puzzles. Each level begins with a split screen and a scattering of boxes with different pictures on them. The object of the game is always the same – to get the main glowing box all alone on one side of the screen, the equivalent of isolating the variable in an equation. You can manipulate the boxes in different ways that are analogous to arithmetic operations, for instance you can remove a box from the screen by placing a another box on top of it that is identical except for reverse colors – the equivalent of adding an inverse. What’s tricky however, is that whatever you do to one side of the screen you have to do to the other, imitating the balance necessary in manipulating equations. Most of the learning in DragonBox takes place gradually through exploration and experimentation and without a lot of direct instruction, a real plus in my opinion as I’m a big fan of the discovery approach to mathematics.
The geometry version of the game, DragonBox Elements, is even better in my opinion. The graphics are first rate, and the game introduces and reinforces geometric concepts in an incredibly engaging way. As the tagline for the app states: “Every puzzle is a geometric proof.” In DragonBox Elements the player brings creatures to life by completing the proof-like puzzles, for example tracing equivalent lines and angles in a geometric construction. It’s a fun way of exploring the relationships between shapes, and also highly addictive!
Both of these games have received a lot of press, with some of it a little exaggerated like this Forbes article claiming that it takes only42 minutes to learn algebra through this app. Obviously there’s a lot more to learning algebra than just moving boxes around on a screen, but as long as your expectations are reasonable it’s a terrific math tool. It’s not a magic bullet that will catapult your student into advanced mathematics, but it does really shine when it comes to basic skills like learning to simplify terms as much as possible. DragonBox Elements is my favorite in the series, but I found my son needed quite a bit of reinforcement to really understand the geometric constructions because it lacks any degree measurements; it’s not a flaw of the game, just a limitation. Despite the press, the designers of DragonBox seem to recognize its inherent strengths and weaknesses and so offer pdf supplements to parents and educators that can help translate concepts in the game to the classroom. This is a great resource if you have time to use it.
The bottom line is that DragonBox is a fun and inexpensive way to introduce some basic algebra and geometry when you have a few minutes to kill on a tablet. The original DragonBox comes in two levels: basic for ages 5 and up, and advanced for ages 12 and up, while Elements is appropriate for all ages. They are priced at $4.99 through the Apple App store, Google Play, or Amazon.