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Study Finds Counting Matters

Heights Staff

Published: Thursday, December 12, 2013

Updated: Thursday, December 12, 2013 04:12

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Alex Gaynor / Heights Editor

Elida Laski, an assistant professor in the Lynch School of Education, has worked with young children for years, both as a kindergarten teacher and as a parent of two young children. In 2008, she earned her Ph.D. in developmental psychology, and since then she has pursued research that has practical implications for children, parents, and teachers. Now, she’s making innovative advances in the field of child psychology by studying board games.

Her latest study, recently published in the American Psychological Association’s Developmental Psychology, reveals that how children count when playing board games matters more than what they are counting.

In a game like Chutes and Ladders, for example, players often move their tokens forward by the number indicated on the dial. If the player’s token is on square No. 5, for instance, and the dial points to three, the player usually counts out three squares, paying little attention to the actual numbers on the game board squares.

“My hunch is that when [children] play board games this way, they could technically not look at the numbers at all,” Laski said. “They could just be seeing how close they are getting to the top— so, the benefit of playing a game with numbers might not be as great because they might not attend to the numbers as much.”

Laski’s study, entitled “Learning From Number Board Games: You Learn What You Encode,” consists of two experiments. In the first, 42 low-income kindergartners from multiple classrooms at two charter schools were randomly assigned to two groups. Laski and her co-researcher and thesis advisor Robert S. Siegler, a psychology professor at Carnegie Melon University, looked at the effects that counting methods had on students’ number learning.

In order to test improvement and number learning, the researchers gave the students a pre-test and post-test. In each case, students were asked to name numbers that were flashed on a computer screen and to count up from a certain number. The number-line estimation task, frequently used by mathematics and early childhood researchers, was used as a third measure. In this, students were shown a line with zero and 100 marked at each end, and they were asked to point to where a certain number should be placed.

“Previous research had shown that playing number board games and the frequency with which kids play math games is related to their math learning,” Laski said. “But, we were curious if even using the exact same board, but manipulating something as subtle as the way they move their token, would have an effect.”

The first group of students played the board game, which was modeled after Chutes and Ladders, by counting in the typical method. They spun a dial and then moved their tokens by counting out that number.

The second group of students played in the counting-on method, where, instead of counting from one to the number of spaces they moved their tokens, they counted the number of the squares.

“If they were on [square] three and they spun a three, they were required to say the name of the number in the square while keeping track,” she said. “So, they could have to say four, five, six … The hypothesis was that not only did this give them more practice saying the names of the numbers, identifying numbers, and counting on from a number other than one ... [but] it would also force them to pay attention to the numbers on the game board.”

The experiment revealed that students who played in the typical way did not get much better on any of the three measures. The children who played in the count-on method, however, showed significant improvements at number identification and counting-on, which Laski acknowledged wasn’t all that surprising given that they were practicing those very things in the experiment. What surprised her most, though, was that those students also did twice as well on the number line estimation task than did their peers who counted in the traditional method.

In the second experiment, those who played the game the typical way were given numeral cards after playing and were asked to practice counting-on. The study found, though, that students only improved on the number line estimation task if they counted-on in the context of the board game.

“Given my experience as a teacher and a parent, I think what is really exciting about these findings is that it means that teachers can take materials they already have and just make them better simply by changing the way they ask kids to move their token,” Laski said. “It doesn’t involve a big dump of resources to buy new materials, it doesn’t involve designing a new game, it’s just a really simple way of maximizing the benefits you get from playing games with kids.” 

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