by Michelle LaRowe
Editor in Chief
Awhile back, I had the opportunity to discover ThinkFun’s Roll&Play, a super fun game designed for toddlers. To play, you roll a colored dice, choose a matching colored card and perform a simple activity on the card that is depicted in both graphics and words. I was so impressed that my youngest could engage in family game night that I became a real fan of ThinkFun and their games for the younger set.
With so much pressure on parents to choose holiday gifts that entertain, I wanted to reach out to my friends over at ThinkFun to learn about non-electronic educational gift options for kids ages eight and under. I had the chance to connect with Charlotte Fixler, a former school teacher on the ThinkFun team, who shared with me her insights for how parents can provide edutainment in their gifting choices this holiday season.
eNannySource: What age can children start playing board games? How do you know your child is ready?
Charlotte: It certainly depends on the child, but generally around age two many learners are ready to play simple games with an adult. If your child is learning to follow rules and is able to engage in other activities that have a clear goal and require focused attention (like a craft project), he or she is certainly ready to dive into simple game play!
Seeing older siblings and parents playing games can be a strong motivator for young players to want to join the fun, so take your cues from your child if he or she shows an interest and find ways to get your child involved at an appropriate level. Perhaps he or she is in charge of rolling dice, or advancing tokens. Playing on a “team” with mom or big brother can involve young players and give them a chance to experience game play and turn-taking.
eNannySource: What are your favorites for the younger set? Why?
Charlotte: Games that can be completed in short, bite-sized time chunks are ideal for younger players, as sustaining attention and interest beyond a 10 minute focused activity can be a challenge. For the very youngest players, I love the toddler game Roll & Play, which introduces children as young as 18 months to the pattern of taking turns and following directions, both important skills to master to take on more challenging games. I also love this game because it is collaborative and non-competitive, so young players grow through success and bond with parents while they play. Another favorite is Zingo!, a bingo-style matching game that works well for all ages. Matching images requires no reading, but the game builds literacy skills through play, which I love – I’m all about “sneaky learning” – slipping in the educational brain-boosting benefits while you have a blast playing!
eNannySource: Why is playing board games important? How does it enhance development?
Charlotte: So many life lessons can be drawn from learning to play – and, in my mind, learning to lose! Games provide a safe space for players to experience both success and failure, and learning to be a gracious winner and take a loss in stride are critical life skills. Games teach goal-setting, encourage thinkers to stretch their mental muscles to perform better, build strategies, look for patterns, take turns, cooperate… the list goes on and on!
eNannySource: What benefits come from playing games as a family?
Charlotte: Playing games as a family is a powerful bonding experience. Learning a new game together puts everyone on an even playing field, which is important when children are different ages and skill levels. Games also give players new ways to shine and show off previously undiscovered skills – perhaps your daughter is an expert strategizer, or your son’s spatial reasoning suddenly takes center stage – games can open up wonderful learning opportunities to celebrate one another.
Experiencing wins and losses as a family can also be powerful bonding experiences, and discussions about what it means to win and lose will open up naturally – a great time to sneak in some life lessons! While a great game is key to gathering the group together, I’ve often found that the real bonding power a game has is that it opens up discussions and encourages family members to share organically. Interestingly, therapists have shared with me over the years that giving a child a game can be a fantastic tool to get him or her to open up, as once engaged in playing, he feels more freedom to share problems or concerns weighing on his mind.
eNannySource: What should parents look for when buying games for toddlers? Preschoolers? School-age children?
Charlotte: Toddler games should be focused around skills your child is already actively building and practicing, such as colors and counting, in order to start from a comfortable learning point and build from there. I also recommend games that can be played collaboratively for very young players, so using games like dominoes or memory to play as a team or family can be a great way to introduce play patterns like taking turns, without the added layer of winning and losing.
