Kids' board games help to build math skills, study finds

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Beyond serving as a pleasant pastime, some children's board games may help raise the math skills of disadvantaged pre-kindergarten students, according to a study at Carnegie Mellon University.

The findings were reported yesterday in the journal "Child Development." The research was conducted by Robert S. Siegler, CMU professor of cognitive psychology, and Geetha B. Ramani, assistant professor of human development at the University of Maryland, who worked on the study while a postdoctoral research associate at CMU.

Preschoolers from low-income homes made significant advances in counting and other skills after playing a game that required them to move markers along a horizontal path consisting of numbered squares. Researchers dubbed the game "The Great Race."

"We created it, but it's very similar to the idea of 'Chutes and Ladders,'" Dr. Siegler said, referring to the classic children's game, in which players move along a path, climbing ladders for good deeds and falling down chutes as punishment for mischief.

The researchers found that participants maintained the achievement gains nine weeks after they stopped playing the game -- an important point given the thorny problem of retention in public education.

The journal article comes about a week after President Bush's National Mathematics Advisory Panel issued recommendations for improving the nation's math performance. Dr. Siegler was a member of the panel.

"One of the many recommendations of the national math panel report was that we improve preschool mathematics curriculum, especially for low-income children," Dr. Siegler said. "One of the easiest and most inexpensive ways to do this is to provide board games to Head Start centers, child-care centers serving low-income populations and perhaps individual parents."

In their journal article, the researchers said children who enter pre-kindergarten classes with low math skills have a difficult time catching up.

The study didn't surprise Patricia Riso, spokeswoman for Hasbro Games in East Longmeadow, Mass., whose Milton Bradley subsidiary makes Chutes and Ladders. She said such games long have been linked to educational and social benefits, such as teaching children how to take turns and persevere.

Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of early-childhood education for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said her teachers use games and other kinds of play to teach math. She said the district, recognizing the growing importance of math and reading for children as young as 3, plans to rebuild the early-childhood curriculum to better prepare students for elementary school.

The CMU study involved 124 students from 10 Head Start centers, which provide federally funded pre-kindergarten programs to low-income families.

One group played on a board with numbered squares, and a second group played on a board with only colored squares. The first group used a spinner that directed players to move one or two places on the board; the other students used a spinner that directed them to move to the next space of a given color.

The groups played about 80 minutes over two weeks, with children in the first group pronouncing numbers and counting movements along the board.

Students who played the color-based game had no improvement in math skills. But children who played the number-based game improved their ability to count, recognize numbers, compare number values and estimate number values.

In a second experiment, the researchers found a correlation between math achievement and students' exposure to board games at home.

Dr. Siegler and Carol Copple, director of publications and initiatives in educational practice for the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C., said any game that requires counting and calculation could boost young students' math ability.

"You don't have to go out and buy fancy games," Dr. Copple said, suggesting parents create their own with paper and pencil. She said parents should play, too, and ask children such questions as "Is this more than that?" and "How much farther did he get to go?"

The Pittsburgh district is accepting applications for its early-childhood programs, serving about 2,500 students citywide. Parents may register online at or through the Parent Hotline at 412-622-7920.

Joe Smydo can be reached at or 412-263-1548.


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