Chutes and Ladders

By David Shaenfield

Chutes and Ladders is a board game for young children and preschool children. It can teach mathematics and counting, social and emotional learning, and playing with others.

Summary of Chutes and Ladders

Chutes and Ladders is a popular board game among North American preschool-aged children. The game board is a 10×10 grid each with a number 1-100 in each square. Players choose a plastic pawn to represent them on the game board and place it in square 1. Each player takes turns spinning a plastic spinner that results in a number within the 1-6 range. The player advances their pawn the number indicated on the spinner as they ascend to the goal, which is square 100. Various boxes contain chutes, which set the pawn back in the game; or ladders, which serve as short-cuts advancing the pawn forward in the game. The first player to reach square 100 is the winner.

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How to Use Chutes and Ladders

Two examples demonstrate how to use Chutes and Ladders for teaching and learning. The first example demonstrates how the game supports the development of mathematical skills for preschool-aged children. The second example illustrates how playing the game can foster understanding of concepts from developmental psychology in a university-level undergraduate course.

Supporting Mathematical Skill Development for Preschool-Aged Children

Teachers of preschool-aged children can form small groups to play the game in a classroom and encourage parents to play with their children at home. Playing the game fosters the development of understanding numerical magnitude (the relative size of numbers), which underlies the development of simple mathematical computation skills such as addition and subtraction. In the preschool years, children from low-income families show less understanding of numerical magnitude compared to children from higher-income families (Ramani and Siegler, 2008). The researchers suggest that the difference results from more experiences with numerical activities in more affluent families. Playing board games, such as Chutes and Ladders, is an example of such numerical activities. The gameplay provides a structure to support the development of numerical magnitude specifically. On each turn, the player has the opportunity to compare the number they spin to the other turns reinforcing the idea of magnitude in a variety of ways: The larger the number the spinner lands on, the more the player moves their pawn; the greater the distance from the starting square; the greater number of taps the player makes as they move through each box; and, the greater number of words the player says as they count their moves. Such multisensory cues provide a rich foundation for the development of numerical magnitude. Empirical research (Ramani and Siegler, 2008) supports the effectiveness of playing this game with preschool-aged children. The recommended method to play involves pairing a child and adult to play against another child/adult pair. The adults’ role is to provide scaffolding so the child can properly count the number of squares they should move on their turn. Examples of scaffolding strategies include asking the child to count with the adult as they move the game piece, holding the child’s hand to make sure each square is counted as they move, and increasing the volume of each number as it increases to emphasize the growing magnitude. As the child demonstrates advancing ability, the support the adult provides fades out.

Understanding the Zone of Proximal Development

A foundational concept in a university-level undergraduate course in developmental psychology is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978). The idea of ZPD is that in order for an individual to develop, they should collaborate with a more knowledgeable person (such as a teacher) who is responsible for creating activities that are a bit more challenging that what the individual can do alone. This conceptual space, between what the individual can do alone and what they can accomplish with the assistance of a collaborator, is known as the ZPD (see Figure 2). As the individual works with their collaborator, their abilities develop, and what was once in their ZPD is now their more mature, individual ability. The support the individual receives as they work in their ZPD is known as scaffolding. As the individual becomes more competent, the amount of scaffolding needed to support development decreases, known as fading the scaffolding.

Playing Chutes and Ladders as an in-class activity in a developmental psychology course offers a hands-on opportunity to understand how a ZPD works. To do this in my class, I have undergraduate students form pairs, where one takes the role of a preschool-aged child and the other takes the role of an adult. The pair then joins with another pair to play a four-player version of the game. When an adult’s turn occurs, they play normally but when a child’s turn occurs the adult must provide scaffolding to help the child succeed at the multiple steps of the turn. The adult partner decides on what scaffolding is appropriate and when to fade it out over the game. An example of scaffolding would be to hold the child’s hand as the child holds the pawn and help them point to and count each square as the piece is moved to the target square. This ensures that the child counts each individual square. As the child shows competence with that level of scaffolding, it can be faded, and the adult could stop giving such a high level of support. Instead, the adult might continue to only count with the child. Further fading happens when the adult stops counting with the child and the child counts on their own. After about 15 minutes of game play, I lead a full class discussion, where the groups describe how they used the idea of the ZPD during the activity.

Chutes and Ladders is a board game.

Tips & Best Practices

  1. The best way to support children’s development when playing this game is for students to think or talk aloud as they play. For example, students can count the squares out loud as they move to the target square.
  2. Learning happens over time. Small duration games (15-20 minutes) every few days support development better than single extended duration instances.
  3. The clean-up process offers an additional opportunity to support social development. Teachers can help children develop responsibility for preserving the game by putting it away properly.

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Further Reading

Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (2007). Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education (2nd Ed.). Columbus, OH; Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Ramani, G. & Siegler, R.S. (2008). Promoting broad and stable improvements in low-income children’s numerical knowledge through playing number board games. Child Development, 79, 375–394.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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