Number-based board games like Chutes & Ladders can be fodder for family fun or family feuds (depending on temperament) – but they can also help young kids develop math skills. Now, a new study suggests that while it doesn’t necessarily matter if you win or lose, how you play the game might be what really matters in helping children ascend the ladder of mathematically ability.

“What we believe is that, when a board game has numbers on it, it provides cues about the relationships between numbers,” Boston College researcher Elida Laski said in a phone interview with International Business Times. If a game is arranged in a 10 by 10 matrix, “putting 20 right above 10 says not just that 20 is larger, but that 20 is two tens.”

Laski and Carnegie Mellon psychologist Robert Siegler recently published an investigation of board games and number skills in the journal Developmental Psychology. The primary question Laski and Siegler were interested in was whether the way children were counting aloud as they moved their game pieces could have an effect on the number skills they gleaned from play.

The researchers tested 42 kindergartners on a number-based board game (designed by the experimenters to mimic Chutes & Ladders) called Race to Space. One group of children played the game using a more typical counting method. If a piece started out on, say, the number five, and had to be moved three places, a child would count aloud “one, two, three.” The other way to play the game, called the “count-on” method, is slightly different – in that same situation, the child would count up from five as they moved the game piece: “six, seven, eight.”

Before and after the children played the board games, experimenters ran the kids through a series of number skills tests. One test involved flashing numbers on a screen, and asking the children to name the number. Another trial was what’s called a number line estimation test: a child is shown a line labeled “0” on one end and “100” on the other, then asked to put a mark where they think a third number – say, 67 – is.

The number line exercise measures a child’s understanding of number magnitudes, which is particularly important, according to Laski. Children tend to have a wonky idea about number magnitudes – to them, she says, the difference between one and five often doesn’t seem the same as the difference between, say, 80 and 85.

Kids who played their game with the “count-on” method showed greater improvements in the number tests after playing, Laski and Siegler found. Even more telling, the children especially improved on the number line test.

But is playing the game really all that essential to the improvement? Could just practicing the “count-on” method yield the same results? To test this, Laski and Siegler ran another experiment: This time, the kids played a board game without using the “count-on” method, then practiced the “count-on” method using number cards. Unlike the children in the first experiment that “counted-on” with the board game, the children in the second experiment showed some improvements in number skills, but no significant improvement on the number line test.

“The condition of 'counting on' in the context of the board game led to the greatest gains -- not just the practice of counting on,” Laski says.

In the future, the team will be looking to other subtle ways that board games can affect learning. But in the meantime, the finding may shine a light on how “counting on” during gameplay can be a simple, very low-cost way for parents and teachers to boost a child’s mathematical abilities.

“It’s a very small, subtle manipulation that might not seem all that important,” Laski says. “But it can lead to a large difference in learning.”

SOURCE: Laski, Elida and Robert Siegler. “Learning from Number Board Games: You Learn What You Encode.” Developmental Psychology 7 October 2013.