Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Board (games) of Education

The children will be going back to school soon, and many parents at this time of year are thinking of ways to boost their child's academic achievement. If your child attends school, you may be looking for ways to help the child excel in class, or is some cases simply to catch up. If you are a home educator, you are most likely planning out an entire curriculum. But regardless of whether your child attends school or not - almost all children are home educated to some extent. Most of do try to engage in educational activities at home. Board games are often overlooked, but their value can be immense. For the life of me, I can not find the original study I am about to quote, but it did state that the three most important things a parent could do to help their child academically were:
1 - read to them.
2 - take them places, everything from museums to parks.
3 - play board games.

Now the first two originally came as no surprise to me, but over the years I have come to see more and more how board games can help a child academically. This book focuses on how board games can help a child develop key skills which may translate to academic success, as well as just basic skills required for life. Obviously, I did not need any convincing, I've been using board games more and more on our home education journey - to the point that next year Fridays will be devoid of all pencil work. We will only have board games, science toys, arts and crafts or days out. I bought this book, not to discover if board games could be a part of our curriculum, but in the hopes of finding new and better ways to use them.

The author, Jeffrey P. Hinebaugh is an American attorney and partner in a law firm. He has also taught economics, and is the father of two home schooled children. Because he is American, this book will have American names of games, and some of the games may be less common over here, but in most cases he does mention British Equivalents. I would note that he also seems to be referring to older variants of some of the games, so that The Game of Life he refers to in the book looks nothing like the edition currently available on Amazon. While some of these games may be less common in the UK, I did engage in a quick search on Amazon and ebay and found all of them were available, although some were a bit on the expensive side. Sadly, none of the Orchard Toys board games are listed though, and I believe this is because these are primarily British games, nor were any games created especially for educational purposes, and there are quite a few excellent ones out there.

The book begins with the simplest games Candyland and Chutes and Ladders - which for us means "Snakes and Ladders". At this stage children are learning very basic skills, such as colours and how to count. the author also points out that these teach very important life skills, like how to lose, and that bad things happen - like landing on a snake just when you are ready to reach the end. The Chutes and Ladders section was one of the best in the book and offers all sorts of variation on the game to make it more challenging for older students, as well as teaching new skills. I have got a few ideas from this, and I have in fact just ordered a Snakes and Ladders Game, but I also had a been reading up on other board games and realised I could make my own version of some very expensive maths games with a snakes and ladders set and some markers. Still the simple idea of added polyhedron dice to the game and a maths dice with +, -, x, and / make this a brilliant way to drill basic facts without work books or flash cards. I also liked the idea of using this game to introduce the concept of negative numbers.

Scrabble and boggle are of course brilliant games to improve reading and spelling. Scrabble also teaches maths skills as we use both addition and simple multiplication to calculate scores. The author gives a few variations, but most of these were ones I was already familiar with. Still, I found it a useful section and it does really make think just how beneficial these games are.

I was less impressed with " I Will Buy It!", the section on Monopoly, Payday and The Game of Life. I'll admit these games do all teach maths skills , especially if you have the child serve as banker, but I'm less impressed with their value as means to teach children to invest, budget, and plan for retirement in real life. The payday game does look quite useful for calendar skills, although it looks rather boring to me, so I may consider making my own version with calendar , monthly supplies drop and an expedition theme, if I can get my hands on a few cheap game boards or something similar to reconstruct.

The section on logic and deductive reasoning was brilliant, and this alone made the book worth purchasing in my opinion. This is an area in which the schools are falling short now, and the need for children to be able to think for themselves and come to logical conclusions, or even logical guesses has never been more apparent. The games included are Cluedo, Battleship and Mastermind. I already own the first two, but after reading this, I ordered Mastermind the same day. Much of what Hinebaugh says in this chapter is common sense, but it hadn't really occurred to me before. He does point out exactly how these games encourage children to use logic reason, and form educated guesses.

