Developing problem solving skills

Most people don’t think of board games this way – they are exercises in problem solving. Whether you are trying to checkmate your opponent, score the most points or save the world from a pandemic, you have to exercise your brain juice to solve problems of different complexities. Getting a child to finish just one page of mathematical problems can be a huge challenge. You may need to play prison guard and supervise him until it’s done. It’s a chore for both him and you. It’s much easier to convince him to play a game. In fact convincing may not be necessary at all. What kind of problems do board games actually teach our children to solve?

In most board games you can’t get away from maths and logic. You apply logic to anticipate your opponents’ moves and to plan towards your goal. To build a city in The Settlers of Catan you need to collect 3 ore and 2 wheat. If you are only short of 1 ore, and you have 3 sheep, you can trade your 3 sheep for 1 ore at a port. Before you can do that, you need to have a settlement at a port. In Hare and Tortoise and Lost Cities, maths is central and you will be doing plenty of addition and multiplication. Even in other games which do not use maths heavily, children will unknowingly be practising their addition when they add up their points. These are things adults take for granted because they have faded into the background.

It’s actually a bad idea to play cards in all five colours in Lost Cities. Don’t learn from this photo.

Children learn spatial reasoning through board games. In Ubongo, they need to fit 3 or 4 polyominoes together into an enclosed area. In Dragon Castle, they learn to think in 3D, planning ahead and imagining what they want to build with their tiles.

Ubongo is played in real-time.
In Dragon Castle you collect tiles and stack them up higher and higher, eventually topping them off with roofs.

The skill of valuation is the cornerstone of wise decision-making. Given limited information, how do we assess the risks and rewards of each of the options presented to us? We solve such problems throughout life. We think in terms of probability. We weigh long-term and short-term benefits. We learn not to shy away from difficult choices. Good board games involve meaningful decision-making. A game as innocent-looking as Viva Topo subtly teaches children risk and reward. In this game, players send their mice running around a track to collect valuable cheese. If you want to go for the larger pieces, you need to run far, but can you make it before the cat catches up to you? If it does, you get no cheese.

Viva Topo, a game of mice, cheese and a yellow-eared cat.

Some games teach children deduction skills. How do you extrapolate based on limited information that you have? What additional pieces of data do you need in order to solve the mystery? How do you interpret the clues your teammates are giving you? Hanabi is an unusual game, where you hold your cards backwards, so that everyone else at the table knows your cards, but you don’t. You have to rely on clues given by others to determine which card you should play.

In Hanabi you don’t get to see your own cards.

As parents, the kind of board games which attracts us tend to be educational games. Our children’s education and welfare are always our top priority. If it is not an educational game, we will think it is purely for entertainment, time-wasting even. The problem with educational games is sometimes they are not actually very good games. Being a game is just a hook to get children interested. Homework disguised as games, if you will. Many good “entertainment” games train children to solve problems, because playing games itself is often an exercise in problem solving. When you pick a game for your child, don’t only look at educational games. Look for good games that will also teach problem solving.

If you are a parent and are interested to explore how to use board games in your child’s learning and development, follow this link.

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