Learning math should be fun, so why not use board games? Many foundational skills, including quantification, counting, and symbolic representation can be reinforced while playing these games. Unfortunately, not all board games are created equal. If a child is interacting with a game that is either too easy or too difficult, these positive results will not be achieved. It is likely that a child will seem uninterested or disengaged if the game is not within his/her zone of proximal development. I often shied away from using board games in my kindergarten class because I didn’t see the benefits. Little did I know that even games need to be differentiated in order to meet each child’s needs.
There are three types of board games that work well for practicing early math skills. These games follow a developmental sequence thus allowing for more differentiation. The lowest level of board game is called a grid game. It does not require knowledge of written numerals or proficiency in counting. Grid games are played by rolling a dot cube (which can be individualized with amounts the child is comfortable with) and selecting that many objects. The objects are then placed using one-to-one correspondence on a grid. The grid game board is similar to a bingo card. This game can be played individually with the child placing objects on the grid until it is full. An example would be a 3 x 3 grid board with lily pads that would each be covered by a plastic frog.
The next level of board game is called a short path game. This game requires a child to have a higher proficiency with counting. Path games are more abstract, because the child is moving a single marker down a path to represent an amount rolled on the dot cube. A grid game uses concrete objects to keep track of counting, but a path game doesn’t. Thus a child cannot as easily go back or start over if there is an error while counting. Short path games are linear with approximately 8- 10 spaces. Repeated playing of short path games helps the child create his/her own mental number line.
The most difficult level of these board games is called a long path game. This is what we typically think of when we hear board games. This includes games like Chutes and Ladders or even Candy Land. Children are not ready for this level of difficulty until they have a conceptual understanding of the two previous types of games. Long path games are abstract like short path games, but they are usually longer and nonlinear. If a child is not comfortable with counting, he/she will be easily distracted by the curves in the game or the other players’ markers. Longer path games can continue to be used throughout the grade levels. Different content and skills can be reinforced with this type of game.
Games are an excellent way to learn math, if used in the right way. Having kindergarteners start out by playing long path games is not the right way. They will become frustrated and the learning will stop. Using the gradual development of grid to short path to long path games will ensure that our children are not only playing the game but learning math as well.