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.

Emotional Resilience in Children

Should you let your child win at board games?

This may not be a straight-forward question to answer. On one hand, it’s just a game. What’s the harm in intentionally losing to your child and letting him or her have fun and be happy? We don’t have to go all-out competitive with our children. Games are supposed to be about having fun together. On the other hand, children are pretty smart nowadays and will sooner or later sense that we are losing on purpose just to please them. Their victories will feel hollow. They would gain true satisfaction only when they know they deserve the win.

As a board gamer, I am mostly in the latter camp. Time spent playing board games with children are excellent opportunities to cultivate emotional intelligence in children. In the past, people believe that success is a result of high IQ. More recently, people start to appreciate the importance of EQ. If you are a smart person but don’t know how to deal with people or handle your own emotions, you won’t be very successful. Now there is an even newer concept – CQ (Collaborative Quotient). As our world becomes ever more complex, in work and in life we need to be able to cooperate with more and more people with different backgrounds and skills. Here are some ways board games help our children develop emotional intelligence.

Pouting after losing?

Learning to deal with anger, disappointment and even betrayal: Or in a nutshell, learning to lose. In most games there are multiple losers and only one winner. Chances are your child will experience losing much more frequently than winning. In a game like A Game of Thrones, you may get lied to, betrayed and even ganged up on by others. Even for adults sometimes tempers will flare and boards get flipped. Negative emotions are a part of life that we need to learn to handle and overcome. We learn to stand back up after falling down.

A Game of Thrones

Learning to be gracious: Do you gloat when you win? We want to teach our children not only how to handle defeat, but also how to handle victory. Do they remain modest? Do they display sportsmanship? We have to set the right examples ourselves. In Chess tournaments, a display of sportsmanship is part of the etiquette.

Celebrating others’ successes: We want our children to big-hearted. When their friends win at a board game, we want them to congratulate their friends and admire their skills, and not to pity themselves or blame luck. We want our children to be humble enough to learn from others, and to have the empathy to be happy for others. These are important qualities to connect with and collaborate with others.

Developing self-confidence: Unlike many other pastimes, board games are interactive. Children have to make decisions, and they see the consequences of their choices. They take an active role in the unfolding events in the game. They try different tactics and learn what works. By doing that, they build confidence. They learn to make decisions, and they learn to take accountability of their actions. Who else can they blame if they are the ones who made the decisions?

I played Lord of the Rings, a cooperative game, with my children when they were still a little too young for it. The strategy was slightly beyond them. Instead of directing them what to do, I explained to them their options and the possible outcomes, and let them decide what they wanted to do. They might not have made the best choices all the time, but they learned and gained confidence by making those decisions. When we were able to win, they knew they were fellow contributors and not just coming along for a ride.

Success in Lord of the Rings

Self-respect and respect for others: Children may take some games very seriously. They get emotionally involved and deeply care about winning or losing. This is a good thing. Putting heart into everything you do is an admirable quality. It means you take pride in what you do. It also means you respect your opponents at the same table, or colleagues you work with. Through board games we teach our children to have grit and to continue to do their best despite hardships.

When playing a game like Carcassonne or The Settlers of Catan, where everyone’s score is public information, if a child is falling behind, he or she can be easily feel dejected. We want to encourage our children to continue to play at their best, despite the poor odds.

Learning to see from others’ perspectives: A big part of playing board games is being able to analyse a situation from your opponents’ angle. You analyse their positions, and based on that you guess their motivations and plans. It is almost like reading minds. Being able to see things from others’ perspectives helps greatly in having empathy and connecting with people. When our children learn to understand others’ fears and dreams, needs and wants, they become able to appreciate others better. They have higher emotional capacity to accommodate others.

In games such as The Sheriff of Nottingham, Secret Hitler and Battlestar Galactica, the crucial skill required is to guess the identifies or the intentions of your opponents. You put yourself in their shoes and try to guess what they want to do.

When playing games with children, adults often have an advantage. This can make the games less fun for both the children (too hard to win) and the adults (too boring). There are a few ways to keep things interesting for everyone. Firstly, pick games where children actually have an advantage. Children may do better at short-term memory games and dexterity games. In some dexterity games, e.g. Gulo Gulo, smaller hands and fingers do better than big and clumsy ones. Another type of game which puts children and adults on more equal footing is luck-heavy games. Children will have a better chance at winning compared to low-luck, strategic games. Coconuts, a game about catapulting rubber coconuts into cups, is technically a dexterity game, but there is plenty of luck in whether your coconut bounces out or stays in the cup.

One way of giving children more equal odds in winning is to set a handicap for yourself. A handicap makes the game more challenging (i.e. interesting) for you, and also makes victory more achievable for your child.

Chicken Cha Cha Cha is a memory game for young children.

