Playing number games with preschool-aged children can improve their math skills

Key takeaways for caregivers

  • Experimental evidence shows that playing simple number-focused board games with preschool-aged children can improve their mathematical skills.
  • Playing number games and encouraging young children to think about numbers in everyday conversations can help children practice counting principles and notice number-related aspects of their environment.
  • Following children’s lead and encouraging mathematical thought in their interests may help them become more interested in math in the long term.

Incorporating math in everyday play at home

“Five, six, seven, eight,” counts four-year-old Remy as he moves his token three spaces, counting on from five, where he ended his last turn.
“Now I’m winning!” he says.
“How do you know that?” asks his dad.
“I’m on eight and you’re on six and eight is bigger than six!” answers Remy.

This vignette of a father and his son highlights the unique opportunities for preschool-aged children to learn from simple activities in the home, such as playing board games. Opportunities for engaging with mathematical information at home are referred to as the home math environment.

Previous meta-analytic research (which provides an average of effects from more than 60 studies) has established that the home math environment relates to children’s performance on math skills tests. Young children tend to do better at math when they do things at home like identify and write numbers; play games with cards, dice, and spinners; and sort objects by shape, size, or color.

However, these correlational findings alone do not tell us much and leave unanswered two important questions: (1) Does increased engagement with mathematical and numerical information at home cause children to become better at math? (2) Do children who are better at math seek out more play opportunities that involve math than other preschool-aged children?

preschool-aged child playing number game

Photo: Karolina Grabowska. Pexels.

In addition, it is well-documented that mathematical skills are at least somewhat intergenerational in nature: Children of parents who are good at math tend to be better at math themselves. To learn more, we asked whether playing games that involve counting improves children’s mathematical skills and whether improving parents’ math skills indirectly leads to improvements in children’s math skills.

How can we improve children’s math skills?

My colleagues and I conducted a study with 162 four-year-olds, each of whom was with one of their parents. The research took place in a large urban area in western Pennsylvania, and families were randomly assigned to one of five conditions. Parents were instructed to play an assigned game at home (either with their child or by themselves, depending on the condition) twice weekly for eight weeks:

  1. Number board game (parents and children): Players used a spinner with numbers 1-6 and moved the number of spaces the spinner pointed to on their turn. Participants were told to count each space aloud as they moved their piece.
  2. Shape board game (parents and children): Players used a spinner with different shapes (e.g., square, circle, triangle) and moved to the next space marked with that shape on their turn. Participants were told to name the shape on each space aloud as they moved their piece.
  3. Computerized math game (parents only): This game was designed to improve parents’ math skills involving approximate mental addition or subtraction. Parents were shown sets of dots on the screen, then asked to say how many dots were there; the sets changed too quickly to count.
  4. Computerized trivia game (parents only): Parents were asked to respond to multiple-choice questions involving general trivia.
  5. “Business-as-usual” control group: Families were not given new materials and were asked to proceed with life as usual.

The conditions were devised to help us answer the following questions:

  • Does playing a number game improve math skills more than playing an identical board game that does not involve numbers?
  • Does a game that challenges parents’ math skills improve their children’s math skills more than a game that tests parents’ knowledge of general trivia?
  • Do preschool-aged children learn more when they are directly involved in playing number games with their parents than they do when their parents play alone?
  • Do preschool-aged children’s math skills improve more through these game-based interventions than they do without intervention?

Preschool children’s math improved the most from playing a number game with their parent

Children in the number board game condition outperformed children in the other conditions on a standardized math assessment after two months of engaging with their assigned condition. In other words, children’s math skills improved the most when parents played a number game (versus a non-number game) with them (versus without the children).

Parent-child interactions that directly incorporate number, such as playing number board games together, can lead to improvements in children’s math skills.

Moreover, this improvement resulted from the intervention, not simply because of natural everyday learning (the business-as-usual condition). While differences faded two months beyond the end of the intervention (as seen in a delayed post-test after materials had been taken away), there was still an indication of a positive effect, and continuing the intervention or testing a larger group might have found lasting effects.

Supporting parents’ math does not necessarily improve their preschool child’s skills

Parents in the computerized parent math game condition improved their own math skills and this improvement was present in the delayed post-test two months later. However, in the delayed post-test, their children’s math skills were worse than their peers in the control condition. This appeared to have been due to changes in the home math environment: Parents in the math game condition reported doing fewer math activities with their children over the study than did parents assigned to play number board games with their children.

