DIY Preschool math games that help kids develop “number sense”

© 2014 – 2021 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Do kids improve their mathematical savvy by playing preschool math games? Studies suggest they can. Here I provide instructions for creating games that have helped children boost math skills after only 60-80 minutes of total play time. I also discuss the potential educational benefits of playing the traditional board game, Chutes and Ladders.

game tokens for preschool math game

Race to the finish with this DIY preschool math game for 2 to 4 players

As I explain elsewhere, this preschool math game, called “The Great Race,” was designed by researchers to help young children develop an intuition for numbers (Ramani and Siegler 2008). They tested it on preschoolers who had been struggling, and after just 4 game sessions totaling less than 80 minutes, these kids made substantial, lasting improvements in four areas:

  • Numeral identification
  • Counting
  • Number line estimation (in which a child is asked to mark the location of a number on a line)
  • Numerical magnitude comparison (in which a child is asked to choose the greater of two numbers)

How does it work? It’s depends on a gaming materials you can create yourself, using cardboard, colored construction paper and a few office supplies.

For the game board, you’ll need:

  • a piece of cardboard or heavy card stock that is at least 20 inches long
  • construction paper in assorted colors, or a set of colored marking pens
  • scissors
  • glue and or tape

You’ll also need a game spinner, which you can make with

  • cardboard or card stock
  • scissors
  • a marking pen
  • a paperclip
  • a fastening brad

Finally, you’ll need some game tokens. You can borrow some from another board game, or use small toys.

How to make the game board and spinner

The game board layout is a simple, linear strip – a series of game spaces or squares, of roughly equal size. You can either make these game spaces from squares of colored construction paper (and glue them onto the cardboard as shown below), or draw your game spaces directly onto the cardboard with colored marking pens.

Once you have created your row of spaces, label the first space “Start” and the last space “End”. Then label the remaining spaces with sequential numbers, so that the first space after “Start” is labeled “1”, the next space is labeled “2”, and so on. When you’re done you’ll have something that looks like this:

DIY game board -- a  strip of 10 consecutively numbered game spaces

For the game spinner, you need a circular face divided into at least four, equal, pie-shaped “slices.” You can draw this onto a piece of cardboard or card stock. Write numbers in each space, alternating between “1” and “2”.

There are several different ways to create the spinning action. Here’s a simple method using a paperclip. First, poke a hole in the center of your “pie”, as shown in this image.

Making a spinner: punching a hole in the center with a pointy-ended tool

Next, place a paper clip so that one open end of it rests over the top of the hole. Insert the long ends of a brad through the paper clip and the hole, and then — on the reverse side of your spinner — secure the brad in place by bending the long ends flat.

Making a spinner: Threading a brass fastener through (1) the end of a paperclip and (2) the hole in the center of the spinner. Next, flip spinner over and secure the fastener.

Now you should have a have a functioning spinner. Your paper clip should move freely around the center when you flick it. If it’s fastened too tightly, adjust the brad as needed.

completed spinner

With your game tokens, board, spinner, you’re ready for a game.

How to play

Players begin by placing their game tokens on the “start” space. Then players take their turns. Each turn looks like this:

  1. Flick the spinner, and call out the number that it lands on.
  2. Move your token accordingly. For example, if the spinner landed on “1”, you move your game token one space forward.

And here’s the most important part:

When players move their tokens, they don’t recite the number of spaces they are moving forward. Instead, they use a tactic called “counting on”: They call out numbers on the spaces through which the game piece moves.

For example, suppose we’re in the middle of the game, and when I begin my turn, my token is resting on the “2” space. I spin a “2”, so I need to move my token two spaces forward. But as I move my token along, I don’t say “One, two.” I speak the name of each space that I pass through. “Three, four.” If I spin a “2” on my next turn, I will move my token and say “Five, six!”

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

The winner is the first player to move their game token to the final “end” space.

Playing several games in a row

A single game can be completed in a few minutes, so it’s easy to play a series of matches back-to-back. And that’s what researchers did to get their results: Kids played 4 or 5 games in a row every few days.

