Playing a family game together is such a wonderful way to connect and make special memories with your clan. Aside from it being great fun, playing card and board games can significantly aid children’s development in a relaxed and non-stressful way. An opportunity to increase their focus and attention; patience and perseverance; empathy; problem solving and critical thinking ability; spatial reasoning; collaborative skills; logic finesse; general knowledge; creativity; strategic and planning skills, all whilst having a good giggle – seriously what’s not to like? According to Harvard Business Review, “By forcing us into the spotlight, making us communicate in unusual and uncomfortable ways, or encouraging us to take giant lateral leaps in thinking, games can immerse us in hilarity, strengthen our connections with friends and family, and significantly stretch our minds.”
We’ve always factored games into a homeschool life in a very informal way. Sometimes we’ll play a game in our morning basket, other times in the evening before bed, at the weekends with MrJ, with friends, on train journeys, and nearly always when we’re travelling abroad. We have three main types of games: 1) collaborative board games, which teach us to work together; 2) one-player games, which tend to focus on resilience and tenacity; and 3) multi-player competitive games, which develop our ability to play competitively in a safe environment, as well as learn how to cope gracefully with winning and losing (not an easy thing to do for young or intense children!). Underneath these overarching focuses, each game comes with a whole plethora of other skills to teach those young, developing minds. With Christmas coming ever closer, I thought it would be useful to share some of the reasons why games can be so powerful and at the same time share some of our favourites.
Collaborative games teach children to communicate effectively with one another, negotiate and plan strategies which work for the group rather than the individual. It encourages positive talk between the players, and additionally, the younger members of the group have an opportunity to learn strategic planning skills from the older players. Two of our favourite games in this category are Pandemic and Scotland Yard. In the former, players are required to work together to eradicate diseases and using their individual strengths, collaborate to eliminate the risk of an epidemic occurring. In the latter, one player takes the role of the robber trying to stay undercover, whilst the rest of the players take on detective roles who work together to try and locate the robber in the maze of London streets.
Strategic and Planning Skills
Strategic thinking – defined as an individual’s mental or thinking process to achieve a target or set of goals, identifying alternatives and choosing the best option – combined with planning skills, i.e. the ability not just to think about the next step, but in fact the next multiple set of steps required to attain your goal, are crucial life skills. Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities to practise these skills in a relaxed game environment. Our favourite games in this category are: Chess, Risk, Labyrinth, Ticket to Ride, Rummikub and Ingenious.
In Chess, players learn to control their emotions, not making quick, impulsive decisions, but instead methodically evaluating all the options, working out each one’s implications and deciding on the best course of action for the long game.
Risk, the game of global domination, teaches you to scan for advantageous opportunities, analyse how the other players’ moves could be beneficial to you, work out the right time for making your move (i.e. if you’re in a strong enough position) and establish favourable alliances. And in the process, prepare you for the business world!
Ticket to Ride is my favourite game of all time! The aim is to build multiple designated train routes across Europe – a simple goal, but more complex in reality as you have to hold several sets of plans in your head at the same time. Other players may end up blocking your route in their desire to build their own. So, as with some of the others in this group, the game teaches you to be adaptable with your plan, formulate alternatives and be prepared to be creative!
As with the games above, Labyrinth, Rummikub and Ingenious, firm favourites in our house, also teach the skills of forward planning, assessing alternatives and determining the best course of action. In Labyrinth, the aim is to work your way through a maze collecting specified objects en route and beat the other players back to the start.
Rummikub (like the card game Rummy), played with a set of 106 numbered tiles, requires runs or “melds” (i.e. three sets of 2s; odd or even runs; or a run of square numbers) of tiles to be laid on the table. The first to get rid of all his tiles is the winner.
In Ingenious, domino-style coloured tiles are placed strategically on the board, with players gaining points for each line of coloured symbols they enlarge. Once the board is full, a player’s score is that of their worst-scoring colour, which means you must focus on scoring for all colours throughout the game rather than on just one or two.
