By Jesse Marx
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Do you remember the thrill of winning the family Monopoly game? Or the sweet victory of beating a sibling at Parcheesi? Has your family dusted off Scrabble or Life recently? Although board games are under assault from home computers, video games, and television, this ancient family activity continues to thrive against all odds. Aside from the educational benefits, board games offer a chance to reconnect the family or siblings with one another in a way that soulless computer and video games cannot. So open up that games closet, pull out your old favorites, and take some time to introduce your kids to what they've been missing.
When did it start?
Games predate written history and have always been a part of human social evolution. Children in prehistoric times probably played the earliest games of tag and hide-and-seek, which eventually evolved into sports competition and the more traditional games we know today. The game of checkers dates back to 1400 B.C., while chess has its origin in Persia and India and is about 4,000 years old. Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing both chess and cards to North America .
Different categories of board games can include war, race, career, word, tile, card, social, and math arrangement games. Tic-tac-toe is an example of a math game, while one of the most popular race games, "snakes and ladders," invented in 1870 and later renamed Chutes and Ladders, follows a track from start to finish. The best-known career game is Monopoly, developed in 1933 by Charles Darrow, and rereleased in 1993 for a sixtieth-anniversary special edition. Scrabble, created in 1948 by Albert Butts, is a classic word game. Social games are relatively new in origin. They tend to be of high quality with intricate pieces and elaborate boards. They gained popularity in the1980s with such hits as Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, and Scattergories.
Among the obvious benefits of playing board games with children is the opportunity to apply and solidify mathematical, reasoning, calculating, sequencing, verbal, and perceptual skills. These cognitive developmental milestones can be learned and practiced through game play.
"We not only have fun together, but my husband and I use game nights as opportunities to gauge our three- and six-year-old sons' cognitive skills--color, shape, letter recognition, memory, basic math concepts, and reading. It lets us know areas we need to work on with the children," says Peggy Binette, public information coordinator for the University of South Carolina and the mother of two young children.
Binette has the right idea. "Certainly games provide the vehicle to develop cognitive skills and to stay involved with children," says Dr. Monty Stambler, a Harvard professor, who has dedicated his career to examining the meaning of play. Using play as a medium for communicating and evaluating how children think, Dr. Stambler has learned to engage children, to better teach them skills, and to spur cognitive development.
Together with his wife, Ann, Dr. Stambler has founded Gameright, Inc., an innovative game company based in Massachusetts that offers card, dice, preschool, and strategy board games. "We take what we know about children who live now, what they're doing, and what they're thinking about and use that to develop games," says Ann Stambler, an early childhood expert and a child psychotherapist in private practice.
Until children are about six years old, their primary way of learning about the world is through their senses. Between ages two and six, they lay the foundation for important mathematical concepts. These include categorizing, sequencing, cause and effect, parts of a whole, counting skills, patterns, and recognizing numbers. Games can be instrumental in developing these important skills.
For preschoolers, games such as Don't Spill the Beans and Lucky Ducks teach the concepts of "more or less." Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders help to build "before and after" skills. Don't Break the Ice and Mr. Potato Head assist with fine motor coordination. The Memory Game, Bingo, and Cootie aid in concentration, attention, memory, and identification skills.
Starting at around age six, children begin attaching meaning to numbers, and they can use objects and manipulatives to understand concepts. From ages four to ten, games such as Chinese checkers, Connect Four, Battleship, and checkers build visual perception skills. Clue Jr. and Guess Who provide logical reasoning and problem-solving abilities. Monopoly Jr. introduces basic money skills.
From ages eleven through thirteen, children can reason and think about numbers and concepts at the abstract level. Games can become significantly more complicated for adolescents, as their reading level and math computation skills increase. Masterpiece, Careers, Life, and Monopoly build money skills and change-making ability, and understanding of advanced cultural concepts, including bankruptcy, inflation, and taxes.
What are we learning?
Because learning is a social process, children learn best through fun activities that involve interaction with other people. "Games are interactive," says Dr. Stambler. "You sit across from and face each other." Ann Stambler agrees, saying, "Games offer an opportunity to get together during lulls in play and talk to one another."
"Playing board games not only lets you enjoy your family, it builds bonds of camaraderie and lets you see each child's individuality, talents, and strengths," says Mona Vanek, a mother and grandmother in Noxon, Montana. "When our children were growing up, we played Monopoly, Aggravation, Scrabble, Chinese checkers, plus lots of card games," says Vanek. Assessing the competitiveness among siblings also helps parents identify each child's personality type, while games offer a level playing field for hashing out problems.