A board game is a microcosm of what we experience in life. We face challenges. We solve problems. We have fun. We experience successes and failures. Spending time with children playing board games lets us develop their emotional resilience and emotional intelligence. When we demonstrate the qualities we want to instil, they observe and emulate us.

The next time you play Monopoly with your child, feel free to bankrupt your child showing no mercy. It builds character!

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.

The importance of learning to learn

We live in an ever-changing world, and the pace of change is accelerating. Our educational system does not prepare our children well enough to cope with this. Although it continues to evolve and reinvent itself, we have to remember that it was developed for the industrial age. Children learn in a standardised way, so they grow up to be standardised adults and can find work in standardised jobs at factories which require discipline and repetition. However we are in the information age now. Hard labour is already mostly done by machines, and white collar jobs are now being displaced by computers and AI’s. Not that long ago a typist used to be a full-time job. This is unimaginable today. In 20 years, some jobs today will suffer the same fate. If your child is born today, by the time he grows up, he may be working on a job that does not exist today. How do we prepare children to be able to adapt and cope in such a fast-changing world?

Our children must not only learn, but also learn to learn. Being educated is not about just memorising facts. It is also about being able to pick up new skills and knowledge quickly, being observant and absorbent, being critical, and being able to apply theories learned to practical problems. What a university first year student learns may become obsolete by the time she finishes her degree. If she cannot learn something new after that, her education will have been wasted.

Here are some ways board games train our children to learn.

Every new game is a learning experience. There are new rules to learn, new mechanisms to master, new concepts to grasp and different strategies to explore. It is not surprising that many people feel lazy to read rule books, or even sit down to listen to someone else explain the rules of a game. People resist new things and find it difficult to absorb new information. People lack patience. It is natural to want to stay in our comfort zone. A continuous exposure to board games and to new games is a training and acclimatisation to learning new things. When learning is no longer perceived as a chore, and in instead seen as a source of joy, our children learn to welcome new challenges.

Develop curiosity. Board games, unlike other forms of entertainment and learning, require children to participate actively, often to solve a problem. They encourage children to explore, to find out what works and what doesn’t, and what actions are most promising in achieving victory.

Making the winning move in Cartagena?

Board games also tell many different stories about the world around us. We learn about history, cultures around the world, fairy tales, and even classical literature. Although not presented to us in an encyclopaedic form, games allow us to immerse ourselves in these topics in an interactive form.

Board games is a safe environment. They are a simplified and risk-free version of the reality that we face every day. We get to play different roles and we have the opportunity to be daring. We try crazy ideas. At worst, we lose a game. In real life, we don’t have the luxury of trying anything we want.

I certainly have not captained a nuclear submarine in real life. Captain Sonar allows me to do that.

A game presents you a set of rules, but you not only have to understand and remember the rules, you also need to see beyond the rules and understand how you can use them to achieve success. You are no better than a machine if all you can do is follow the rules. You need to exercise your intelligence and strategy to create success. It is much the same in real life. To be successful in life, our children not only have to know the rules, which are much more complex than any game, they must also use them well.

Playing teaches communication and collaboration. Board games are about learning to work with people. As computer systems and AI’s take over more and more of our jobs, many new jobs that emerge require more and more of working with people, which AI’s aren’t very good at yet. Research has also shown that a fulfilling life is one with healthy friendships and relationships. In an era of both children and adults frequently glued to smart devices and screens, we sometimes forget to teach our children to interact with other humans. Sometimes even we forget to do that, because there’s just one WhatsApp message we’ve got to reply to now, or that Bitcoin price we have to monitor, or this new Netflix show releasing today.

Through board games we train our children’s emotional intelligence. They learn to both win and lose graciously. When playing board games we sit across the table from other real human beings and we don’t interact through a screen or just voice. We learn to empathise with others. We learn to think what they may be thinking, or feeling.

Cooperative games are a category of games which specifically encourages collaboration. Well-known cooperative games include Pandemic, Lord of the Rings and Robinson Crusoe. Players need to support one another. Sometimes individuals need to sacrifice for the greater good. Some limited communication games require you to see from other people’s perspectives, e.g. The Crew, The Mind, Fuji and Hanabi. When playing these games, children learn to be less selfish and they become better at understanding others’ wants and needs.

Forbidden Island is about recovering four precious artefacts from a sinking island. Players must work together to retrieve all four of them and leave the island before it submerges beneath the waves.

Playing develops cognitive flexibility. Unlike reading a book or watching a movie, the situation in a game changes based on the actions of the players. Children are not passive consumers. They are active protagonists. They have to make decisions to better their situations. They learn to adapt to changes. They maintain an openness in accepting new information, so that they adjust their gameplay to changing situations. It is important to be able to associate new information with old, and being able to apply old principles to new problems. That is the whole point of learning – to apply. Board games are a playground for children to do this.

Life is a big and complex problem to solve. It will be even more so for our children when they grow up. We might as well encourage them to have fun solving it.

Let’s play!

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.