Children can improve their math skills by playing certain board games as long as they use a particular counting method, a new research has found.
Games like Chutes & Ladders require players to count out the spaces along which they move their tokens at each turn. Earlier studies have pointed to the benefits to young children of playing games that require counting.
The new study by Boston College and Carnegie Mellon University researchers suggests the simple act of playing a number game may not yield the benefits earlier studies have detailed.
What matters is how children count while they play, said Boston College Assistant Professor of Education Elida Laski and Carnegie Mellon Professor of Psychology Robert S Siegler.
"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," said Laski, a developmental psychologist.
"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," Laski added.
The researchers tested two counting methods in a study of 40 children who played a 100-space board game designed by the researchers to mimic products like Chutes & Ladders.
In the first method, referred to as "count-from-1", children started counting from the number one each time they moved a piece.
In the other method, students would "count on" from the actual numerical place of their latest landing spot in the game. So a child who had moved her piece 15 spaces would "count-on" from 16 during her next move.
The process of counting on allows children to develop their ability to encode the relationship between numbers and spaces. That, in turn, improved their abilities to estimate the size of numbers on number lines, identify numbers and to count-on.
Playing the same game, the standard "count-from-1" method led to considerably less learning, the researchers found.
In a second experiment, the researchers found that students who practiced encoding numbers 1 through 100 via methods beyond a board game showed no appreciable gain in number line estimation.
The new results suggest that simply playing board games may not yield improvements in counting skills.
Instead, parents and teachers need to direct children's attention to the numbers on the game boards to realise those benefits, researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Developmental Psychology.