Dragonbox Numbers

Players: 1
Ages: 3 and up
Cost: $7.99 (From your phone's app store)
Math Ideas: Decomposition, addition, subtraction
Questions to Ask
    What do those two Nooms add to?
    What other numbers add to that number?
    How many ways can you split up the 9 Noom into different numbers?

Screens are destroying our children's minds! Or are they?

Honestly, I have no idea. I do know that parents of every generation are terrified of the new technology and games their children love. A century ago, columnists wrote polemics against the scourge of chess, which was sweeping the nation at the time. In the 19th century, British families fretted that their young girls were spending too much time reading the novels of Jane Austen, which are now considered part of the canon. Even written language was scoffed at by ancient intellectuals, who believed that writing was a crutch for people who couldn't memorize everything they needed to know.


On the other hand, I get freaked out when I leave my kids watching Peppa Pig on Youtube, only to return 20 minutes later to find them watching poorly animated train videos dubbed in Russian. How did they even find those?

So I have a skeptical outlook on the value of screen time. It's probably not hurting my kids too much, but it's probably not helping either. And the math apps I've found have mostly been underwhelming. Mostly, these apps focus on repetitive practice of math facts, which doesn't exactly sound like a rich mathematical experience. 

But Dragonbox Numbers is a different sort of math app. I was skeptical at first, but the game won me over with its well-designed activities that get kids thinking about the relationships between numbers, rather than simply drilling math facts.

If your child is in Pre-K through 1st grade, I highly recommend this game. Note that Dragonbox has several other apps for older kids, but I haven't played those yet. I am talking specifically about Dragonbox Numbers.

How to Play

Dragonbox Numbers is built around little blocks called Nooms, which are meant to represent the numbers from 1 to 10. Nooms can be smooshed together to make bigger Nooms, or cut into smaller pieces. The app has three main sections: Puzzles, Ladders, and Run.

Puzzles are activities where kids make Nooms of different sizes and add them to a stencil, much like adding pieces to a puzzle. In this section kids start to build an intuition for how numbers can be combined. 


Ladders are secretly puzzles as well! Your child needs to make a Noom of a certain height in order to reach the star. As the ladders become more challenging, kids can't simply add 1 over and over. They must plan ahead, thinking about other ways that Nooms can be added to build numbers.

Run is a Mario-style game where your child jumps to capture stars and coins. The height of the jump corresponds to the number your child presses, so she gets a visual representation of how the numbers compare to each other

Check out the video below to see how even a toddler can interact with the simple interface as she solves a puzzle.

Credit: Geek Dad

Where's the Math?

The game is riddled with math, of course, all focused on helping kids build an intuition for how the basic building blocks of math, numbers, work together. If you have a child in preschool or at the beginnings of elementary, they need tons of opportunities to see how numbers can be represented, combined, and split apart. 

I like the Dragonbox method of representing bars of different heights. Mostly, kids interact with numbers as a set of objects, so they think of 3 as "three blocks" or "three circles." When kids see numbers represented as lengths, they begin to understand how numbers can be used to measure objects, not simply to count them. They might see 3 and think "something that is three blocks tall."

As your child moves through the app, they will encounter more and more numerals (the numbers 1, 2, 3, and so on). But repeatedly, they will be asked to connect those numerals to another representation of a number. The more connections your child has between numerals and other representations, the more automatic their reasoning with numerals will become.

Questions to Ask

The game is so intuitive and fun to explore that my main question to ask is "what happens when you do this?"

Ask your kid to combine two Nooms, split one apart, or make three that are the same size. If you want to explore how the Nooms work, you and your child can check out the Sandbox section of the app.

The most important question to ask your child whenever they are playing on an educational app is "Are you getting frustrated?"

Young kids, who are still learning how to use technology, can get very upset very quickly if they don't understand how to interact with Dragonbox, or with any application. This is the major downside of all educational technology: the user has to know how to communicate with the computer. Anyone who has tried to change the margins of a bulleted list in Word knows that frustration on a deep level.

I've let both my kids play with this program, and I've heard both of them huff and puff when a block won't go where they are trying to get it to go. In those moments, I think it is perfectly fine to ask them back slowly away from the iPad and go play with some blocks. After all, three blocks plus four blocks is still seven blocks, even in the real world.

Let me be clear: I do not think that a child can learn math primarily by interacting with a computer. I think kids mostly learn math by doing math and then talking about it with an adult. Having said that, there are valuable mathematical ideas that your child can experience through this app. If you're headed on a road trip, Dragonbox Numbers is a heck of a lot better than 14 episodes of Dinotrux.