You’re always looking for innovative ways to “trick” your kids into learning something new. But lately, they’ve started to catch on.
Perhaps you’re a teacher yourself, and sense that students are growing a bit tired of the standard lesson plans. You find students retain information much better — and even that their focus improves — when you can gamify the lesson plan in some way.
No matter what situation you’re in and what skills you’d like your child to develop, playing mancala for kids can help. This classic board game is as popular as ever, and it’s not hard to see why it’s stood the test of time.
In this post, we’ll fill you in on the basic mancala game rules, variations of play, the benefits of mancala, and much more.
This game can get even the most stubborn children excited about learning, socializing with one another, and thinking strategically about their next move.
First, let’s start with a bit of a history lesson.
Believe it or not, mancala has been around for thousands of years, since at last 500-700 AD. The word itself is based on the Arabic word “naqala,” meaning “to move.”
The game was created in Africa especially within Ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, it made its way to America as a result of the slave trade.
Mancala boards have been found carved into the roofs of ancient buildings, in the tombs of pharaohs and kings, and in ancient Greek and Roman ruins.
So, when your children or students play mancala, they’re taking part in a game that was enjoyed by children from thousands of years ago.
Now, let’s talk about how to play mancala.
The good news is that learning how to play mancala for kids is relatively easy, even though the game itself can be seriously tricky!
The basic rules in this section are for the popular Kalah version.
Each mancala board consists of 12 small circular “houses” and two large rectangular “storage houses.” There are 48 “seeds” in total, and each player gets 24 seeds each.
To set up the mancala board, each child puts four seeds into each of their six small houses. At the start of the game, no seeds should be placed in the storage houses. The players sit directly opposite one another, and the storage house to the right of them is their own. Each player has six houses total, in the row directly in front of them.
To begin the game, the first player will pick up all four of the seeds in the house of their choice. They’ll then “sow” those seeds by moving counter-clockwise (to the right) across the board.
They place one single seed in each of the houses that they pass by. This means that, yes, the child will likely end up putting some of their seeds in their opponent’s houses.
If they pass by their own storage house on the way, they put one of their seeds inside of it. They do not put any seeds in their opponent’s storage house.
Then it’s the other player’s turn.
Children may only use one hand to both pick up and drop the seeds, and they can’t change their minds about which house they’re playing with once they pick up the seeds.
The game ends when one player’s small houses have no more seeds in them. Then, any seeds that the opponent has left over go into their own storage. Whoever has the highest number of seeds in their storage house is the winner.
There are lots of different variations of mancala, which we’ll get into more later on in this post. They include oware, Ayoayo, and much more. As you become better at the game, try new versions of play to keep it interesting.
Now that you have a better grasp on the history and rules of mancala, let’s cover a few of the many benefits that this game has to offer.
Mancala helps children with social skills, the development of critical thinking, logical thought, and more.
Whether you’re a professional educator or a parent, we’re confident you’ll be amazed by just how much this game is able to help children gain confidence, work with others, and even improve academically.
Whether you’re trying to fight against summer math loss, math anxiety, or if your child has trouble with counting and basic arithmetic, mancala for kids may be able to help.
The game offers a tactile way to help children understand addition and basic counting, as children are physically picking up the seeds and counting out loud while playing.
It also strengthens the subitizing skill, which means that children recognize the number of seeds in front of them without actually having to count them individually.
Especially if a child is less than enthusiastic about math, you can switch out traditional glass seeds or beans for candies and pieces of chocolate.
Children often have trouble thinking before they act, and about 3-6% of children have serious difficulty with impulse control.
A lack of critical thinking, no matter how severe, can impact your child socially and academically.
Mancala forces children to stop and think about their next moves, evaluate the benefits and risks of that decision, and look at their choices in a larger context. It also strengthens strategic thinking skills.
Plus, since the rules aren’t quite as complex as checkers or chess, mancala is the ideal game for younger learners.
Does your child have trouble tying their shoe or correctly holding a pencil or utensil? If so, then mancala is a wonderful and fun way to work on fine motor skill development.
Children must drop the seeds one at a time, but hold a group of them in their hands. The game also helps with hand-eye coordination.
It’s so effective that even physical/occupational therapists use it to help their patients regain fine motor skills.
