Playing along the line: evaluating a novel number board game
Written by Dr Francesco Sella and edited by Dr Ella James-Brabham and Professor Tim Jay. Francesco is a senior lecturer at Loughborough University; for more information about Francesco and his work, there is a link at the end of this blogpost. Typeset by Dr Bethany Woollacott.
Early numeracy and the number line – the background
Early numeracy skills are fundamental for children to build a strong foundation for more advanced mathematical concepts1. These skills have been associated with multiple life outcomes, such as health, income, and quality of life2,3. Therefore, it is crucial to design effective interventions to support the development of early numerical skills.
The number line is an effective tool to represent numerical information visually, and its use has been widely implemented in educational settings to introduce arithmetic and other numerical concepts4. Several researchers have implemented number line interventions to improve mathematical skills, and linear board games are particularly effective in improving numerical skills5. In a number line intervention, children usually move the counters forward (from left to right) across the board6. However, recent research suggests that children may benefit from forward and backwards7,8.
The game – our approach
Together with expert early years practitioners, we created a game called ‘Feed the Monster’ where the aim of the game was for children to place cards in ascending and descending order to build a number line (Figure 1). Children were given a game-playing mat in the design of a tablecloth and a set of number cards with different images on each side. One side showed a closed cloche (i.e., a domed metal plate cover) with a number on the top and the other side showed an open cloche with a number and a plate of either “monster food” or a “monster drink.” Children placed the number cards along the game-playing mat in ascending or descending order towards a monster placed at one end of the mat. Once the order was correct, children could flip the cards to feed the monster by revealing the monster’s food or drink. The game targeted counting, number recognition and reading, symbolic number ordering, and spatial disposition of numbers on the number line while encouraging social interaction.
“The game targeted counting, number recognition and reading, symbolic number ordering, and spatial disposition of numbers on the number line while encouraging social interaction.“
The diagram below shows examples of the game for both conditions: forward and bidirectional.
The blue arrows in the diagram demonstrate how children in the Forward condition placed cards in ascending order from left to right twice. The orange arrows demonstrate how children in the Bidirectional condition (shown in orange) placed cards in ascending order from left to right and, then, in descending order from right to left. In both conditions, after being ordered, the cards were flipped to reveal the food and drinks that the monster got.
The intervention study – how we tested the game
A final sample of 249 children from primary schools in Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire (UK) participated in the study. We randomly assigned children to play either the number game in the forward or bidirectional condition, or an alphabet game (i.e., Alphabet Lotto – Orchard Toys). Children completed two game sessions twice per week for four weeks with a one-week break in the middle. Children played their allocated game in two sets of pairs in a quiet corner of the classroom for approximately ten minutes each session.
Children in the number game forward condition played two games with the number 1 (sessions 1-3) or 6 (sessions 4-8) placed on the left-hand side of their tablecloth and the monster card at the end of the right-hand side. Children in the number game bidirectional condition played one game as in the forward condition, whereas, in the second game, the number 10 (sessions 1-3) or 15 (sessions 4-8) was placed on the far right-hand side of the tablecloth and the monster was placed at the far left-hand side of the tablecloth.
Children were instructed to place the number cards in order starting from the number card already on the tablecloth (i.e., 1, 6, 10, or 15) to get the food and drinks for the monster. Throughout the game, the experimenter encouraged children to look for the number to be placed by saying, “What number comes after n?” or “What number comes before n?”. Once the numbers had been placed, the experimenter checked that the number cards were in the correct order.
Results – our findings
Attendance was high, and dropout was low, with children showing high engagement and enjoyment irrespective of the played game. Children significantly improved their numerical and letter-sound knowledge skills between the week before they started the intervention (pre-test) and the week after the intervention (post-test). Although, the study did not find any added benefits of playing the number or alphabet games beyond the learning already happening in the classroom.
Despite the lack of statistically significant results, we did observe that the number game improved individual numerical tasks and that the alphabet game enhanced letter-sound knowledge, in line with our expectations. It is possible that the intervention was not intensive enough to lead to significant improvements in children’s number skills, even though previous successful studies have implemented a similar level of intensity. Future studies could increase the length of the intervention, the frequency of the game sessions, and the sample size. Additionally, it may be worthwhile to explore using number cards as concrete teaching manipulatives during school hours.
Children enjoyed playing the game – our conclusions
Although the newly designed number game did not produce the desired intervention effect, it was highly engaging and playable in a classroom setting, even when played in small groups with minimal supervision. Children enjoyed the game, and attendance remained high throughout the game sessions. The game’s mechanics, narrative, and graphics were successful and could be used as a starting point to improve the game’s effectiveness in the future. We look forward to exploring how teachers use the game to support classroom teaching.
“Children enjoyed the game, and attendance remained high throughout the game sessions.”
We want to thank the schools, teachers, and children for participating in this research. We are grateful to the educational practitioners with whom we co-designed the game, and those who helped with the piloting phase. We thank the Nuffield Foundation for funding this project (FR-000022615) but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. We also thank the Centre for Mathematical Cognition for their support.
- Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., Siegler, R. S., & Davis-Kean, P. E. (2014). What’s past is prologue: Relations between early mathematics knowledge and high school achievement. Educational Researcher, 43(7), 352-360.
- National Numeracy. (2015). Numeracy for Health. https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/sites/default/files/numeracy_for_health_full.pdf
- Ritchie, S. J., & Bates, T. C. (2013). Enduring links from childhood mathematics and reading achievement to adult socioeconomic status. Psychological science, 24(7), 1301-1308.
- Sella, F., Berteletti, I., Lucangeli, D., & Zorzi, M. (2017). Preschool children use space, rather than counting, to infer the numerical magnitude of digits: Evidence for a spatial mapping principle. Cognition, 158, 56–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2016.10.010
- Lunardon, M., Lucangeli, D., Zorzi, M., & Sella, F. (2023). Math computerized games in the classroom: a Number Line Training in Primary School Children. Progress in Brain Research.
- Ramani, G. B., Siegler, R. S., & Hitti, A. (2012). Taking It to the Classroom: Number Board Games as a Small Group Learning Activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028995.supp
- Sella, F., Lucangeli, D., Cohen Kadosh, R., & Zorzi, M. (2019). Making sense of number words and Arabic digits: Does order count more? Child Development, 91, 1456–1470. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13335
- Sella, F., & Lucangeli, D. (2020). The knowledge of the preceding number reveals a mature understanding of the number sequence. Cognition, 194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2019.104104
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