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Board Not Bored: Learning Through Structured Games

From mathematics to emotion regulation, board games can teach more than you may realise!
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We may still be basking in late summer sun, but the nights are decidedly drawing in. This may fill some of you with dread - ‘how can I keep the little ones happy and occupied when it’s raining? Or cold? Or dark at 4pm?’

Well, it may be time to dust off the old board games! More than just something to pull out on Christmas afternoon, studies have shown that playing board games with children of all ages can promote the development of a range of skills. Let’s take a look:

  • Patience
    The majority of board games require turn-taking. This is an invaluable skill that you use every day, from queueing to serving yourself at dinner. Board games, with their clear rules and motivation of fun, are a perfect way to develop this skill in young children.

  • Relationship building
    When playing a board game, everyone knows exactly what is expected of them: to play the game according to the rules. This can provide opportunities for children to spend time with new or less familiar people without the pressure of trying to work out how to act appropriately.
    On top of this, the focused, structured time required by board games make them a great way to encourage quality family time.

  • Frustration tolerance
    In other words, learning to lose.
    In an interview with Scholastic, clinical psychologist Regine Galanti, PhD, said “If you're playing with a child who has low frustration tolerance, and losing is really difficult for them, allowing them to break the rules at first can make the game more tolerable and fun for them… but my goal is often to purposely play by the rules and encourage them to use coping skills and promote resilience when things don't go their way."

  • Practice following rules
    Rules are a part of daily life, but they can become particularly noticeable - and even frustrating - when children begin school: it can be hard to understand, initially, why some rules are in place.
    According to Gwen Dewar, PhD, board games are a valuable tool for giving children practice at following rules - and making it fun! Additionally, the chance to both play by- and enforce- rules can help little ones to understand why rules are important for keeping things fair.


  • Planning, organising and making decisions
    Many games involve an element of strategy. In a game of Jenga, you need to assess the stability of the bricks before choosing one to remove. Even the simple Popsicle Game [LINK] we shared earlier this week requires children to consider whether or not to take another turn and risk losing all their sticks.
    These kinds of activity stimulate and encourage healthy development in the frontal lobes of the brain: the area responsible for executive function.

  • Focus
    Clinical psychologist, Beatrice Tauber Prior, Psy.D., noted that “Board games, when played without interruptions, can help lengthen a child's attention span”. However, she does go on to point out that, for the effects of this to be felt, everyone needs to be focussed - no checking the footy scores!

  • Teamwork
    Not all board games have one winner! In co-operative board games (my personal favourite!), such as Bandido, you can all work together towards a common goal. You might still lose, but at least you’ll all be in it together.
    Alternatively, playing in teams can encourage common-goal-setting and strategizing. Pairing little ones with older children is a great way to encourage learning.

  • Counting and addition
    The body of research surrounding mathematics and board games is extensive and impressive!
    One study got a group of 114 5-year-olds to play board games for 10 minutes, twice a week for three weeks. Those who were playing a linear number board game (e.g. Snakes and Ladders), improved in both their number line estimation and calculation skills.
    Another study, which found that pre-school children from low-income families tended to have a poorer understanding of numerical magnitude, experimented with using board games to close this knowledge gap. They found that, after only four 15-minute sessions playing a simple numerical board game, the children had caught up with their peers.
    And, in yet another study, researchers assigned children with learning disabilities either five hours of maths tuition, or four hours of maths and one of chess per week. At the end of the school year, the children who had learned to play chess showed greater improvements in counting and addition.
    But you don’t need to teach a three-year-old chess to bring maths into the game. Simply asking your little one to keep score of how many games each of you has won or lost will give them a great start at addition and counting!

  • Patterns and comparisons
    Matching games such as Happy Families are a great way of encouraging children to utilise their observational skills and notice similarities, differences and patterns - all important foundational skills for later mathematical learning.

  • Literacy
    A great way of encouraging early literacy skills is ‘reading for purpose’. Even if your little one is a reluctant reader, or struggles with their letter recognition, the incentive of the game can help them to put their anxieties aside and have a go at, for example, reading their cards!

  • Confidence and independence
    One of the best ways to encourage your little one’s development is to boost their confidence. Knowing that they can improve with practice, and learn new skills, is vital for lifelong learning. Have another go at a game they struggled with the first time round, or even encourage their independence by letting them be the banker while older family members play Monopoly!

To finish up, here are a few top tips for getting the most out of your board games:

  • Make sure they understand
    Read the rules first yourself, then try explaining them in simple terms to your little one (showing them which cards to pick up, etc.). Then, have a practice round before you start. Make sure they’re confident that they know what to do before you start playing.

  • Congratulate good behaviour
    If they patiently wait for another’s turn, lose graciously, or remain calm despite picking up a bad card, don’t forget to give a little positive reinforcement! 

  • Ask them to explain how they worked things out
    Studies have shown that children learn best when asked to explain their thinking. Encourage them to talk through their strategies - or even explain their addition in simpler games such as Snakes and Ladders - in order to enhance the educational experience.

  • Give hints, don’t tell
    At points, your little one will struggle. To encourage their self-confidence and learning, try to avoid simply telling them which piece to play or what the answer to a question is. If they can do it, give them plenty of time and space to work it out for themselves. However, if you see them getting frustrated, try giving a hint, such as ‘what might happen if you moved over here?’


So, board games really are a wealth of learning opportunities! Many classic games, such as Snakes and Ladders or Scrabble can be found in charity shops. If they sound boring to you, however, and you’re looking for something a little more creative, exciting or a co-op game, I strongly recommend hunting down your local board game shop. They’ll be able to give you some fantastic recommendations - and give you the chance to support a small business!

And, lastly, if you’re not already subscribed to our newsletter, scroll down to do so now! This week, we’ll be sharing a wonderful list of games to play with children under 6, courtesy of the fantastic staff at Rule Zero, Stratford.

Happy playing!

Lizzie
Content Creator at MEplace


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