Good Cheap Fun for Your Family

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.


Cognitive development

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.


Which games?

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.

During game play, we develop important social skills: taking turns, sharing, and developing patience, diplomacy, and sportsmanship. Children learn to be gracious winners and stoic losers. Parents can assess children's character-building needs while playing board games in a way that more passive activities such as watching television or playing computer and electronic games don't provide.



Board games are a tradition for some families. "Rituals are important to build into family life," says Ann Stambler. "Playing games is a structured way that gets people together and focuses everyone on one particular thing--a haven in an otherwise disjointed world. This is what families are sorely missing in the 1990s."

Most adults who played board games as children now incorporate them into their own family time. "We have a rule at our house," says Donna Smith, mother of three children, ages nine, five, and one, in Katy, Texas. "The winner has to do the 'chicken dance' around the kitchen table." The Smiths play a variety of board and card games including Skip-Bo, checkers, Jenga, Topple, Trouble, Sorry, and Clue.

A number of traditions take place in families involving board games. Some families play more around the holidays or during summer vacation, when lifestyles are more relaxed and family centered. Others have traditional family games or a marathon monopoly game.

Nita Hisaw understands about game traditions. Hisaw, a mother of grown children in Conroe, Texas, has been playing board games all her life. "One of our family traditions is that no matter how old you are, you get a game for Christmas from your parents. One of the saddest holidays in my life was the first Christmas after my parents died, and not receiving a game from them," she says. Though each of her siblings consequently bought games for each other to keep up the tradition, it just wasn't the same.

Hisaw's grown children still come over to play games. They play Life and Wahoo, a marble board game. "We play on a board that was made by my father in the early '60s. It has been painted and redone many times, and I am sure will one day belong to one of my grandchildren," says Hisaw.


The Future of the Board Game

There is nothing comparable to rallying the family around the kitchen table for a game to restore family unity. Board games, however, are often overlooked in today's busy lifestyle, in which many activities compete for a family's time. Toy maker Hasbro acknowledged last year that forty percent of its annual income traditionally comes from board games such as Scrabble, Parcheesi, Yahtzee, and Monopoly. Slowing growth had Hasbro concerned that Americans were becoming bored with board games. Accordingly they launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to encourage families to play games.

The twenty-three-million-dollar toy industry has faced significant challenges in today's market. The Internet, video games, computers, and television all vie for children's time and attention.

But research has shown that kids and parents want to find a way to come back together. Games are an excellent method for parents to provide learning experiences for children. "They're inexpensive, portable, and a lot of fun," says Dr. Stambler, extolling yet more virtues of traditional board-game play.

There are many commercial games available that engage all the senses, provide humor and entertainment for the whole family, while boosting the cognitive development of children from preschool through middle school. "We really focus on each other during this time," says Donna Smith, about her family game time. "We're not lost somewhere staring at the television." So, turn off the TV, shut down the computer, grab the kids, and organize the family around the table for a board game--you'll be glad you did.

This is Jennifer Nelson's first contribution to Minnesota Parent.

Favorite Old and New Games
For ages 3 to 6


Game . . . . Suggested retail price  

Candy Land . . . . . . $5.99

Chutes and Ladders . . . . . . $6.09

Don't Break the Ice . . . . . . $7.99

The Memory Game . . . . . . $6.99

Cootie . . . . . . $ 6.99

Lucky Ducks . . . . . . $8.99

Pooh's Hundred Acre Woods Stamp Game . . . . . . $8.99


For ages 7 to10


Chinese checkers . . . . . . $4.99

Connect Four . . . . . . $11.99

Battleship . . . . . . $12.99

Monopoly Jr. . . . . . . $9.99

Clue Jr. . . . . . . $8.99

Parcheesi . . . . . . $9.99

Yahtzee . . . . . . $15.00

Guess Who? . . . . . . $12.79

Jenga . . . . . . $15.00


For ages 11 to13


Monopoly . . . . . . $10.99

Risk . . . . . . $22.99

Clue . . . . . . $9.99

Careers . . . . . . $11.99

Scrabble . . . . . . $8.99

Sorry . . . . . . $9.99

Life . . . . . . $14.99

Easy Money . . . . . . $16.99

Jumanji . . . . . . $18.99

Masterpiece . . . . . . $15.99

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