Board Games and Math Skills

Yesterday a kindergarten teacher asked me for information about how board games can help develop math skills.

Here is part of my answer to her.

Naturally the first branch of math that comes to mind is game theory. Basically game theory posits that your best move depends on what the other player does. You’ve probably heard about the prisoner’s dilemma (should I cheat or cooperate) which is a classic example of game theory. But game theory was very important for developing algorithms, so it became important in computer programming. A child might use it in playing checkers: “If I move here, she can jump me, but then I’ll be able to jump two of hers in a row. So it is worth it.” An if, then statement, plus a cost-benefit analysis (more later).

Some strategy games help children develop heuristics, little things they can do to discover what the opponent might have or be planning. Hmm… this isn’t a very rational example, but if you’re playing Scrabble you might wonder if someone already has the Q, and since you have two u’s, you might play one in a prime spot to see if anyone plays a Q on it. Or in Othello, you might try to distract your opponent from a corner-seeking strategy by laying out a tempting side-square opportunity. Clue and Clue, Jr. are obviously logic puzzles and every guess you throw out there is a heuristic for eliminating some of the logical possibilities.

I don’t really know how to play chess, but my husband tells me algorithms and heuristics feature prominently in many people’s play. They have routines for starting the game.

A great many games help players develop intuitions about probability and statistics. “If there are 9 E’s in Scrabble, and 7 are already on the board, it is not too likely I’ll get one in my next turn. Therefore, I should think of a word that won’t need one…” Games with cards and dice are obvious ones for learning probability.

On a more beginning math level, color-coding games help children use set theory to think. “All the yellow ones are mine.” I think in Candyland, you don’t even count, you get a color card and move to the next/closest space of the same color. Of course there is a preliminary-to-counting skill in recognizing “next closest,” but I am not sure that would show up in any measures of math achievement.

Games like Monopoly and Life (I think) require counting, adding, subtracting, and even cost-benefit analysis. “Should I buy the more expensive property and get higher rent or a cheaper one, like near the jail, where people might pass by more often…? Should I buy hotels or more property?” “Would it be better to go to college?”

I am also reminded of the positive affect that playing board games with family and friends gives. Just like it’s the cuddle factor during bedtime stories that imparts a love of reading.

Here are a couple more opinions relating to traditional, commercially available board games:
Family Board Games Build Math Skills by Julie Tiss, M. Ed.

Carnegie Mellon study finds kids’ board games help to build math skills


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