This finding is somewhat intuitive: Parents have a limited amount of time, so asking them to spend some of that time playing a game alone takes away from time they could be playing with their children.

While parents’ math skills seem to relate to preschool-aged children’s math skills, more research is needed to better understand why: Maybe parents who are better at math engage in more play with their children around math concepts, or maybe they express less hesitancy (or math anxiety) in those interactions. What is clear is that improving parent’s math skills does not necessarily affect children’s math skills.

Number games promote learning about numbers and counting

Overall, our findings show that playing number board games with children can lead to improvements in children’s math skills. But why?

Children benefit from repeated practice of saying the numbers in the count list in order, making more/less comparisons, and matching each number with a discrete object (e.g., a space on a board). In addition, numerous studies have found that children who notice number-related characteristics of their surroundings (as opposed to other characteristics, such as color or shape) tend to perform better on tests of mathematical skills.

preschool child playing number game on table

Photo: Keira Burton. Pexels.

Returning to the example of Remy and his dad, this short interaction gave Remy a chance to practice a lot of the principles necessary for learning to count. He had the opportunity to practice reciting the count list in order and to see that each space represents one and only one count in the count list (one-to-one correspondence) in a potentially new context with objects he had not counted before (abstraction).

Through a simple prompt, Remy also had opportunities to make a more/less comparison and to discuss the stable order of the count list. That is, he recognized that eight is and will always be more than six, and that regardless of starting point (here, starting from five), the count list progresses in the same way (stable order; order irrelevance).

In playing the number board game, Remy (and the participants in our study) may have been encouraged to see the numerical features of their surroundings. In everyday life, while one child might see a scene in the clouds, another might notice that there are exactly four clouds; similarly, one child might see apples ready to be picked from a tree, while another might see a proportion of red to green apples.

This is also true for adults: One individual may notice herself automatically operating mathematically even when it is not necessary (e.g., in looking at a clock at 6:18, she notices a 1:3 ratio), while another adult may perform a quick approximation (e.g., note that it is about 6:20) or see a general association with the time (e.g., “It’s getting late — we should have dinner soon!”).

Parents can incorporate math into everyday activities

Whether in board games, card games, or everyday routines, parents and caregivers can help preschool-aged children better understand principles of counting. Adults can encourage children to focus on numerical features by using simple conversational cues, such as:

  • “How many are there?”
  • “Are there more (X) or more (Y)?”
  • “Who has more?”
  • “Which is (bigger/smaller)?”

These kinds of prompts can be used in all sorts of contexts, including:

  • Reading books: counting objects on a page, making comparisons to past pages or inferences about pages to come, discussing relative sizes
  • Public transit: counting down the number of stops remaining, noticing the route number, discussing the number of passengers and how that changes as people board and disembark
  • Cooking: measuring ingredients, counting additions or stirs, tracking time
  • Grocery shopping: buying on a budget, tracking items, choosing a checkout line based on the number of items allowed and the shoppers in line

Making math learning fun and engaging for preschool-aged children

Children who have fun engaging with math information and games may find themselves drawn to those topics and activities in the future. As such, it may be unsurprising that children in our study who were randomly assigned to play a mathematically focused game outperformed their peers who did not play the game on a math test.

Children who have fun engaging with math information and games may find themselves drawn to those topics and activities in the future.

However, using a numerical board game this way does not have to represent an isolated context. While parents and caregivers can help shape preschool-aged children’s interests by incorporating enjoyable media in a content area, children can also choose activities based on their own interests. These interests can be a starting point for further learning, and encouraging and following them may produce a trusting, fruitful, and engaging relationship. In turn, that relationship can support the development of curiosity and inquiry. Such an approach also provides an opportunity to capitalize on children’s interests to build excitement about mathematical learning.

Conclusions: Support children’s math learning during play and daily routines

Extending beyond the well-documented correlational evidence that the home math environment relates to children’s math skills, we now have experimental proof that playing numerical board games can improve preschool-age children’s math skills. Just as importantly, we know that parents have limited time and, when it comes to trying to improve children’s math skills, that time is better spent on talking about numbers while playing with their children than on working alone on their own math skills.

These activities can also happen in routine parent-child interactions. Parents can engage children’s interests in all sorts of settings, including on transit, while cooking and shopping, and when reading a book. With simple questions and prompts, parents can highlight number in many non-math activities. Incorporating these small changes so children see number in all they do can have a meaningful effect on math skills.

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