Number battle: A DIY preschool card game for two players

Board games aren’t the only way to make learning about numbers fun. Researchers tested this card game (called “War”) on a 4-year-olds and found that it, too, can help preschoolers develop better “number sense.” After just four, 15 minute game sessions — distributed over a period of 3 weeks — kids experienced marked improvements in their ability to judge relative magnitudes. Children who had been lagging behind their peers were now fully caught-up (Scalise et al 2017).

What’s required? For this game, you’ll need to create a set of playing cards. They will be similar in size to standard deck of playing cards, and all the cards will look the same on the back.

But on the front, each card will display a specific quantity (from 1 to 10). This will be depicted with both Arabic numerals, and with a set of dots matching the number.

You will need 40 cards in total — 4 duplicates for each quantity. For example, you will have for 4 cards depicting the quantity “1”, 4 cards depicting the quantity “2”, and so on.

In the study, researchers displayed each card’s Arabic numerals twice (in the upper left and lower right corners). The dots were arrayed in the center of the card. Here’s an example:

Three number cards depicting the quantities 5, 3, and 2.

How to play

In the researchers’ study, each game was played by just two individuals — an adult and a child. To begin, the adult deals the cards into two decks of twenty each, one for each player. The cards are stacked face down.

Next, each player flips over the first card in her or her personal deck. Players read the number on their cards — out loud. If the child can’t read the Arabic numerals, show the child how to count number of dots instead. Then ask the child to say which number is greater.

For example, in the image below, the child should indicate that 5 is greater than 3.

Number card featuring "5" versus number card featuring "2"

If the child makes has trouble making the judgment — or gets the answer wrong — encourage the child to look at the dots on each card. Which looks like more? Keep asking questions, and guiding your child through the problem, until he or she reaches the correct answer.

Once your child has identified the relative values of the numbers, the player with the card of greater magnitude collects both cards, and keeps them in a special pile. Then each player flips over a new card from his or her deck, and once again players name the numbers on their cards, and determine the number that is greater.

Keep repeating the process until players run out of cards in their decks. The winner of the game is the player who has collected the most cards from each “battle”.

Chutes and Ladders

board game, "Chutes and Ladders"

So far, we’ve talked about games that were experimentally designed to teach mathematical skills. What about older, traditional games? Can they be helpful as well? Researchers think it’s possible.

In particular, Chutes and Ladders (a variant of the ancient Indian board game, Moksha Patam, also known as “Snakes and Ladders“), seems promising. Like The Greate Race, Chutes and Ladders features consecutively-numbered game squares, and players take turns to find out how many squares they can travel.

Of course, it’s quite a bit more complex than The Great Race. The spaces are numbered from 1 to 100, and 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 or she ascends to the next row above. And 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.

Still, the basic game mechanics are similar. Maybe — once kids have familiarity with numbers up to 100 — this game could be used to help children develop their understanding of relative magnitudes.

In support of this idea, Elida Laski and Robert Siegler (2014) created a game very similar to Chutes and Ladders, and tested it on kindergartners. Importantly, they required children to employ the tactic of “counting on,” and, once again, this made a difference: Compared with children who skipped this tactic, kids who moved their game tokens by “counting on” experienced greater improvements in their ability to estimate relative magnitudes.

So when are kids ready to learn these lessons from Chutes and Ladders?

In the experiments by Laski and Siegler, kids averaged 5.8 years in age. But chronological age probably matters less than a child’s previous developmental experiences. I suspect that kids will require a lot of coaching until they meet these criteria:

  • 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

More games to play

For more research-based preschool math games, see these Parenting Science opens in a new windowpreschool number activities. And if you’d like to learn more about the evidence that board games can help children develop number sense, see my article, “Can preschool board games boost mathematics skils?”


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.

Scalise NR, Daubert EN, Ramani GB. 2017.  Narrowing the Early Mathematics Gap: A Play-Based Intervention to Promote Low-Income Preschoolers’ Number Skills. J Numer Cogn. 3(3):559-581.

Content of “Preschool math games” last modified 11/8/2021

All images of DIY game materials and construction are copyright Parenting Science 2021

imagine of game Chutes and Ladders from a photograph by Parenting Science

Portions of this text derive from an earlier, copyrighted version of this article by the same author.