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Using the Game of Go to Study Spatial Thinking

Doctoral candidate Yanning Yu

Yanning Yu, a 6th year PhD candidate in the Learning Science program, is studying how the game of Go can help improve children’s spatial thinking and math skills. The research explores the game’s potential to shape and change the way elementary school students think and do mathematics.

Yu comments, “A look into ancient cultures can inspire fresh ideas about inventing and adapting games for learning today.” The researchers postulate “the game may have a unique affordance to engage young children in problem solving that might be very challenging otherwise” and intend to “identify the affordance and mechanism in order to apply it to broader context of game designs.” 

Go is a two-player, turn-based strategic board game that originated in ancient China. It is infused with numerous implicit spatial and math activities. Players take turns putting down black or white stones to surround more spaces on the board than the opponent. While the game takes a lifetime to master, it is very simple for children to learn.

Professor David Uttal with professional Go and math instructor, Simon Guo


Together in collaboration with Yu’s adviser, David Uttal and professional Go and math instructor, Simon Guo, the research team implemented a Go and Math curriculum to 60 students in the second and third grades. The video data in-part captured discussions of Go strategies and end-of-game score. Each student’s participation and development in the activities was analyzed. The data revealed that the game of Go introduces a unique representation system in which numbers are presented as visual patterns and shapes constructed by the stones and the lines of the board.

Yu writes, “such a representation system can facilitate children to do math in a spatially grounded way: children can count by recognizing shapes, and do arithmetic by moving, rearranging and combining different shapes together, physically and mentally”. Secondly, “these spatial tools can support a range of math functions, from everyday basic counting to multiplication.” While also helping  children become familiar with spatial tools which can then lead to more complex goals and higher-level thinking. 

a student counts Go game pieces alongside the matrix game board

The work was presented at this year’s Jean Piaget Society Conference under the title, “Engaging children in Spatial and Mathematical Thinking through the Game of Go”. Visit Yu’s department page to find more about her research interests and contact information.