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.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.