Board Games, Not Bored Games

I can’t believe I haven’t written about board games yet. If there is one and only one thing you do to promote mathematical thinking in your home, make it board games. Start with any board game. Yes, that means you may have to start with Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders. Ugh. My childhood memories of these particular games are extremely positive. I loved landing on the Neopolitan ice cream bar at the top of the original Candy Land game board, and I actually daydreamed about owning my own Chutes and Ladders game. I mean who doesn’t love a good long slide and a super high ladder? My adult self, alas, now struggles to find the patience to play them.

But it is well worth your while to cultivate a love of board games in your child.

How to do it? Here’s what happened in our house about a year ago:

I want to keep the developmental age of my son, who is now 4.5 true to how we actually interacted that day. These events are from a journal entry I wrote back then.

This morning when the 3.5 year old said, “Momma! Yet’s pway a board game!”, I didn’t hesitate.

“Yes!!,” I exclaimed. (I did not communicate to him how disappointed I was that on this unusually warm and sunny day in January he was choosing to stay inside. He was so enthusiastic, and I don’t want his enthusiasm for games to fade.)

So back to the game…

I let him choose. He chose Pirate-opoly – a game that mimics Monopoly, but with a lot of “Argghhh!” and “Shiver me timbers!” It’s also a game designed for 5 to 8-year-old kids. My first suggestion to you when you play a game with your young children is to ignore age recommendations. They are only suggestions, and every child is on their own developmental trajectory, able to handle some challenges and not others. You won’t know until you try. And if a game, as it’s rules say it ought to be played, is a bit beyond your child, there are still plenty of ways to modify it to work for her. In fact, your kid will probably be the one to come up with those modifications. You might interpret those mods as “not playing by the rules”…let it go.

Here are some suggestions for making the game work for both you and your child:

  1. Make yourself a cup of coffee. Or a cup of tea. Playing board games with your young children, though surely delightful, is also a bit of work. A cup of happiness makes everything a little lovelier.
  2. Be patient and be observant.
  3. Don’t expect to finish the game. Don’t expect to always play by the rules. Actually…don’t expect anything.
  4. The goal is not to teach your child how to play the actual game. The primary goal is to connect with your child in a way that they (and hopefully you, but mainly they) will remember positively. The secondary goals are to practice social skills like taking turns, sportsmanship, how manage a loss, how to manage a win, etc. Oh yeah, and then there is the goal of learning math. That goal is not primary. Within the game you are playing, there are likely elements of math – rolling dice, spinning spinners, counting spaces, seeing patterns, noticing what comes next, making strategies. But if your child doesn’t think playing board games with you will be a positive experience, then you’re unlikely to get anywhere near the math goals.

So back to the actual events of that day:

“Momma. Yet’s pway a board game!”

“Yes! I’m going to heat up some tea first. Do you want to pour the tea into my cup?” (I have a cool teapot that “pees” into the cup when you place it on top. The kids love that.)

After letting him dispense the hot tea into my cup (twice – we poured it back into the pot and did it again, it’s so much fun), we headed upstairs to where our board games are tucked away in a book shelf. Usually the 3.5 year old heads right for Candy Land. Every single time. I do have trouble keeping my patience and being observant during Candy Land. I am tired of it. But today the kid chose Pirate-Opoly. I have never played this game with him, and I was wondering how the heck we were going to make it work with a kid who doesn’t read or make change with money. I had my cup of tea, though. And I was sitting in my peaceful yogi cross-legged position. And I was ready to work with whatever this kid wanted to do.

It turns out there was a lot we could do. From Candy Land and the LadyBug Game, the kid had learned how to count out spaces. He had learned concepts like losing a turn and getting to roll again. The die in this game has the number symbols 0-5 printed on it (rather than little dots.)  The 0 gave us the chance to discuss what we thought should be done when one rolls a zero. Perhaps the instructions told us what we should do, but we decided that it was such a bummer to roll a zero that anyone who did could roll again. Negotiation skills. Making up rules is okay. Breaking rules is okay. This kid doesn’t tend to try to cheat. When he (rarely) does, he usually announces it. Then we smile and laugh and move on. His older brother was (and is) a much more conniving cheat in board games. He would switch cards, turn die, outright place his piece where he knew it didn’t go. Don’t let this kind of behavior anger you.  Acknowledge the cheat (“I noticed that you pulled that card from the middle of the deck when you didn’t like what you drew. That’s cheating.”) Then move on. (There are many different ways to respond to cheating, depending on your child’s age and developmental stage. I’m not going to get into that here.)

Mathy things to think about:

  1. When your child miscounts, avoid explicitly correcting or saying “You are wrong.” Instead, model correct counting yourself when it’s your turn. Count aloud, encouraging your child to count along with you. If you feel strongly about correcting your child, try saying “Are you sure? Double check!”
  2. Making change from 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 bit pieces of paper was beyond the 3.5 developmental stage. So when it was time to shell out some dough, I helped him count from his 1 bit pile first – then later I showed him how to pay 4 bits using two 2-bit papers. I didn’t linger on any kind of explanation. I wanted to keep the game moving and keep him interested. In the process, he is seeing, though not necessarily understanding, that different combinations of papers can create the sum he needs. I’m hoping that lodges in his brain and is the seed for the understanding that will develop later.
  3. The type of die matters. The one in this game has the numerical symbols 0 through 5 on it. If I’d thought more about it, I may have switched it for a standard die with dots so that the kid could develop his visual sense of amounts and could count those dots if he wanted to. He was still developing his recognition of numerical symbols, and it was interesting to see that he regularly mistook 2 for 5. Sometimes I let that pass. Sometimes I would turn the die to the 5 and ask him what it was.
  4. In all these interactions, I don’t really care whether his answers are correct or not. At 3.5, I just want to interact and plant seeds. If some of the seeds are planted upside down, he will orient them correctly as we play more and as he grows.

Now that the 3.5 year old is 4.5, his approach to games has evolved. He cheats more now. And he doesn’t announce it. Which seems developmentally appropriate, if not desirable. So we’ll work on that.

(Mathematically…there are so many benefits to playing games. Skills like counting and manipulating numbers are superficial. There are much deeper and more complex skills to be developed – problem-solving, creating strategies, persisting, planning, switching perspectives…I could go on and on. Don’t worry whether the game bills itself as explicitly doing any of these things. Once your kids learn that playing any game together is going to be fun, you can start introducing more interesting and challenging games.)

3 thoughts on “Board Games, Not Bored Games

Add yours

  1. Once again, such a useful post. And I admire your keeping a journal. I have never managed to keep up that practice. What board games do you love? Say for a 6 year old? Or for your family that “we” could grow into over time?


    1. Sooo many games to love! Set, Rummikub, Checkers, and Chess are all games that I like as an adult and have found ways to adapt for my 7-year-old. There are often junior versions of games which are nice, but not necessary. For example, James started “playing” Rummikub with my father several years ago. He liked handling the tiles and figuring out how to put them in numerical order. I helped him actually play them. Last year when I heard of a local chess club for kids, I sent him because I never learned to play. Now he’s teaching me…and it’s the one game I don’t have to fake losing!


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