For school-age children, I like to consider the underlying learning skills that games support, from literacy to math, in order to make choices that are fun while supporting important thinking skills that will benefit them in school – again, that sneaky learning! As your child gets older, expose them to different kinds of games to see where his or her interest lights up! Strategy games like chess appeal immensely to certain thinkers, while others love creative games like Pictionary, others love more active movement, and some prefer building, exercising memory or spatial challenges. Introduce games you loved as a child, like classic Go Fish or checkers, and build up your child’s play library so he or she can develop preferences and find games together that you can add to your library!
eNannySource: How can parents make games appealing to kids when they’re competing with electronic video games?
Charlotte: Sitting down to play a game with your child is a powerful togetherness tool that, in my opinion, no screen can replace. Make game time a special opportunity to remove distractions, make a point of putting the iPhone away, and focus on the activity at hand – kids will take note, and by doing this parents send a strong message that this time is sacred and important. Make games a part of your family’s routine by establishing a regular game night. Make Sunday morning a “Pancakes and Play” event, bringing a board game to the breakfast table for a special treat, or appoint a “Game Guru of the week” who chooses the Friday night family game! Make game play part of the fabric of your family’s together time and use the opportunity to open up discussions.
eNannySource: Best tips for preventing midgame meltdowns? For promoting good sportsmanship?
Charlotte: Losing is never fun, and learning to do so with grace is a difficult skill to master – in my experience, many professional athletes could use a lesson in this! Games are an ideal tool for teaching children (and grownups!) how to manage both victory and defeat. Because losing is an inevitable part of playing any competitive game, I do not recommend parents let their children win simply to prevent meltdowns. This isn’t doing your child any favors when, in the real world, he must contend with a loss and may not be equipped to manage his emotions. I recommend parents be very proactive in addressing how it feels when things don’t go your way. Acknowledge your child’s feelings of frustration and encourage her to talk about why she lost. Was it an unlucky roll of the dice, or was there a strategy her opponent used that won the game? Using defeat as an opportunity for skill building and reflection can turn a meltdown into a very positive growth opportunity! Make a “good game” handshake or high five part of the clean-up process, and encourage both winner and loser to congratulate one another on a game well played.
Maria Montessori once said, “Play is the child’s work.” Fortunately, Charlotte never really grew up, and play continues to be her life’s work. A former elementary school teacher, Charlotte works as Director of Communications at ThinkFun developing games to equip the problem solvers of tomorrow. Tweet about play with @charlottefixler or connect with her SmartPlay blog!
Charlotte and the team at ThinkFun were kind enough to send over a few of their favorite games to test out with my own three- and five-year-olds.
Zingo! Sightwords: Designed for kids in preschool to grade 1: Zingo! Sightwords helps kids learn to recognize common sightwords that are popular in the English language but often tricky to spell (think “the” or “my”). My little ones were already familiar with Zingo!, so the Sightwords edition was a welcome spin on an old favorite. Since there are graphic clues for the words, the kids don’t need to recognize them before playing, making it fun for pre-readers and beginning readers alike, which means for my family everyone can play and the kids can even make it through a game on their own. Fast, fun and educational, this is one of our new family favorite games.
Swish Jr: If you’ve played the card layering game Swish, you’ll love that there is an edition that the family can play together. Designed for ages five and up, you lay out 12 transparent cards with shapes and designs. You have to rotate the cards in your head to match them up, and when you do you let everyone know you’ve got a swish. If the cards do match, you keep them and the player with the most cards at the end of the game wins. This game definitely requires some thinking (and helps boost visual and spatial thinking) and it can be frustrating for little ones at first. But once they get the hang of it and realize it’s not your typical memory matching game, it’s loads of fun. And since it comes in its own carrying pouch, it’s an easy game to take on the go.
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Math Dice Jr: Roll the 12-sided target die and the five six-sided scoring die. Using addition OR subtraction, combine the scoring numbers to equal the target number, and move one space for every dice used. The first player to reach the finish line is the winner. Designed for ages six and up, younger kids can use just two dice to equal the target, but more experienced mathematicians can use three, four or more, making it a fun game that kids of varying abilities can play. In-house math whizzes can also be challenged by adding multiplication and division into the mix. If the kids aren’t yet addition and subtraction ready, they’ll still enjoy playing with the dice and reinforcing number recognition and counting concepts.