Chutes and Ladders teaches young children more than morals; it’s also been proven to be one of the most effective games for teaching counting skills. Compared sided by side with other board games aimed at the same age group, Chutes and Ladders consistently teaches counting faster than other games, and even helps kids “learn to learn”. Why? The design of the board.
Results published in 2009 from a study by Carnegie Mellon University and University of Maryland researchers showed that preschoolers who played games with a board with numbered spaces (Chutes and Ladders) learned counting skills faster than those who played games with a colored board without numbers (Candyland). This alone didn’t particularly surprise the researchers, but when they compared the results of the children who played Chutes and Ladders to those of children who simply studied counting through traditional classroom methods, they found that the students playing Chutes and Ladders outperformed the classroom-taught students. The results seem to indicate that the presence of numbers on the Chutes and Ladders board combined with it’s snaking path over a ten-by-ten grid give children a very visual way of understanding counting concepts.
A related educational study showed the progression of numerical estimation abilities in children between preschool and the second grade. Researchers presented children a line with the number 1 at one and 10, for preschoolers, or 100, for second graders, at the other end. They then presented the students a number that would fall on that line and asked them to guess where on the line the number should go. What they found was that while children were typically comfortable estimating numbers within their given range, when a number above the given range was presented, the amount that the estimate was off by increased significantly.
The research has revealed that children progress through a consistent developmental sequence. Young children generate logarithmic patterns of estimates, in which estimated magnitudes rise more quickly than actual magnitudes (e.g., the number 15 is estimated as being around where the number 60 should be on a zero – 100 number line). Older children generate linear functions (e.g., the number 15 is estimated as being around where 15 should be.)
The overlap in these studies comes down to the visual layout of the board games given to children in the first study. Using the Chutes and Ladders board as a control, researchers also studied how boards of other shapes affected the learning process. Compared to a circular board with numbers, Chutes and Ladders still taught the children to count faster. The difference lies in the visual presentation of structured groups of ten.
The square board with the snaking path, shown in figure 1, has a clear beginning and end, and well-defined groupings of ten spaces. The circular board (figure 2) is less clear about where the start and end are; even with a defined start space, the path loops back on itself. It also lacks the rigid ten-at-a-time structure found in the square board. Where the turns in direction on the square board give constant and regular points of reference to the child playing the game, the round board has only a single point of reference: the dividing line between the finish and the start.
A child playing on the square board can easily isolate their focus on the single row their piece occupies. Rather than seeing one board with one hundred spaces, they can effectively look at it as ten boards with ten spaces each. The smaller frame of reference is easier for preschoolers to process, and the act of counting out spaces each turn is made easier by the clear sub-structure of start and end points. Understanding the relationship between the number ten and the number four (or six, or one, etcetera) comes naturally over time on the square board.
Unfortunately, the round board simply can’t teach such a numeric relationship as easily. Without the pre-defined groups of ten, there is nothing for the child to compare the number of spaces they move to. As seen in figure 4, even if we artificially define a group of ten spaces on the board, those ten spaces could realistically start or end anywhere, or even overlap another group. Both boards will still teach the child that six is more than three, or that rolling a four means you move (one, two, three, four!) four spaces further along the path, but it’s the added element of spatial relationships that makes the square board a far more effective tool for teaching counting skills.
It’s no wonder the Candyland board doesn’t teach counting skills the way a traditional Chutes and Ladders board does. Candyland, with its colored, meandering path, lacks both the elements of number identification and spatial relationships. The layout of the traditional 100-square Chutes and Ladders board, whether it was intended or not, was designed in a way that inherently has ideal visual cues to help kids not only learn to count, but learn to learn.