I’ve always loved board games, and I’m happy to see new research demonstrating their educational value. The new study (Siegler & Ramani, 2007) looked specifically at the impact of playing a simple numerical (versus color-coded) board game on the number understanding of low-income children. Earlier studies (notably Case & Griffin, 1990) found that the number knowledge of low-income pre-schoolers significantly lagged that of their middle- and high-income peers. The difference most likely comes from the informal mathematical experiences kids receive at home. Just as exposure to books and vocabulary helps prepare a pre-school child for more formal reading instruction in school, so too do informal mathematical tasks like counting place settings, measuring ingredients, and playing board games get a child ready for learning math in the classroom.
From simple games like Chutes & Ladders to more complex ones like Monopoly, these fun activities contain lots of math lessons. Rolling dice reinforces sets and addition. Moving a playing piece along the ten squares on each side of a Monopoly board highlights number quantity relationships and a make-ten strategy (how many spaces to land on Free Parking?). The new research suggests that playing these games can significantly close the number knowledge gap among pre-schoolers. That’s a cheap (and fun) way to make a difference.
And then there’s all the social benefit that comes from playing board games. Children learn about turn-taking, following the rules, and self-handicapping (to keep things competitive among unevenly matched players). Players have to monitor each other for mistakes and cheating. Disagreements must be resolved and fairness maintained. That’s all really good stuff!
Sadly, technology can put many of these lessons at risk. Putting the games on the computer typically means robbing children of the opportunity to calculate the dice or count spaces on the playing board as the software does it for them. I felt robbed of these chances myself when I went bowling over the Thanksgiving holiday. I hadn’t been bowling (big ball, not candlepin for my New England friends) in over 20 years. I stunk, but that’s beside the point. Horrible low-tech graphics on LCD displays hung over each alley, and a computer counted the pins and did all the scoring automatically. The families with young children on either side of our “older” group missed out on some valuable educational moments. Sometimes technology can make things easier without making them better.