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 Nicki Heskin BellaOnline's Early Childhood Editor

Games with Children – Chutes and Ladders

I bought Chutes and Ladders for my first daughter when she was three. I love that this game is still around, and though the art has been punched up since I was their age, the concept is still the same. There are four games that I have found – Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, Hi Ho Cherry-o and Memory – that are wonderful first games for children. All are intended for pre-readers, and all offer the chance to expose children to skills in counting, math, colors, game rules and even simple strategy. Just as important, the games offer opportunities to explore winning and losing, sportsmanship, cheating and fairness.

My game of Chutes and Ladders with my younger daughter a couple days ago was like an anecdote from a child development textbook or parenting book. My daughter is five, and is quite good at math. She knows all her numbers, can count through the hundreds, can read all two digit numbers and can do simple addition. She completely follows the rules the Chutes and Ladders.

So when we played yesterday, I decided to add the next level of math skills. I showed her how (courtesy of my first daughter’s Kindergarten teachers) if the number square she was on, such as 24, was too big to be expressed on her fingers, she could “hold the number in her hand” (a closed fist) and then count up the number of fingers she got on the spinner on her fingers for the total. This way, she didn’t have to just count the squares on the board, but predict where she would land by using addition. Then we spoke the mathematical sentence that was created, for example, 24+5=29.

She loved this, and ate it up and were really having more fun playing with the math than paying attention to where the pieces were on the board, right up to the point where she landed a long chute and I had recently scored the biggest ladder. She had lost games before, but it had never been so completely clear how the game was going to end up. She immediately became sad and wanted to start over or quit the game. We discussed how whenever she plays a game like that, one player will win and one will lose, and that if she quit games she thought she would lose and never let the other person win, no one else would want to play. We acknowledged that it was not as fun to lose, especially when you knew it was going to happen, but that the most fun was in spending time with the person we were playing with, and we could find some consolation in being excited for the winner.

These are only two of the wonderful lessons we’ve explored through playing Chutes and Ladders. Here’s some more:

Mathematically, there’s number recognition, counting to 100, adding the numbers 1-6 to the current square, large addition and subtraction through calculating losses and gains through chutes and ladders (we aren’t there yet), prediction through calculating which numbers we hope to spin and to avoid, and I’m sure much more.

On the game side, there’s learning the basic rules, understanding the back and forth nature of the movement (and using the numbers on the squares to make sure), knowing when you are on the top and bottom of a chute or ladder vs. when just crossing it, taking turns starting, how to spin and what to do if the spinner lands on a line, and more.

In the world of sportsmanship, there’s basic grace in losing and courtesy in winning. There’s also learning how to behave when you hit a chute or a ladder as well as how to react when your co-player does. My daughter likes to gleefully predict my demise down a chute or at least point out the upcoming pitfalls I might hit with a glimmer of hope in her voice in a way that I’ve had to explain isn’t quite sportsmanlike. Once I caught her nudging the spinner to land where she wanted. The importance of how careful counting fits in with fairness can also be handled here. Even taking turns being a favorite piece can be a discussion topic.

One last commentary regarding chutes and ladders would be on the art on the board and the “reward/punishment” nature of the game. At the top of the chutes is some sort of action, and at the bottom is some sort of consequence for a behavior or choice gone wrong. The ladders is the opposite, depicting a reward. Normally, I am not wild about this sort of oversimplified concept. My first daughter barely noticed it, but my second is fixated on the little stories in the pictures.

Most of them depict very natural consequences or rewards. Help the cat out of the tree, the cat cuddles you – pull the cats tail, you get scratched up. Take the time to bake a cake, you get a cake – eat too many sweets, you get a stomachache. I could do without the picture of the boy that has a comic book in his history book wearing a dunce cap (perhaps and F on a test would have been better?), and girl who gets to go to the movies after doing a chore. But all and all, the stories are non-punitive and logical.

I highly recommend this game, dunce cap aside, as a toy or gift for a child anywhere from about age 3 to age 6. In addition to the traditional version there are also numerous themed versions available, depicting trademarked characters.

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