The section on war games was also brilliant. The include draughts ( checkers), Risk and Stratego. I am now in the process of searching for yet another spare game board to make a game of Risk based on a modern map, and perhaps one of the Europe only. I had never though of using Stratego places on a map of an actual battlefield and adding or subtracting points for things like high ground, narrow passes, marshes etc... This opens up a whole new level of gameplay. It also got me thinking of ways I could change the games , and I have some unusual ideas as well. I've though of our own addition to this as well - disease dice. Disease wiped out entire armies so something as simple as camping your troops in a marsh could put you at risk of fevers etc... If we include a budget and allow the players to buy weapons, medicines food etc... we could make an incredible game. These games are meant to teach strategy and negotiation, but with some alterations they can teach history, science, military tactics and more.

"Out of the Blue" shows how games like Pictionary and Scattergories can increase creativity and drastically improve a child's ability to express themselves. They don't really sound like a I need board game for them for them though, so I can take these ideas without buying the games or add a Pictionary category to one of my own made up board games.

"Einstein Played Board Games" seems a bit of leading title. It does mention that Einstein enjoyed Chess and Go, but doesn't give much detail on these. I had to look Go up myself, but it looks brilliant and is easy enough to play with a chessboard and markers. This chapter really primarily deals with chess, but I can't say that learned much from it. We all know chess has educational benefits, and this gives us some evidence of this in terms of studies and research. There is a significant discussion of Game Theory here, but I'm afraid if I hadn't already studied this in philosophy years ago, I would have been a bit lost. However, this is the only section that I feel any adult would struggle to understand. This section does have a very useful list at the end which lists each game and skills taught.

Overall, I am glad I bought this book. It was expensive. I paid £9.49 for a new copy from Amazon, with used copies being offered at twice the price - something that has never made much sense to me. I did give me some new ideas, and get me started on making up more ideas of my own. I've always been one to add to games, or even make whole new games out of old and unwanted ones. It did help me realise that playing board games really is teaching quite a lot, and so does constitute a fair use of our educational time, and gave me the research to back this should the school board ever call it into question ( which is unlikely as they don't seem to care how we do things as long as we get the desired results).

To be honest though, there really isn't a lot here I couldn't find by combing through home education sites, it just puts everything in one place, and many of the variations were similar to things we already do. Still, I learned enough from this to justify the purchase price in my opinion, and I tend to be very creative in the use of board games already, so I expect most people will get as much from it as I did. I know I am going to sound a bit arrogant here but in all honesty, I do believe if I wrote down my own educational variants for board games though - I would have more ideas than I found in the book. That said, it is always nice to find a few new ones. My one real complaint was that I did grow a bit bored with the authors use of his children as examples. It seems on every game he went into detail on how they lost the pieces, and what they used as substitutes. Some info on what they learned from the game might have been more helpful.

Finally, there is some really fun trivia on the games, and how they evolved. I was fascinated to learn that Snakes and Ladders developed from an ancient Indian board game which illustrated the path to enlightenment. Apparently many of our games originated in India, but there is fun trivia on more modern games as well.

The big question is - should you buy this? If you home educate - I would say yes. If you already home educate with board games, you are sure to find some new ideas, and if not this will certainly encourage you to consider it. If you do not home educate, but are actively looking for ways to help your child get ahead at school, this might also be worth considering. I do believe children would benefit more from books and board games at home than from workbooks, and especially if your child needs help in specific areas, this might be very helpful. If you already have a number of these classic games, this book will certainly be more useful for you. If not, buying enough games to make this book useful may not be practical. As mentioned, I don't own all of them, but I do own more than half - although some are altered. Mariopoly is ever so much more fun than Monopoly Jr and we will be converting Monopoly Skylandopoly next week.

I believe a family game night has many benefits, but we do have to face the facts that not all children will want to play board games when they could play X-box or Nintendo instead. Home educated children are going to leap at the choice of a board game over workbooks. A child who is already tired from a long day travelling to and from school, doing homework and trying to find a bit of time to socialise might really prefer to unwind with a video game before bed instead of a board game. It would certainly be worth discussing with your child before buying the book and games. I'm also afraid too many attempts to make a game more educational may result in the child growing bored. It's one thing to play a game based on maths facts instead of learning those facts from worksheets. It is quite another to be asked to do more sums after a full day at school and pages of homework. Of course other children will be so happy to be spending one on one time with the parents like this that they won't care how educational it is. So whether this book will work for you or not depends very much on your own child's interests. In short - if your child enjoys these types of games, this book may be very helpful. If they don't - there isn't much point.

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