Some classic board games can seem a bit slow and old fashioned these days, but snakes and ladders continues to appeal to most young children, and usually ends in them begging to play another round.
What’s the secret?
There is the whole caper of it, with the dangerous slithery snakes to slide down and the safe rickety ladders to scramble up - this offers plenty of opportunity for imaginary play and exploration of language around themes of good and evil.
It also shares all the social and emotional benefits of any board game, such as learning to take turns, accepting good or bad luck, and being a gracious loser.
But more powerful than the setting is the way in which snakes and ladders challenges and tests some of the fundamental mathematical concepts that are forming in the average pre-schooler’s mind (we suggest this is the perfect game for three to five year olds, who can likely count to 10 but may not yet know what these numbers look like or truly understand what lies beyond number 10, or who might be able to count these numbers by rote but might say thirty instead of thirteen, for example.) And it’s when they’re being challenged that the fun, and the learning, happens.
A spinner rather than a die keeps everyone focused on the game. No more reaching under the sofa to find the die that was rolled with too much enthusiasm - or pretending once you've retrieved it that it was showing a six!
Playing snakes and ladders helps children begin to recognise the numbers they hear and talk about in everyday life, uniting the written symbol with the meaning of the value they understand in their mind. Children also learn counting strategies that form the basis of addition and subtraction, such as putting a number in their head and adding one more or taking one away, or using their fingers to reach the next number. And because it’s set on a 100 square, it also creates familiarity with units of ten, and helps children begin to get a feel for how big a number one hundred is compared to other values they already understand, such as their own age.
To begin with, children count each spot on the die to find out what they rolled, but soon enough they learn to recognise the patterns that make up each number. Who needs to count the two banks of three to know that they've rolled a six? When it's fun (and you beat your siblings!) learning is easy.
Best of all, because it’s a game involving competition and racing to the finish, all these skills sink in without anyone really noticing. It’s our experience both as parents and teachers, that games are by far the best way to teach young children anything. So next time they beg you for a game of snakes and ladders, you can play it knowing they’re learning some pretty important fundamentals of maths at the same time.
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