Logic Skills, Critical Thinking Ability, Problem Solving and Spatial Reasoning
Logic, critical thinking and problem solving all involve the ability to think in a disciplined manner, applying all known facts and evidence to the situation when analysing a problem and coming up with the best available solution. Basically, essential life skills (and also quite helpful if your child is thinking of sitting the 11+!). I’ve added spatial reasoning to this list as so many of the games we own which develop the first three skills, do so with the added advantage of improving spatial reasoning at the same time. ThinkFun and Smart Games are two of the best brands for these types of games. Here are some of our top picks from this category:
- Rush Hour: We started with the Junior version when they were younger and then moved onto the adult version. The basic premise of the game is to work out how to get the ice cream van out of the car park by moving all the other cars out of the way. There are a variety of levels of difficulty showing different starting positions for the vehicles. It sounds easy but it’s really not at the harder levels! It’s a one-player game that my kids (and MrJ) have spent hours playing on their own working through the levels.
- Pathwords: A word search style game where you lay differently shaped (and transparent) puzzle pieces to cover all the letters on each challenge card. Each puzzle piece must cover a single word that can be read forward or backward. Great fun and easily transportable.
- Shape by Shape: A tangram style game, players place the 14 shapes into the tray to make each challenge picture. Some of these are seriously tricky!
- Swish: An engaging game involving transparent cards with different coloured hoops and balls, which need to be stacked so that every ball “swishes” into a hoop of the same colour. One we’ve played all over the world!
- Set: In this excellent game, the aim is to collects sets of three shape cards. There are four different features of each card: number of shapes, their colour, shape and shading. To collect a set, you need to find three cards in which each individual feature is either all the same or all different. Perfect for developing visual perceptiveness.
- Mastermind: The ultimate logic game, in which one player choses a code of four coloured pieces, whilst the other attempts to work out the code in as few attempts as possible. Each guess is marked by the code maker, giving feedback on how many coloured pieces are correct and in the right place or correct and in the wrong position. The code guesser then uses this information to logically determine the code.
- Smart Games IQ Brainteaser Games and North Pole Expedition: We have quite a few of these 2D and 3D puzzle games with various challenges requiring you to fit puzzle pieces onto the game board in different orientations. Again, my children have spent hours playing these games whilst at the same time improving their spatial perception skills.
- ThinkFun Gravity, Circuit & Laser Mazes: In each of these one-player logic games, the aim is to create a maze from a start to end position: a 3D marble run to carry a ball in the first, electrical circuits to light beacons in the second and a series of mirrors positioned to reflect the laser beam from the start to the end in the third.
Empathy, or the capacity to place oneself in another’s position, is most certainly required for success in many types of games, and thus is a skill which can be practised through repetition of these games. Take Poker for example (one of Bean9’s favourites). Asking yourself the question, “Why does my opponent play the way he does?” and putting yourself in their shoes helps you discover how they’re thinking. Once you know this, it’s much easier to predict their play and take advantage of this knowledge to beat them.
Games like Draw Out or Pictionary also require observational and empathy-based skills to both work out what to draw quickly that your teammates will understand and, on the other side, to determine what your teammate is drawing.
A friend recently bought us the game Sussed, which we fell in love with. This is a game which tests how well you know your teammates. There are a range of questions, such as “As a sports fan, I’d most enjoy… A. The passion, B. The competition and C. The sense of belonging.” Your task is to work out how your teammates would answer the question. Bean10 is the best at this in our house and she’s also the most empathic!
Patience & Perseverance
Playing any board or card game takes patience as you learn to wait your turn; accept that another player’s actions may cause problems for you, requiring readjustment to plans; and the self-restraint to bide your time before affecting a long-term plan. And that’s just for the multi-player, competitive games. Many of the one-player games mentioned above require both patience and perseverance to keep on trying when your initial attempts fail. Perseverance is thought to be the most important characteristic of highly successful people across all career choices, so it’s something we work on a lot in our homeschool. In fact, I’d much rather they had tenacity than academic excellence, as it’s more likely to stand them in good stead for their future life.
