All I Really Need To Know I Learned Playing Board Games

By on Oct 1, 2012 in | Comments Off

Reposted from Hands Full of Grass.

Once upon a time, before technology took charge of our lives, children played board games.

Full disclosure here: I am an aging but full-fledged computer geek; an iPhone carrying member of the Baby Boomer generation. My husband’s greatest rival for my attention fits in my hand, my children and pets don’t sit on my lap because my laptop usually gets there first, and these days I spend more time playing Words With Friends than I do rolling the dice on a backgammon board.

But board games – good board games – have tremendous value for children. And while there are some true beauts on the digital front, not a one holds a candle to a tangible game of Froggie Boogie, Secret Door or The Big Fat Tomato Game between real human beings who are close enough to touch each other (or throw the dice at each other) during play.

Crazy Eights, Go Fish, Checkers, Clue, Monopoly; back in my day, all self-respecting five-year olds could hold their own with a deck of cards, a pair of dice, and a watchful eye for a cheating older brother or sister. If we were lucky, parents occasionally played with us, providing us with role models for game manners, and challenging us to new levels of play. Who among us didn’t want to beat a parent, fair and square?  (Of course, our parents didn’t always have good game manners. I still remember the 1974 Christmas Eve Parcheesi fiasco, when my parents went to bed no longer on speaking terms.  And my mother has never forgiven my ex-husband for playing “pinney” in Scrabble one summer vacation – “that’s not a real word!” – though it has been at least fifteen years.)

I love the idea of Friday family game night, though we are often so tired after a hard week that it is difficult to summon the requisite energy and enthusiasm. What gets lost when we don’t play, unfortunately, could fill a book on educating children.  I cannot think of a single aspect of child development; social growth, executive function, academic skill, or a curriculum area that is not addressed in some way by the right board game. Try me, please.

In Kindergarten at CRS, teachers Kristin Jayne and Lisa Larcenaire have always made games part of their curriculum. Lisa underscores how many important concepts and skills are addressed during games, adding, “(children) … take turns, face frustration and disappointment, ask questions to clarify, reassess options in the face of new information, compromise, explain their thinking, reach consensus  and strategize. Kindergartners often connect with a particular game,  and may take responsibility for teaching it to classmates and family. When they do, they share in the enjoyment of the participants and feel powerful in their role in making it happen.”

Last year, inspired by their example and the increasing number of really good quality board games on the market for younger children, Vanita and I began to develop a year-long Puzzles and Games curriculum for PreKindergarten. A number of companies (my personal favorites are Gamewright, BlueOrange, Family Pastimes and Ravensburger), put out quality games that are visually and tactilely appealing as well as thought-provoking. With these games, we practice cooperation and self-control, solve conflicts, take turns, and learn to win and lose with grace. We invite friends to play, ask to join in games, and learn to stay with something until it is over.  We learn that “fair” is a complicated word that depends upon your point of view, and that reaching compromise is a lifelong task.

Good games provoke imagination, creative thought, logic building, and help hone memory skills. Many also challenge children to use mathematical thinking, visualize shapes and colors, or practice reading skills. Others still encourage verbal creativity, or expose us to ideas and artifacts from another place or time. Don’t underestimate future benefits from this exposure, either. My brother and I loved to play a board game called Masterpiece as children and  over forty years later, we can both still identify each and every work of art in the game.

One of the most important benefits of consistent and regular game playing for children is the manner in which it so beautifully demonstrates the process of developmentally appropriate learning within a differentiated context. Think of the game Qwirkle, for example, where players try to match tiles according to color and shape. Children can begin to play this game at its most basic level as soon as they are comfortable identifying and distinguishing between the colors and shapes in the game (there are six of each). Each subsequent game gives a child a chance to practice and hone the skills they have developed, and to begin to make inferences and explore new strategies. The more a child plays, the more he learns, but the concepts are never frustratingly out of reach because the child “constructs” his learning at his own pace.

One valuable lesson I’ve learned while playing games with children is to refrain from “teaching” them strategy. Vanita and I make observations, ask occasional questions, referee when necessary, and model strategies with our own play. We want our students to enjoy the many challenges inherent in a variety of games, not become eight year-old chess masters. Their grasp of strategy will be much more solid and satisfying in the long run if it is self-directed. To quote CRS first grader Mackenzie, explaining why City Square Off is her favorite game, “I like it because I have to plan and think ahead about what I’m going to do.” Her mom, Annie, concurs, “ We have to think and negotiate our choices on that one. The funny thing is she usually beats me. I love it because we talk and change the rules together.”

What are the hardest things for a fledgling game player to learn? In PreK, the toughest lessons at first seem to be waiting for a turn, sticking with a game until it’s over, and putting it away properly when they’re finished.

Oh, and learning to roll dice so that they land within fifteen feet of the board. ;-)