Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Games where kids actually use their brain

A few months ago, I came across an article about how most board games that kids play don't actually teach them anything. I'm not talking about math or reading - I'm talking about strategy and decision making.

Looking at the games we had in the house then, I realized that all of them were completely luck-based. Any brain dead monkey could play them: Candyland, Bingo, Chutes & Ladders, Cariboo, etc. Those games are fine for when you want to teach a child how to take turns and play fair, but honestly, they're pretty boring for both child and adult. Card games are little better - there's decision making in Go Fish and Uno, but it is limited.

Theo is a very verbal child - he likes to make up stories and act out scenes in the movies he watches. The last few months, during the Peter Pan phase, we played "pirates" a lot. Now he's in a Star Wars phase, so we have lots of lightsaber battles and Theo runs around pretending to be a stormtrooper (or more specifically, Luke Skywalker pretending to be a stormtrooper, like in the original movie).

Around Christmas time, he received a game called Sequence for Kids. Finally, here's a game that used strategy. We didn't think he would get it, that it would be too difficult. Instead, we found out quickly that he wasn't just getting the concept, he was unnaturally good at this game. We thought we were letting him win sometimes, when really, he was delaying playing his winning hand because he was toying with us.

Sequence has been played daily at our house ever since. We never ease up on him anymore, and he still wins more than 50% of the games he plays.

In the original article, one of the suggested games to play with kids was role-playing games. Sure, I'm a geek, but I had never played any of those table-top role playing games that were popular in my youth, like Dungeons & Dragons. My friends and I were too busy simulating baseball games with Strat-o-matic and Pursue the Pennant in the hall outside the auditorium, in the windowless prison they called a high school for the "gifted". Once in awhile we played a strategy card game (Illuminati, I think it was called) - but a game like Dungeons & Dragons was frowned upon even by us.

In the time since, I've never had the occasion or the interest to play a true role playing game. I've played lots of computer games that are RPGs, but never one where you sit around a table and tell a story.

Until last night, with my 4-year old son.

One of the comments in the article I was talking about (I wish I had a link, but this was months ago) talked about a role playing game called Faery's Tale and how their kids, even the 3-4 year olds, loved it. I figured what the heck and ordered it from Amazon. It's 2 months later, and Amazon still hasn't sent it - it's on backorder or something. I thought it would be a whole set, but really, it's just a book. I finally just bought the PDF off of the web site and quickly read through it.

So the premise is that these games are really just story-telling games. I don't think I ever really understood that. I tell interactive stories to Theo all the time, where he suggests plot twists in a story like "Theo and the Beanstalk" but it was never formalized - it was just a way to kill time during a long car ride or a long wait at a restaurant.

So, we tried out this "Faery" game. We started by letting Theo choose what type of Fairy he wanted his character to be (he chose warrior, of course, because pretending to swing a sword/lightsaber is his favorite activity these days). He chose the name, color of clothes, special magic abilities. Then he surprised me by asking to draw his character. So we drew the fairy (he named it Piano) and he colored it in and we cut it out so he could play with it.

We started our adventure - since I had never done this before, I took the easy way out and inserted "Piano" into the Jack and the Beanstalk story. Piano found himself in the Giant's castle in the sky, and then watched as Jack came in and was found by the Giant.

Here's where it gets pretty interesting: at this point, I told Theo that Jack was frozen with fear at the sight of the giant. I asked Theo:

Is Piano going to help Jack, or continue to stay in his hiding place?

"Keep hiding" was the response.

OK, no problem, but now the giant is getting closer. He's about to grab Jack and eat him! Piano is only a couple of feet away! Jack is starting to cry - will you help him?

"No, I want to keep hiding, Daddy."

OK, I'm thinking, maybe Piano is scared by the giant and is biding his time before launching the heroic rescue. I continue:
The giant grabs Jack and says "I'm going to EAT YOU UP for dinner!" and puts Jack into a cage. Then the Giant walks into the kitchen. Here's your chance, Piano - are you going to save Jack?

"No - I'm going to run out of the house, Daddy."

My kid is a coward.

I ratcheted up the emotion - Jack pleads with Piano to save him, begs for his life. Finally, reluctantly, Piano decides he might as well save Jack.

The story continues as normal, Piano uses some magic to save Jack, they escape from the castle with the giant in hot pursuit, climb down the beanstalk, and Piano uses his sword to cut down the beanstalk to make the giant fall.

I have to say, Theo loved the game, and I enjoyed it as much as he did. When Danielle came home from work he pestered her to play with us, and we did a Hansel & Gretel story before shuttling him off to bed. He told us that he would wake up at 7am so that we could play the Faery game before school. This morning, Theo woke up as promised and we played another story, this time with robbers trying to steal a penguin from the zoo.

My point is this - here's a game where we can actually teach him moral lessons in a setting where he could understand what is being taught. He/Piano gets rewarded for being heroic and standing up to bullies, and punished for being cowardly or starting fights unnecessarily. He gets poisoned by eating candy from a strange lady. There's a system for keeping track of life/health, so he knows that if he fights too much, he will get hurt and maybe even get knocked out of the story. Plus, he came up with some ingenious ideas for how to get out of hairy situations that really surprised me - we really don't give kids enough credit for their imagination.

So, the experiment continues. I don't know if we're doing it correctly, but at least it's a lot of fun. And much better than another mindless game of Candyland.

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