Playing Board Games Adds Up to Better Number Knowledge
In Low-Income Preschoolers, Carnegie Mellon Study Says
PITTSBURGH—Parents who want to help their young children become proficient in math might want to schedule family game nights on a regular basis. A Carnegie Mellon University study published in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development suggests that playing a simple, inexpensive numerical board game boosts low-income preschoolers' comprehension of a variety of number-related concepts.
In the study, four- and five-year-old Head Start students who played a Chutes and Ladders-style board game with consecutively numbered linear squares performed better on four different numerical tasks than did their counterparts, who played a similar game in which the squares were colored rather than numbered. Furthermore, the students' math knowledge as measured by those tasks — counting from one to 10, identifying printed numerals in that range, choosing the larger of two numbers, and placing a number in the correct position on a number line with 0 at one end and 10 at the other — remained higher more than two months after their game-playing sessions.
"Having a solid understanding of numbers at an early age prepares a child for success in mathematics courses throughout his or her education," said study co-author Robert Siegler, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Psychology in Carnegie Mellon's College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "Research has shown that low-income children tend to enter school with less math knowledge than their peers who come from middle- and upper-income families. This study's findings present a simple and inexpensive way to address that gap."
The study involved 124 preschool students from families who met the 2006 federal income requirements for Head Start (less than $16,600 for a family of three, for example). The children were randomly assigned to play either the board game with numbered squares or the one with colored squares, and they participated in four 15-minute game-playing sessions during a two-week period.
On each of the four measurement tasks, the children who played the numbered-square board game demonstrated significant improvement based on the results of testing before and after the game-playing sessions. Children who were only able to identify, on average, seven of the numbers between one and 10 correctly on the pre-test recognized an average of 8.2 numbers after playing the board game. The children who played the numerical board game were able to pick the larger number in a pair 85 percent of the time compared to just 73 percent of the time before they played, and 94 percent of them were able to count to 10 perfectly after the sessions ended. In the number line estimation task, the children made 25 percent fewer errors after playing the numerical board game than they made prior to the study. Children who played the game with colored squares showed no discernible improvement on any of the measures in their post-tests.
Additionally, while the older children in the group had more number knowledge initially, the researchers found that the younger children learned just as much as the older children over the course of the study, suggesting that the board game could be a useful tool for improving numerical skills in groups of children of varying ages.
A second part of the study examined the board game experiences of the same Head Start students compared with a group of predominantly middle-class children from a university-run preschool. When asked if they played board games at home or at friends' or relatives' homes, 80 percent of the middle-class children said that they had played board games at home, while only 47 percent of the Head Start students did. Children who played board games at home and at the homes of family and friends had the greatest understanding of numbers.
Interestingly, when the same question was asked about video games, two-thirds of the Head Start students played video games at home or at a friend's or relative's house, but only 30 percent of the middle-income children did. Students who reported playing video games, even those designed to be educational, showed no increased knowledge of numerical concepts.
"This discrepancy in board game experiences presents a rare opportunity for a low-cost solution that effectively addresses a socioeconomic disparity," Siegler said. "Such games could even be created with just a pencil and paper and a few other common household items. In terms of improved math performance, the returns on a minimal investment would be significant and enduring."
Geetha Ramani, who was a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon when the study was conducted, and who is now an assistant professor of human development at the University of Maryland, was the study's first author. The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Education.