Children's board games help reinforce lessons learned in the classroom

Games such as Chutes and Ladders teach kids about numbers and counting.
Games such as Chutes and Ladders teach kids about numbers and counting. (Photo Illustration By Doug Mindell And Doug Henry For The Washington Post)
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By Mari-Jane Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010

Disconnect the Xbox, uninstall the computer game software and close the laptop. You want your child to have fun but learn at the same time, at a fraction of the cost? Play a board game, experts say.

Candy Land, for example, in its 61st year, might be one of the best deals going in early childhood education, using visions of sweet treats to disguise lessons in color recognition and counting. And its colorful cousin Chutes and Ladders has been subtly instilling early math skills since 1943 by exposing kids to the concept of numbers. Both cost about $5 at Toys R Us. Some local teachers tout Uno, introduced in 1971, as a way to teach number and color recognition, sorting skills and strategic thinking. Uno is $7 at Toys R Us.

There are so many benefits to playing board games. For years, they've been known to help children with social interaction, taking turns and learning to follow rules and to win and lose gracefully. But teachers also find ways to use board games to supplement their lesson plans, particularly in preschool and early elementary school.

"Any game that requires a student to count and move a game piece at the same time is good for developing one-to-one correspondence while counting," said Jayne Cooke-Cobern, a kindergarten teacher at Marumsco Hills Elementary School in Woodbridge. She lists Trouble, Chutes and Ladders, Uno, Yahtzee, Racko and Apples to Apples among her favorite games for the classroom.

"They're not just paper and pencil for little ones," said Lisa Barnes, another kindergarten teacher at Marumsco Hills, who uses Memory (recognition of numbers, sight words and color words), bingo (letters, shapes and rhyming words) and dominoes (numbers and the concept of more and less) with her students. "It gets everyone using their hands. They are having fun and learning at the same time."

According to the NPD Group, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., sales of board games through October were up 4 percent over the same period in 2008. Web-connected toys were down 39 percent.

Toy experts attribute the increase in board game sales to the recession. A board game can cost less than a movie ticket and can be played repeatedly. These games are strong sellers for another reason: the moms and dads who decades later can still name all the properties around a Monopoly board or recall a particularly satisfying triple word score in Scrabble.

A 2007 study by Carnegie Mellon University showed that in a group of low-income preschoolers, playing a board game with numbers, such as Chutes and Ladders, helped them improve their performance on four kinds of numerical tasks. Those gains were still evident nine weeks later.

By pushing young children to think strategically and plan ahead, and to attach abstract thoughts to concrete objects, many games can help develop more-sophisticated thinking skills, educators said.

"One of the primary skills [board games] develop is self-regulation," said Peter Pizzolongo, director of professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "You have to be able to wait your turn and think ahead. . . . With many board games, particularly those that involve numerals, you have to learn your numbers. But being able to attach those numbers to something you're doing requires a higher level of function, and that's going to happen with board games."

Marilyn Fleetwood, president of the Academy of the Child, a Montessori preschool and elementary school in Germantown, says her teachers use games such as Lotto, bingo and Scrabble to improve fine motor skills and vocabulary. They also have turned Candy Land into a gross-motor extravaganza on occasion, with the entire floor serving as the game board and the children acting as markers.

Fleetwood also uses board games to teach social skills. Unlike reading, writing and math, there are no established rules or tricks for teaching social skills.

"Parents get upset when they see that their children are playing [in school]," Fleetwood said, but "play is probably the most important skill for life. Most children learn to read, but social skills are one of those things that really have to be developed. And that's what you get with board games."


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