Can you learn math skills through moving your token in a board game? Geetha Ramani, a professor at the University of Maryland, and Robert Siegler, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, have published a study that suggests that low-income preschoolers demonstrated more proficiency on mathematical tasks after playing a linear number board game.
The researchers were interested in studying preschoolers’ math skills, specifically how children think about the relationships between numbers. According to prior research by Siegler, preschoolers do not yet have a linear representation of numbers, which is a concept that, once mastered, correlates with a variety of tasks related to superior mathematical performance (Siegler & Booth, 2004).
The researchers compared the performance of groups of children playing either a number board game or a color board game. The number game board consisted of 10 equal-sized, horizontally arranged, differently colored squares with the numbers 1-10 listed in the boxes. The color game board was configured exactly the same way except that the squares were not numbered. In the number game, players used a spinner to determine if they were to advance 1 or 2 spaces on the board. In the color game, the spinner had colors, such that one advanced their token to the next space with the color shown on the spinner. When a child moved a token, he or she would announce either the numbers shown on the spaces (e.g. 5, 6; number game condition) or the colors on the spaces (e.g. red, blue; color game condition).
The children who played the number game improved in comparing magnitudes of numbers, estimating numbers on a number line, identifying numbers, and counting. The effects persisted for at least 9 weeks. The children who played the color game did not show the same improvement. An interesting note is that, in a related study, the same researchers did not find the same math improvements using a circular board game (Siegler & Ramani, 2009). Considering that the researchers explored children’s linear representation of numbers, their findings using a circular board make sense.
Ramani and Siegler’s study has profound implications for early childhood education. If board games can produce measurable gains in math proficiency, then they can serve as viable tools for parents to teach their children or for children to engage in incidental (i.e. implicit) math learning while playing games themselves. However, before making these connections, we should consider a caveat to their findings: the counting-up rule the researchers employed limits the study’s transferability. For example, if a child played the number game and moved a token from 5 to 7, they would need to say “6, 7” as opposed to “1, 2” or else the researcher would ask the child to vocalize the move again. Although this counting-up procedure has been hypothesized to be instrumental to understanding numerical magnitudes (Secada, Fuson, & Hall, 1983), Ramani and Siegler noted that the more common way to play board games is to use the space one previously occupied as a zero point and to say “1, 2, …”. In games such as Chutes and Ladders, the counting-up procedure may work, although in games such as Sorry, it is unlikely that players will naturally use this strategy, particularly because the spaces are not numbered.
Future research to build from Ramani and Siegler’s study could compare two playing styles of Chutes and Ladders. In one condition, players would be free to play the game without any interference; in the other condition, researchers could ask players to vocalize their moves and to employ the “counting-up” procedure used by Ramani and Siegler. The groups could be compared for the same math skills that the researchers explored.
What do you think about the study? What interests you about it? What strikes you as odd or inapplicable to gameplay outside of the laboratory setting? Do you think that games should be used to teach math, or should play exist as a domain that is separate from intentional learning? What games have you played that may have helped you learn math concepts, either intentionally or incidentally?
References [in order of appearance]:
Ramani, G.B., & Siegler, R.S. (2008). Promoting broad ands table improvements in low-income children’s numerical knowledge through playing number board games. Child Development, 79(2), 375-394.
Siegler, R. S., & Booth, J. L. (2004). Development of numerical estimation in young children. Child Development, 75, 428-444.
Siegler, R. S. & Ramani, G. B. (2009). Playing linear number board games but not circular ones improves low-income preschoolers’ numerical understanding. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 545-560.
Secada, W.G., Fuson, K.C., & Hall, J.W. (1983). The transition from counting-all to counting-on in addition. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 14, 47-57.