Some games improve math skills better than others

JOHNNY GREIG / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARYAs a psychologist who works with children who have trouble at school, I know that, for many families, homework time is not fun. There may be any number of reasons for this, but certainly it’s easy to imagine that children who have learning difficulties might find homework to be frustrating. That’s why I get excited when I find a game that aims to teach an academic skill – if kids can get the same practice from playing a game that they get from their homework, you get more fun and less frustration. However, it’s not every day that you find research that clarifies the kinds of games that are most helpful, or whether games work better than homework or drills.

A study in the new issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology examined the benefits of board games in developing the math skills of preschoolers. Researchers wondered about the relative benefits of playing linear board games versus circular ones in the process of learning about numbers. Bulding on previous findings that kids generally imagine numbers in a line from smallest to largest, they believed that a linear board game (like Snakes and Ladders) would give kids a better idea about the magnitude of numbers than a circular board (like Monopoly, which is a square board that players move about in a circle) would.

Participants were 4 and 5 year-olds from Head Start programs and child care centers serving very low income families. The kids completed a math test before the activities; they had to identify numbers, indicate which of a pair of numbers was the largest, and complete some addition questions. Some of the children played a linear board game, in which they moved their pieces across the board from a square marked “Start” to one marked “Finish.” Others played on a board that they moved around like a clock. Spaces on the boards were numbered, and the kids were instructed to count as they moved; if they started on square number 4, and spun a 3 on the spinner, they would say, “5, 6, 7” as they moved across the squares. Some groups didn’t play a game, but completed other activities involving numbers. After all of the activities were completed, they were given the math test again, to see if their performance improved. Finally, the researchers taught the children the answers to addition questions that they answered incorrectly before playing the games.

The results indicated that kids who played the linear board game performed better than the ones who played on a circular board when tested after playing. Players of the linear game also scored higher than the kids who engaged in other number-learning activities! So the linear board helped the children to learn about the magnitude of numbers (which number of a pair is the largest) – but there was one other important result. The kids who played the linear game learned more from the feedback about their addition errors than any other kids in the study – the straight board seemed to prime the kids for later learning about math facts!

Although these findings are interesting, they’re limited in that we don’t know how long the improvements last. Still, this information may be valuable for parrents who want to help their young children learn about math. It seems that playing games on a linear board might help kids to develop an internal number line that allows them to learn basic math concepts more easily. The methods used in the study might also be important for parents – the kids were asked to count through the squares as they moved. A little over a year ago, I wrote about a study that found that if adults point to words when reading to preschoolers, it can help with the development of pre-reading skills by drawing their attention to the text rather than the pictures. Counting through squares on a game board might encourage kids to attend to the order and magnitude of the numbers as they play! I’ve also encouraged parents to replace the dice in their board games as kids get older, especially for games that use two dice. Most games come with a die that uses pips, dots that indicate a number from 1 to 6. Many game stores sell replacement dice that have numbers instead; rather than counting the number of dots, kids then have to add the numbers together! It’s not a bad idea to brainstorm for fun activities that practice basic academic skills – most kids (and parents) would rather play a game than do homework!

You can read the Journal of Educational Psychology study here.

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