These preschool math games can help kids develop “number sense”

© 2008 – 2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Do kids improve their mathematical savvy by playing preschool math games? Experiments suggest they can. Here I provide instructions for a make-it-yourself preschool board game that has helped kids develop substantially better math skills after only 60-80 minutes of total play time. 

I also discuss the similar, but more advanced, store-bought board game, Chutes and Ladders. As I note in another article, kids who played opens in a new windowthese preschool math games performed better in at least four areas of mathematical knowledge:

  • identifying numerals,
  • counting,
  • comparing number magnitudes, and
  • understanding a number line.

Other teaching tools — like video games or counting games — have been associated with a much narrower range of improvements (Ramani and Siegler 2008; Malofeeva et al 2004).

The Great Race

This preschool math game was designed by researchers who wanted to know if a board game could help kids develop their number sense (Ramani and Siegler 2008). The premise? That a game featuring sequentially-numbered spaces would help preschoolers learn about the number line and about the relative magnitude of numbers. The game was very effective. After only 4 game sessions totaling less than 80 minutes, kids made substantial, lasting improvements in the areas of mathematical knowledge mentioned above.

How to make it

This is really easy, so why not let the kids help and make it an arts and crafts project?

First, create your game board:

  • Draw a horizontal row of 10 squares.
  • Write the word “start” before the first square and “end” after the last square.
  • Number the remaining squares sequentially from 1 to 10.

Next, make your own game tokens or choose some small plastic toys to serve the same purpose. Jazz things up if you like. I created a game with a jungle theme by pasting magazine pictures on the board and using plastic rain forest animals for tokens.

Finally, you’ll need a spinner with two possible outcomes: 1 or 2. You can make a spinner by cutting an arrow out of heavy card stock and attaching it to a cardboard circle with a metal brad. For best results, put a metal washer between the brad and the circle.

Alternatively, buy a spinner at a teacher supply store or borrow one from another board game. You can convert it to your purpose by re-covering any extraneous numerals with 1s and 2s. I’ve done this with reusable stickers that I could peel back off again. If you go this route, make sure the stickers won’t interfere with the movement of the arrow.

Another solution is to modify a die so that each side shows either a “1” or “2.” But be aware that dice can be a choking hazard. Not recommended for kids under the age of 3.

How to play

Each player takes a turn at the spinner. He calls out the number he has spun. Then he moves his token accordingly. The first player to get his token to the finishing line wins.

But here’s the most important part:

When a player moves his token, he doesn’t count the number of spaces he is moving. Instead, he engages in a tactic called “counting on,” naming the numbers on the spaces through which he moves.

Example: Let’s say that my token is resting on the “3” space and I spin a 2. As I move my token along the game board, I say “4, 5.” If I spin a 2 on my next turn, I move my token and say “6, 7.”

This is a bit counter-intuitive, and kids will sometimes forget the rule. If a child makes a mistake or forgets the name of a number, give him a reminder and help him repeat the move correctly.

What about a longer, more complex game?

If your child is ready to tackle higher numbers, try extending the number line to 20 spaces. When I did this, I also added two more numerals to the spinner—-a “3” and a “-1.” The negative one means that players must go back one space.

Why I like this game

You might think this game is too simple to hold a child’s interest. But kids like it, and the game is fast-—fast-moving and quick to yield results. Each game lasts only a couple of minutes. To replicate what the researchers did, play four or five games in a row every few days. By the time your kids lose interest in the game, they’ll probably have reaped all the educational benefits.

I also like the idea of a game that parents and kids can create together. The experience inspires all sorts of spin-off activities, including the invention of new games.

Chutes and Ladders


Researchers have suggested that other preschool math games, like Chutes and Ladders, may also teach kids about the relative magnitudes of different numbers (Ramani and Siegel 2008).

That’s because these preschool math games feature consecutively-numbered game squares.

In Chutes and Ladders, the squares are numbered from 1 to 100. The game board is a grid, and players begin the game with their game tokens at the bottom. Players take turns at a spinner to find out how many squares they can travel. The spinner permits players to move up to 6 spaces at a time.

Most movement is horizontal (along rows). But when a player gets to the end of a row, he ascends to the next row above.

The goal is to be the first player to reach square #100, which is in the upper left corner of the grid. Along the way, players may land on “ladder” squares which permit them to take a shortcut to one of the upper rows. Other “chute” squares force players to descend.

Does it really work?

Recent experiments suggests it does–as long as kids stick to the tactic of “counting on” and are are old enough to handle numbers up to 100. When Elida Laski and Robert Siegler (2014) tested the game on kindergarteners, kids showed substantial improvements in their mathematics skills.

But kids in those experiments averaged 5.8 years in age. They began with a lot more number knowledge than most 3- and 4-year-olds have.

This doesn’t mean that younger children can’t have fun playing Chutes and Ladders. But it seems to me that kids need to be pretty sophisticated about numbers before they tackle this game. They also need to be able to follow the twists and turns of the game path, which involves climbing a grid that is covered with visually distractions (the chutes and ladders).

Overall, the Great Race is the better game for children to start with.

When are kids ready for Chutes and Ladders?

Kids may need a lot of coaching unless they meet most of these guidelines:

  • They are good at counting real-world objects from 1 to 20
  • They have been introduced to numbers through 100
  • They are familiar with the layout of a grid, and the idea of shifting from row to row along a grid
  • They are ready and motivated to learn how to count up to one hundred

Other preschool math games and activities

For more research-based preschool math games, see these opens in a new windowpreschool number activities.

References: Preschool math games

Laski EV and Siegler RS. 2014. Learning from number board games: You learn what you encode. Dev Psychol. 50(3):853-64.

Malofeeva, E., Day, J., Saco, X., Young L., & Ciancio, D. (2004). Construction and evaluation of a number sense test with head start children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(4), 648-659.

Ramani GB and Siegler RS. 2008. Promoting broad and stable improvements in low-income children’s numerical knowledge through playing with number board games. Child Development 79(2):375-394.

Content of “Preschool math games” last modified 3/2014