Uncle Wiggily

Tabitha was $3\frac{1}{2}$  years old when we were playing a game of Uncle Wiggily.

In case you are not familiar with the game, I’ll briefly describe it. Uncle Wiggily is a board game with 100 spaces along a twisty path. Players draw cards; each card has a number and a brief poem. Perils and bonuses are judiciously spaced along the path. Uncle Wiggily is approximately 10% more complicated than Candy Land (which is to say, not very complicated at all!)

Tabitha: (Drawing a card for her first turn-it’s an 8) Got one Daddy!

Me: Mmm-hmmm.

T: What is it?

Me: Can you guess? Look closely.

T: (Quickly and with a big, eager smile on her face) Six!

Me: Good guess. It’s eight.

T: Oh!

Me: Can you count to eight?

T: (Bouncing her piece along the path, ending near the henhouse on the farm-themed board) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. By the cluck-cluck house!

Me: My turn. (Drawing a card-it’s a 10) What card did I choose?

T: Ten!

Me: Good. (Testing a hypothesis, I skip eight as I count) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, nine, ten.

T: (Oblivious) My turn.

So what do we learn?

Learning to count is messy. Many things we might expect to be true about how children learn to count are not true at all.

We might expect children to learn the numerals (8) at the same time that they learn the words (eight). They do not. Notice that Tabitha counted flawlessly to eight, but did not recognize the symbol “8”.

We might expect children to learn the numerals in order, with all multi-digit numbers coming only after mastering the single-digit numbers. They do not. Tabitha recognized “10” but not “8”.

When I counted to ten, I intentionally left out eight to see whether she would notice. She did not. She could count to eight, but didn’t notice when it got left out on the way to ten. Mathematics is logical and orderly. The ways children learn mathematics are not.

This conversation came from a short video I made one day. I watched this video a year and a half later, when Tabitha was 5. After watching it, I immediately went into the kitchen where she was having a snack and counted: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10. She smiled and asked Why did you do that? (referring to counting in her ear). Then, a moment later, she said, Hey! You skipped eight!

Starting the conversation

Play games that involve numbers. Uncle Wiggily is great. So is Chutes and Ladders. Or Hopscotch. Any game that involves counting and reading numerals will give you the chance to practice these early number ideas.

While you’re playing, ask your child what number he drew, and what number you drew. If he doesn’t know, have him guess. Don’t worry about precision or correctness. Model good counting for your child. Help him count out some of his turns and let him count incorrectly on others. Have fun and don’t worry too much if he gets bored before the game is finished.

Have fun with it. Whatever you need to do to stay engaged in a couple of rounds of Uncle Wiggily is worth the effort. You can see the effort I invested in keeping myself entertained; I formulated a hypothesis about whether she would notice my own incorrect counting and tested that hypothesis.

Don’t get carried away with the hypothesis testing, though. Children do need models of correct counting. They won’t be damaged by a few experiments, of course. But you don’t want to become an unreliable source of knowledge.

7 thoughts on “Uncle Wiggily”

1. Christopher,
I love the new blog! This post here about games hits home with me. I try to play games whenever I can with my kids (ages 7, 5, and 2). Great practice with turn taking, understanding rules, making decisions etc. But like you mentioned here, games involving numbers provide a great opportunity to talk math with your kids.

I’m glad you mentioned Chutes and Ladders here too. I had written this game off because in playing it with my two older boys, frustration would ensue by the abundance of chutes that would prolong the game and sabotage their progress. After reading through your Uncle Wiggly post, I played a game of Chutes and Ladders with my 5 year old yesterday and found a couple of really nice opportunities to talk numbers.

First, each time he traveled a chute or a ladder, we had the conversation of which way to go on the new row. For example, he’d land on space 51 and travel the ladder up to space 67. So we’d talk about whether his guy should be traveling to the left or to the right. Jake figured out that if he was on space 67 he should be pointing his guy toward the 68 since it was bigger than 66. We’d also practice reading the numbers out loud. Like you mentioned, Jake can count to 100 but recognizing the written numbers is not necessarily the case. This was good practice.

You also mention that learning to count can be messy. We have a write-on number grid at home that counts 1 to 100. It’s really nice at looking at number patterns when you count by 2′s, 5′s, 10′s, etc. The numbers on this grid wrap to the next row so that all the like digits in the ones place line up vertically. Very nice. We’ve done some counting and pattern recognition using this grid. The difference with Chutes and Ladders is that the numbers wind back and forth on the way up the board. This was a shift to the counting we had done on the other grid. While this provided some nice conversation about how to work our way through this board, it did point out some messiness in how we present elementary number concepts to kids.

I hope my description makes sense. I have some pictures of our activity here: