What your child most wants — and needs — is to be with you with no goal in mind beyond the joy of spending time together. He wants you to take pleasure in him, play with him, and listen to him. Nothing bolsters his self-esteem more! So why not pull out an old board game tonight? Playing games is an easy and excellent way to spend unhurried, enjoyable time together. As an added bonus, board games are also rich in learning opportunities. They satisfy your child's competitive urges and the desire to master new skills and concepts, such as:
- number and shape recognition, grouping, and counting
- letter recognition and reading
- visual perception and color recognition
- eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity
Games don't need to be overtly academic to be educational, however. Just by virtue of playing them, board games can teach important social skills, such as communicating verbally, sharing, waiting, taking turns, and enjoying interaction with others. Board games can foster the ability to focus, and lengthen your child's attention span by encouraging the completion of an exciting, enjoyable game. Even simple board games like Chutes and Ladders offer meta-messages and life skills: Your luck can change in an instant — for the better or for the worse. The message inherent in board games is: Never give up. Just when you feel despondent, you might hit the jackpot and ascend up high, if you stay in the game for just a few more moves.
Board games have distinct boundaries. Living in a complex society, children need clear limits to feel safe. By circumscribing the playing field — much as tennis courts and football fields will do later — board games can help your child weave her wild and erratic side into a more organized, mature, and socially acceptable personality. After all, staying within the boundaries (not intruding on others' space, for example) is crucial to leading a successful social and academic life.
A Word About Winning
Children take game playing seriously, so it's important that we help guide them through the contest. When a playing piece falls to a lower level, our kids really feel sad; when it rises up high, they are remarkably proud and happy, even if we adults know that it happened only by chance. Therefore, you need to help balance your child's pleasure in playing the game with his very limited ability to manage frustration and deal with the idea of losing.
For 3, 4, and even 5 year olds, winning is critical to a feeling of mastery. So generally, I think it's okay to "help" them win. By about 6, kids should begin to internalize the rules of fair play, tenuous as they may seem to a child who is losing a game. So I am also fine with a 6 year old "amending" the rules to win if he feels she has to. I encourage you to acknowledge your child's need for special rules. At the start of the game, you might want to ask, "Are we playing by regular or cheating rules today?"
Choosing the Right Game at Every Age
While in the long run we need to teach values, ethics, academic skills, and the importance of playing by the rules, in the early years the primary goals are helping your child become more self-confident and ambitious and to enjoy playing with others. If you're playing with more than one child, divide the family into teams, giving each player a job he can do well: A younger child may be responsible for rolling the dice (which he considers important, since that is where the luck comes from), and an older child the job of sorting the Monopoly money.
As children approach 5, they have more sophisticated thinking skills and can begin to incorporate and exercise their number, letter, and word knowledge in literacy-based games. By 6, children may prefer more cognitively challenging games like checkers, which require and help develop planning, strategy, persistence, and critical thinking skills. Here are some of our favorite game picks for 5 and 6 year olds.
Scrabble Junior (Milton Bradley): This is the younger cousin of the tremendously educational and challenging Scrabble, which we all know and love. Using large yellow letter tiles, players match letters to words already written on one side of the board. The reverse side has an open grid where older children can create their own words.
Learning highlights: Fosters literacy and language skills.
Boggle Junior (Parker Brothers): The prelude to Boggle — one of the best learning games for older kids — is Boggle Junior, in which players link pictures to letters and words. The game comes with 6-sided letter cubes and numerous picture cards that have the name of the object spelled below. Players place a card on a blue tray and use 3- or 4-letter cubes to copy the item's spelling. Older children can hide the written words and spell the word just using the picture.
Learning highlights: Teaches letters, words, spelling, and matching skills.
Zingo (Think Fun Company): One of this year's "hot" games, this Bingo-style matching game relies on a player's ability to spot pictures (of a dog, say, or the sun) and match them quickly to the words and pictures on his play card. As in Bingo, the first one to finish a complete line of items wins.
Learning Highlights: Encourages matching skills and quick thinking.
Monopoly Junior (Parker Brothers): As they do in its senior sibling, players roll dice to move around the game board and buy real estate. The game is shorter and uses smaller dollar denominations so kids can figure out winnings and penalties more quickly.
Learning Highlights: Develops math, color recognition, reading, reasoning, and social skills.
Junior Labyrinth (Ravensburger): Each player gets a large, easy-to-handle piece shaped like a ghost, which she moves through an extra-large maze in an attempt to reach a treasure. While the path may appear straight, the walls move and shift, so getting there is a challenge. This game imparts the idea of impermanence and change, since a path that was open just a moment ago might now be closed and vice versa. Players have to figure out what to do when circumstances change unexpectedly — a good life skill to learn.
Learning highlights: Teaches spatial relations and relies on some manual dexterity.