Many children struggle with following rules, taking turns, and sharing.
Mancala reinforces the importance of all three of these things and can also help to foster additional social skills in children. They may offer advice to one another, ask questions when they don’t understand something, and even develop good sportsmanship skills.
Mancala teaches children that they can’t win every time, even if they did their very best. It also helps them to learn from their mistakes and boosts their self-confidence when they do come away with a win.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked benefits of playing mancala is that it helps to teach children about other cultures, often ones that are quite different from their own.
It’s an excellent game to include in a history lesson about Ancient Egypt or even about what life is like in African countries today. From mancala, children learn that other cultures have wonderful and fun things to teach us and share with us.
This promotes a sense of curiosity, inclusion, and diversity.
Depending on the age and intellectual development of the children you’re teaching or playing with, you may want to switch up the rules of mancala from time to time.
There are tons of different mancala variations, outside of the traditional Kalah style.
Basic variations include a style of play where, if your last seed lands in your storage house, you get to go again. Another option is that, if your last seed lands in an empty house, you can cross capture your opponent’s seeds in the house opposite your own.
Let’s take a look at some now.
One of the most popular is known as Oware, and it’s especially great for kids that are over the age of 11 or more intellectually developed than their peers.
In this variation, you’ll begin with two rows of 6 houses, with 4 seeds in each house. Each player will also get their own storage house/pit (two in total.)
When it’s a player’s turn, they choose one small house in their row, pick up all the seeds in the house, and then, moving counter-clockwise, drop a single seed into each of the small houses until the hand is empty.
While it might sound pretty identical to the traditional Kala game, there are a few major differences.
Seeds aren’t placed into the storage houses in this variation — they’re only allowed to be placed in the small houses.
When you’re ready to capture because you’ve ended the move in another player’s house, you need to look at the number of seeds the house contains. If there are either two or three seeds, you don’t get to collect the seeds and it’s the other player’s turn.
But if there are either two or three seeds in the house, you win them, and get to put them in your storage house. Next, take a look at the next-to-last house. If it’s your opponent’s, and if it also has either two or three seeds in it, you also get to take those seeds and put them in your storage house.
You just work backward until you see a house that doesn’t have either two or three seeds. This video gives you a visual representation of how oware works.
Another popular variation of mancala is called Ayoayo, which is the standard method of play among the Yoruba people in Nigeria.
Here, you’ll still begin with four seeds in each house of the two rows, with nothing in either storage house.
Players pick up and drop their seeds counter-clockwise, skipping the storage houses. When the last seed is placed into a house that still has seeds in it, the contents of that house are gathered up and distributed again. The move goes on until the final seed is dropped into an empty house.
If that empty house is on your side, then you get to take your opponent’s seeds in the house directly across from yours and put them in your storage house. If not, it’s your opponent’s turn. They must figure out how to get their seeds back.
The player that gets the most seeds at the end of the game is the winner. Here’s a great video tutorial that you can show students.
Another valuable lesson that playing mancala will teach your children is that board games can be made from almost anything.
The process of building your own mancala board is a great idea for an art project or even an excellent complement to a lesson on recycling/sustainability. It also serves as a gentle reminder that children don’t need fancy or expensive toys to have fun.
Tell students to bring in an empty egg carton to school.
Let them paint their boards in any color they like, and add any accessories and drawings that make them smile. You could also cut the tops off of small paper cups, and use those to create the board.
Children also love being able to choose whatever materials they want for the seeds.
Let them use unique buttons, marbles, rhinestone gems, or anything else they’d like.
If you want to keep the classroom mess to a minimum, then consider playing mancala online.
We hope this post has helped you to understand not only how to play mancala for kids, but also the numerous benefits of doing so.
Mancala offers a wonderful — and much-needed — break from all the electronic toys and social media scrolling that children of all ages get sucked into.
The game teaches critical thinking, sparks curiosity in other cultures, and is truly fun for the whole family. Plus, it’s also an effective, affordable, and easy teaching tool for educational professionals.
We love the idea of having a standard mancala game night each week in your home, or allowing your students to participate in an ongoing mancala tournament.
Looking for more tips and tricks on how to play mancala?
We’ve got you covered.
Keep checking back with us to pick up more strategic advice, mancala variations, and much more.
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