Board games boost math ability in young children - study

Previous research has already proven that board games are a great learning tool to improve a child’s literacy, but this research shows that they are also great for a child’s numeracy skills as well.

 A girl playing a game. (photo credit: Ways to Play)
A girl playing a game.
(photo credit: Ways to Play)

Kids playing board games based on numbers like Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Rummikub and Othello on a long, lazy Shabbat afternoon are not wasting their time. South American researchers have found that playing them improves the math abilities of young children, according to a comprehensive review of studies published on the topic over the last 23 years.

Board games are already known to enhance learning and development including reading and literacy, but the new study just published in the peer-reviewed journal Early Years and entitled “The effects of board games on math skills in children attending prekindergarten and kindergarten: A systematic review” found that for three to nine-year-olds, the format of number-based board games helps to improve counting, addition and the ability to recognize if a number is higher or lower than another.

The researchers said that children especially benefit from programs when they play board games a few times a week supervised by a teacher or another trained adult. “Board games enhance mathematical abilities for young children,” says lead author Dr. Jaime Balladares from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago, Chile.

“Using board games can be considered a strategy with potential effects on basic and complex math skills. Board games can easily be adapted to include learning objectives related to mathematical skills or other domains,” he said. “Games where players take turns to move pieces around a board differ from those involving specific skills or gambling.”

Board game rules are fixed, which limits a player’s activities, and the moves on the board usually determine the overall playing situation – but preschools rarely use board games. Games in educational settings are designed using technology, which might not be suitable for children aged four to six because of the excessive time they spend (or could spend) using screens or electronic devices. Another study showed that young children who spend more time using touch devices like smartphones and tablets are more likely to have emotional problems, anxiety or depressive or social withdrawal symptoms, somatic complaints, attention problems and aggressive behaviors. 

 Little kids playing Jenga (credit: DEPOSIT PHOTOS)
Little kids playing Jenga (credit: DEPOSIT PHOTOS)

This new study aimed at collecting the available evidence of their effects on children and investigating the scale of the effects of physical board games in promoting learning in young children.

All children participating in the studies received special board game sessions that took place, on average, twice a week for 20 minutes over one-and-a-half months. Teachers, therapists or parents were among the adults who led these sessions.

In some of the 19 studies, children were grouped into either the number board game or to a board game that did not focus on numeracy skills. In others, all children participated in number board games but were allocated different types like dominoes. All children were assessed on their math performance before and after the intervention sessions which were designed to encourage skills such as counting out loud.

The authors rated success according to four categories including basic numeric competency such as the ability to name numbers and basic number comprehension like “nine is greater than three.” The other categories were deepened number comprehension where a child can accurately add and subtract and interest in mathematics. In some cases, parents attended a training session to learn arithmetic that they could then use in the games.

Math skills improved in more than half of the tasks analyzed

Results showed that math skills improved significantly after the sessions among children for more than half (52%) of the tasks analyzed. In nearly a third of cases, children in the intervention groups gained better results than those who did not take part in the board game intervention.

The results also showed that from analyzed studies to date, board games on the language or literacy areas, while implemented, did not include scientific evaluation – comparing control with intervention groups or pre and-post-intervention to evaluate their impact on children.

Designing and implementing board games along with scientific procedures to evaluate their efficacy, therefore, are “urgent tasks to develop in the next few years,” Balladares stressed. This is the next project they are investigating. “Future studies should be designed to explore the effects that these games could have on other cognitive and developmental skills. An interesting space for the development of intervention and assessment of board games should open up in the next few years, given the complexity of games and the need to design more and better games for educational purposes.”