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Study: Board Games Boost Preschoolers' Math Skills


Long, long ago, in the time before video and computer games, young children whiled away many an hour playing board games like Chutes and Ladders. Little did we know then that we were sharpening our math skills at the same time.

At least that's what a pair of psychologists are claiming in a study published this month in the Journal of Educational Psychology. For their study, researchers Robert S.
Siegler of Carnegie Mellon University and Geetha B. Ramani of the University of Maryland divided 88 preschoolers from Head Start classrooms into three groups. One group of

children played linear board games five times over the course of three weeks for 15-to-20 minutes each time. A second group spent the same amount of time playing circular board games and the third group counted poker chips, identified numbers, and engaged in other simple math-related activities.

The children took pretests to gauge their baseline math abilities. Then everyone was tested again three weeks later. What the researchers found at the second testing was that the linear-board-game group outperformed similarly-skilled students from the other two groups on a wide range of tasks designed to gauge their understanding of numbers and numerical magnitude. Even more striking, though, was that this group also did best later on at "learning to learn" new arithmetic tasks.

The researchers said their findings may partly explain why disadvantaged children come to school with weaker numerical skills than children from middle-class homes. Most middle-class homes have a Chutes and Ladders game stashed on a shelf somewhere—or at least they used to. But studies show that such activities take place less often in low-income households.

Yet that's a disparity that may be relatively easy to address. That's because the new findings also showed that the children with the weakest math skills at pretest rapidly caught up with their peers after a few game-playing sessions. And anyone can make a board game with paper, a pair of dice, and a cardboard spinner.

A word of caution, though: Previous studies by this same research team suggest that the design of the game matters. A cardboard game modeled after Candyland, another popular linear board game, did not prove to be as effective as the Chutes and Ladders model.

Personally, I predict a resurgence in sales of Chutes and Ladders.


Clearly Chutes & Ladders has been on the bottom shelf too long! But one of our teachers at DreamBox Learning has some suggestions for an early learner version that would make it even better. We have a number of board certified teachers on our staff who are developing the curriculum for our adaptive online math learning product. One teacher has blogged about the revisions she would make to the game to adapt it for kids at the younger end of the age range it’s intended for, including starting the hundreds chart in the upper left and help with the wrapping skill. If you’d like to read “Chutes & Ladders: A Beginner’s Version for 3-5 Year Olds Sorely Needed!” you’ll find it at http://www.dreambox.com/blog/chutes-ladders-a-beginner%E2%80%99s-version-for-3-5-year-olds-sorely-needed.

You can buy Chutes and Ladders at WalMart (or a similar store) for about $5. It was one of my favorites. CandyLand, on the other hand, teaches little kids to cheat.

Just as board games have fallen by the wayside with children, so have the many card games I played as a kid. It disturbed me that by the time I got to high school, I was told I wasn't allowed to play games with my friends during lunch. They cited some state law against gambling. We were going to play rummy, not poker! I imagine the story is the same in many state and many schools--kids are discouraged or outright banned from playing card games because of this irrational fear. I know that playing from a young age helped me with a number of math skills that allowed me to thrive in that subject. I've developed an adding and subtracting integers card game using a regular deck, but there's so much more to do.

I would also love to see someone really dive in to board games, card games and dice games and find all the educational uses that are as of yet undiscovered.

This study begins to validate what we game lovers already know from anecdotal experience, that playing board, skill, and card games enhances learning. I have a collection of about 3,000 games. I have noticed that some games that were sold as "educational" tended to be not much fun to play, whereas some other games not labeled as educational were really fun and highly effective in promoting learning. I think the folks who manufacture the educational games have gotten better at it, as I have collected and reviewed more recent such games. One thing that I think is important, however, is to capture the student's interest by doing a fun game before leading into games that teach. I also think that games are very under utilized in the classroom, and I would like to assist in getting them used in classes more. Mr. D's suggestion for a kind of bibliography of games that have relevance is a great idea. One problem, of course, is that games tend to go out-of-print soon, and may be difficult to find. Also, some games such as those that deal with geography or facts become outdated or even wrong as time passes. Still, there is sufficient value in games that their use in learning should be promoted.

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