Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why We Play Board Games

As a child I was an avid player of board games. I have early memories of Candyland, Chutes & Ladders, and High Ho Cherry-O, all of which are games we play at Woodland Park. I liked the fantasyland of sweets, imaging myself floating, for instance, on the floe of ice cream depicted on the game board. There was something about that long slide of disaster that dissects the center of the Chutes & Ladders board that made me not so upset when forced to ride it to the bottom. And the constant good-natured arguing between my brother and me about whether the cherries should be placed in the trees stem up or stem down bordered on a family tradition. 

But it was the actual playing of the games, according to the rules, or at least according to the rules to which we'd agreed, and the competition and cooperation that came out of those agreements, that made the time spent important. When we break out the board games at school, it's not, of course, with the idea of pitting children against one another, but rather the practice of playing together within the boundaries of our agreements.

Typically, we play our games indoors, set up on a table with an adult nearby, not so much as a supervisor or manager, but more as a playmate and role model. If a child asks how to play, we may walk them through the rules, but there is no obligation to abide abide by them, at least until a classmate seeks to enter into the play. It's then that the agreements come in. 

The point of bringing board games into the classroom isn't to practice following rules or instructions, but rather to practice playing cooperatively. Often for our youngest kids it winds up being something like taking turns with the spinner, ignoring the board part of the game altogether. The older kids are more inclined to want to know what the official instructions have to say, if only as a starting point for a negotiation that becomes, really, the core of their play together.

Our games of Candyland might feature the children taking turns drawing cards, while all of them move their pawns, chosing to take their "adventure" in the company of friends. Our Chutes & Ladders game board stands in as a wild and wooly table top playground. And Hi Ho Cherri-O becomes a farm with repeated cycles of  planting and reaping. 

Some people worry that preschoolers are to young for the winner-take-all kind of competition offered by traditional board games, and indeed, there are sometimes tears. Others figure it's good for them to experience the hard knocks. I think it depends on the kid, but what I have observed time and time again is that when left to their own devices, they chose to play by "rules" that allow everyone to raise their hands over their heads in victory.

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