Most games develop patience and perseverance. If you’re looking for a list of good card games to practise these skills, try this Collins Card Games book, which is perfect for discovering new games or rediscovering old favourites!
Another of our favourites in this category is the Addict A Ball, which a friend bought for us recently. It requires a serious dose of patience as you work to guide the ball along the 3D maze through the flips, spirals and drops. Rubik’s Cubes are another example. Ignored by my children for many years and then one day, Bean9 became obsessed and was determined to learn how to solve the cube, persevering for days before he achieved his goal. And then, not to be outdone, Bean10 decided she needed to learn too!
Focus, attention and thinking speed
All games require focus and attention to follow rules; take turns; plan your approach; deliver against the plan, adapting where necessary; and keep an eye on your opponent’s play. In Sleeping Queens for example, a brilliant game suitable for any age, you need to watch out that other players don’t get too far ahead in their quest to collect 40 points worth of queens (a winning score), and slow their progress by putting a sleeping spell on some of their monarchs!
Some games also demand that you process information quickly and respond rapidly. One the best games for practising these skills is Dutch Blitz. Here, there is no turn taking, but instead the winner is the first person to place all the cards from their Blitz Pile in sequence and in the same respective colours onto the central piles, which everyone can add to. For example, you may be waiting to lay down a blue 7 but you need to wait until someone else lays a blue 6 onto the central pile before you can offload your 7. If you’re not fast enough, another player could add their blue 7 to the pile before you! This means you need to keep an eye on everyone else’s moves at the same time as managing your own cards. An exciting, energetic game and great exercise for your brain!
Creative thinking is defined as a way of looking at problems or situations from a new perspective and coming up with novel solutions. Here are three examples which help develop this skill: Scrabble, Articulate for Kids and Charades. In Scrabble, let’s face it, you’re often presented with a rubbish selection of letters and so you need to think creatively by playing off the words of other players. Articulate, which involves describing as many words as you can in a minute without using any part of the word you’re describing, necessitates an imaginative use of vocabulary and scenarios to help your teammates guess the words. In Charades, innovative methods of visually describing your chosen character, film, song, book or TV programme are needed for a successful team win.
There are quite a few games which present fun ways of learning a particular set of facts, language or other specific knowledge. Some of our most popular ones in this category are:
- Mapominoes: We have the Europe and UK version. At each turn, a player can lay down one of their county/country cards next to a neighbouring country/county in front of them; the winner is the first to lay down all their cards. Thus, it helps children build up a picture of where the countries are located across Europe and the counties across the UK.
- Flags of the World: In this game, you compete to identify the most flags. Bean9’s absolute top game, he’s learned all the flags from Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and America off by heart and is pretty much unbeatable!
- KLOO: Agame in which they have to put Spanish verbs, adverbs, nouns and adjectives together to make sentences and translate them accurately to gain extra points. My two are incredibly competitive and love trying to see who can get the longest or most silly sentence! (NB: KLOO is also available in different languages, such as French and Italian).
- History Heroes: We have the Explorers set, but there are a huge variety of options such as Kings and Queens, Sport, Scientists and Inventors etc. In this game, you win the 40 cards by guessing the historical heroes (such as Neil Armstrong or Sir Francis Drake) from the facts read out by the opposing player. The facts come with different levels of difficulty, so it can be used with children of different ages. Bean9 sat and learned all the facts one day, so he’s a tough one to go up against!
- Shakespeare Trivial Pursuits: Bean10 is a Shakespeare super fan, so this travel edition version of the classic general knowledge game, with 600 questions on the life and works of Shakespeare is right up her street!
- Top Trumps: We have ten different versions of Top Trumps ranging from volcanoes to chemical elements to Shakespeare. Perfect for taking with you on journeys or playing over dinner, the kids inevitably learn a plethora of facts whilst having fun trying to beat their siblings!
Having written this blog post, it’s inspired me to put my laptop down and go play a game or two with my kids! The opportunity to develop all those crucial life skills whilst also having a great time connecting with my little Beans is one not to be missed.
Happy game schooling!