TAMPA — Math is Samantha Champion's last class of the day. And each day, it can't come quickly enough.
"I just love doing math," she said. "It's kind of like my reward."
The Roland Park K-8 sixth-grader was among the more than 50 students crowded into a Tampa McDonald's last week to challenge each other to TiViTz, a checkers-style game that combines strategy and mental math.
It was the official kickoff for TiViTz Tuesdays. Now through April 22, students can come to McDonald's to practice the game and play against kids from other schools. Many of those students will go on to compete in regional TiViTz tournaments at the end of the year, leading up to a championship at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg in June.
More math teachers in Hillsborough have started using the game in their classrooms in recent years. But playing a strategy game against the same kids in your class over and over gets boring, game creator Stephen Scully said.
SAS Games of Cocoa, the parent company of TiViTz, partnered with Caspers Co., which owns several McDonald's in Hillsborough County, to start TiViTz Tuesdays.
Caspers also took the idea to the other stores in its co-op. The rest of the co-op got on board, said Bob Conigliaro, vice president of community relations for Caspers, so kids will be able to play at more than 190 McDonald's locations in 13 counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando.
Conigliaro was originally impressed by how much students seemed to like the game after Scully invited him to a tournament.
"I watched carloads, buses, vans, hundreds of kids gravitate into (Roland Park), so excited to do math," Conigliaro said.
TiViTz held workshops in several counties to introduce teachers to the game. An individual game costs $30. Classroom sets with 14 boards are $425.
The two-player game is a little like checkers. The board looks like a baseball field, part of a partnership with Cal Ripken Baseball. The mental math comes in as players try to match numbered playing pieces with goals on the other side of the board that will give them the highest score through addition, subtraction, multiplication or division, depending on the grade level.
The game can be customized for kids in all grade levels, but the tournament is for grades 4-8, the "sweet spot" for capturing a kid's attention for math, said Siobhan Mullen, CEO of SAS Games, who has a background in technology and telecommunications.
Kids are generally excited about math until third or fourth grade, Mullen said.
"It's hard to get them back if you lose them," she said.
As a kid, Scully liked math. He liked that it was challenging. As an adult, he saw that kids weren't recognizing the importance of math, and that U.S. students were ranking behind those in other countries in math.
"I wanted to come up with a way to motivate kids to approach math through a game," he said, to make it fun.
Math is hard and boring, many kids think. But put it in game form, and they want to play and win. They want the bragging rights.
"You can't teach students anything until you do one thing first," Scully said. "You have to get their attention."
Trey Gould, 10, and Brendan Hennagir, 9, of Anderson Elementary School started playing TiViTz a few years ago. They like playing against their friends and comparing strategies. Trey learned a new strategy from a girl at the tournament last year that he likes to use. Both boys like puzzling out tough equations.
"For me, math has always been fun," Trey said. "I like to relate equations to other things in real life. Then it seems easier."
More and more sixth- and seventh-graders have shown an interest in the game at Martinez Middle School, math teacher Maggie Mixon said. As they see improvements in students' mental math skills, more teachers are coming around to the game.
Mixon tells her students to exercise their math muscles, and the game is one way to do that.
"Don't be a math couch potato," she said.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2453.