by Patrick Matthews
Every summer, every parent faces the same quandry. How do we keep our children's brains from turning to mush? Some parents turn into homeschoolers, rolling out workbooks and daily learning activities. Others opt for daycamps, hoping against hope that playing basketball will somehow help their little ones retain their writing skills.
This summer, how about turning this problem on its ear? Instead of you worrying about what the kids should be learning, get the kids worrying about it. No, I'm not talking about scaring them into studying. Forget all those lectures about low grades causing homelessness.
Instead, break out some games. By competing with your kids, or getting your kids competing with each other, you are giving them their own incentive to learn. Nothing gets the juices flowing like the chance to beat someone else. And if your little one lacks that competitive fire, don't despair. Instead, offer prizes.
Case in point: my mom and I used to play Cribbage for money. It was only a penny a point, but I hated losing those pennies, and I practiced and practiced until I could hold my own. You don't have to play for money. My family plays games where the winner gets to pick the ice cream place we go to after the game night, or the next video we'll watch.
Reading & Writing
There are gazillions of different reading and writing games out there. I've picked out a few of my favorites to recommend:
- AmuzeAmaze is a word-building game, where each word moves you through a maze. The goal is to be the first one to get across the board (through the maze). We've found this one to be particularly fun if you form teams and work to block each other.
- Bananagrams: This game has you racing to form your own words out of Scrabble-style letter tiles. There are no turns. Instead, everyone plays all at once, which makes the game hectic and fun and high pressure. It's great for getting the brain working.
- Boggle: This game's been around forever, and with good reason. You shake the game, then try to make the most words out of the letters on the cubes. For younger kids, or kids scared of competition, you can work together, racing to make the most words together. It's quick and fun, and absolutely unbeatable if you have a little one who needs to strengthen reading and word-recognition skills.
- Word on the Street: This game from Out of the Box also has you racing to come up with words, but instead of making words from available letters, you're coming up with words based on a category, which fires up an entirely different part of your brain. There is also a Junior edition available for the younger set.
- Rory's Story Cubes is a new game from Gamewright where you roll "story cubes" (dice with pictures on them) to generate ideas for stories. If you are looking to get the creative writing juices flowing, this is a great game that's also very portable. We sometimes play while we're waiting for food to arrive at a restaurant.
- Storytellers is a game that gets you all telling a story together. You start with one of the included story starters, and then tell the story, scoring points by playing Craft Cards (each of which describes an element of the craft of story telling). This is a game I designed, so I guess it's obvious that I'd recommend it, but I'm including it here because of the effect it has on older kids and their writing. This game gets people focusing on what works in a story (instead of what doesn't work). That switch, from what doesn't work to what works, can really jumpstart a budding writer. Not only that, but the game's a lot of fun to play (if I do say so myself).
Whenever I think about math games, the first one that comes to mind is NumbersLeague. You build superheroes out of combinations of body parts (each of which has a number value). If you build a superhero strong enough to beat a supervillain, you get to take that supervillain. The artwork on this game is fantastic. My 7-year old likes playing with the cards even when we're not actually playing the game.
MathSuey is a puzzle book by the guy that invented the game "26!", which is actually also a pretty good choice if you're looking to strengthen math skills. Each page of MathSuey has a different original math puzzle. Puzzle books, of course, have no element of competition to them, but if your child has that "gotta solve em all" mentality that mine does, this is a great thing to have in the car. Working the puzzles together is also lots of fun, but check your ego at the door. Some of these are really tough.
For pre-math, it's tough to beat Hiss, the game of snake-building. Even though my oldest is getting a little too old for this game, he still enjoys it. On each turn, you draw a card and put it face up in the middle of the table. Each card has a tail, head, or body of a snake, and after you draw a card, you try to connect it to other snakes on the table. If you make a full snake, you get to keep it. It's both easy to play and surprisingly fun.
There are loads of great history games out there. Do a search in our Game Finder for History "Any" to find some of them. Many of these games, like Archeology: The Card Game, serve as a great launching point for discussions. As you play, you initiate discussions about the different periods of history.
For my money, these stories are the best way to get kids interested in history. You could spend hours discussing the Civil War and get nowhere. If, however, you take ten minutes to tell the story of Joshua Chamberlain's desperate defense of Little Round Top, you'll have a classroom full of kids anxious to learn more. Every period of history has these stories, from the Battle of Thermopylae to the Tuskegee Airmen. Just this past week, I told my kids about a certain lawyer trapped on a British ship in Baltimore harbor, peering through the smoke to see if Fort McHenry still stood, knowing that if it didn't, his hometown would be overrun and destroyed. Both my boys know the first stanza of the Star Spangled Banner by heart now, and I've a feeling they always will.
Having said all that about stories, there are a few games that go one step farther and actually let the kids be a part of history. Of these, BattleCry and Memoir '44 stand head and shoulders above the rest. Not only do you get to fight battles from the Revolutionary war (BattleCry) and World War II (Memoir '44), but each scenario starts with a description of what exactly was happening at the beginning of the battle.
If you're looking for something on a grander scale, check out Axis & Allies. This game takes longer to set up and play (three hour games are not unusual), but if you're looking for a real WWII game night experience, this is the game for you.
A lot of games don't have a specific curriculum tie-in, but still help to keep the brain running at a high level. The classics are always good, of course. It's tough to beat the abstract strategy of Chess, Pente, or SiegeStones to build sheer thinking power.
Here are a few that you might not have considered:
Forbidden Island is a cooperative game that has everyone racing to get off an island before it sinks. Of all the cooperative games out there, this one is the most pulse-pounding one that I've played. As that island starts to sink, things get very exciting. At its heart, though, it's a giant ever-changing puzzle, with everyone working together to solve it.
Condottiere, by Fantasy Flight Games is a fun battle-game filled with lots of different strategic elements. For older kids, it's loads of fun and always leaves you thinking about different strategies afterwards.
Robo-Rally, which is now published by Wizards of the Coast, is a fun game that has players racing robots across a factory floor. What makes this game is that the robots have to be programmed each turn. You choose five cards to place face down in front of you to tell your robot which way to go. The cards are things like "turn left" or "go forward two spaces." Since the factory floor is filled with things that spin, move, and slide your robot, you have to visualize where the robot is going to be (and where it'll be facing) five steps in advance. It's fun and frustrating, and a great brain builder.
That's All, Folks!
I hope you enjoy playing some of these games. If I've left any out, please let me know in the forums!