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Giving Little Kids a Board Game? Tweak It First!

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

Board games have long been thought to support young children’s math abilities. As they move a game piece along colored squares in a game like Chutes & Ladders, children practice counting. They not only use the names for numbers in order but also learn to associate just one square per number, and vice versa.

This is all good and true but a new study points out something I’d never realized, even though it’s obvious. Children who play these games only learn to count as far as the dice or spinner permits. They count the number of spaces they are permitted to move – from one up to maybe six or so – and then, on their next turn, start over again from one.

A report just released by Boston College and Carnegie Mellon University points out this limitation. Elida Laski, one of the lead researchers, says “We found that it’s the way that children count — whether the counting procedure forces them to attend to the numbers in the spaces of a board game — that yields real benefits in the use of numbers… What’s most important is whether you count within a larger series of numbers, or simply start from one each time you move a piece.”

In the study 40 children played a board game consisting of 100 spaces. First, children played the game counting each step starting from one on each turn. So a child who spun 5 on her first turn would move her game piece and count “one, two, three, four, five” and if, on her second turn she spun 3, she would move her game piece and count “one, two, three.” Then, children played again, this time counting from where they left off on a previous turn. In our example, the girl who spun a 3 on her second turn would begin counting from 6, the next number after the last number of her first turn. She would count, “six, seven, eight.”

This sounds a bit complicated and it is. And it is this complexity that expands children’s thinking and their understanding of numbers. Children who played the game using the “count-on” method were better able to use a number line, identify numbers and to count to a higher number than children who played the game using the “count-from-1” method.

What does this mean for you?

If you give a child a board game this holiday season, you might “enhance it” by numbering each space on the track. This will encourage children to play using the “count-on” method and will also reinforce what higher numbers, such as 16 or 25, look like.

If you don’t want to number the game itself, or if the game doesn’t use numbers (Candyland, for example, asks children to move to specific colored squares), then when you play with your child encourage him to count-on instead of count-from-1. This requires a child (and you!) to remember what number was the end number on the last turn, adding even more thinking.

If you have time over the holidays when the children are home from school, consider drawing your own racetrack game on a large piece of paper. Kids can color in the squares, make pitfalls and detours, and decorate the edges of the game board. Number the squares and move by rolling dice or drawing numbers from a jar. Use pennies, Lego or other small objects as tokens. Older children can spent a happy afternoon making their own racetrack games and playing with each other and their younger siblings.

Just remind them to “count on”! As Laski says, counting-on is “a simple way to enhance any game they have at home and still have fun playing it.”


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.