Teaching life skills using board games? It's child's play . . .
After the ninth annual School Game Playing Day, educators are embracing this method all over again, writes Damian Corless
It's an ill wind that blows nobody good, and as the Great Depression deepens, the nation's toy stores are gearing up for a bumper Christmas of board game sales.
After two decades of steadliy losing out to crash-bang-wallop computer rivals, traditional games like Scrabble, Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit have enjoyed a big revival over the past two recession-hit Yules.
One figure in the trade recently ventured: "When money is tight, people turn to brands they know and trust. People pick things they remember from their childhood."
And while that is undoubtedly true, there is also a growing recognition that board games have qualities which set them apart from their console cousins.
The last Friday in October was the ninth annual School Game Playing Day and the pupils of the Bracken Educate Together school in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, were getting into the board game spirit with gusto.
The classroom of teacher Aisling McQuaid was a riot of noise and movement as the four- and five-year-olds played Shark Chase, Hungry Hippo, Letter Bingo and a range of counting and spelling games encouraged by equally excited mothers.
Aisling outlined how board games are an integral part of the teaching process in the Bracken school, helping the children learn English, maths and a range of life skills.
She explained: "The advantages for maths are in developing problem-solving skills. In Monopoly, for example, the problem could be that we're way behind. If we bought this particular piece of property, would we make money? Monopoly also involves the skill of sorting. You have to sort all the equipment into the correct categories on the board. It involves counting. How many steps forward will get me where I want to be?
"Board games are good for colour recognition. A lot of junior and senior infants don't know their colours when they start school. A lot of children would have difficulty saying that's red or that's blue. They might have difficulty if you say to them: 'Can you pick up the red counter?'
"Board games are good for developing matching skills, where a child learns to match pieces that are of a kind. They're good for developing grouping skills. They're good for learning how to predict outcomes. What are the chances of this or that outcome? That's a valuable maths skill.
"When it comes to learning English, the children have to read and understand the rules of the games. As they play, they have to express their oral language because the games demand they communicate with the other players.
"For the very young children board games help with early literacy skills. The movement of the pieces on the board involves hand-to-eye co-ordination which helps in early literacy skills where hand-eye co-ordination is vital in turning pages, pointing to words and moving along step-by-step."
Game playing also helps develop less tangible social skills. She says: "They help with the children's SPHE, which is their Social, Personal and Health education, because they have to work together as part of a team. It helps develop empathy, as in: 'Oh, unfortunately you lost. I'm sorry for you.' It's not a ha-ha situation.
"It helps to build up a situation of trust, because the next time it could be you that loses. It also helps to build a sense of self-identity, as in: 'This is me. This is my part in the game.' They have their own space to belong in the game and the space to make their own decisions as in: 'I'm going to take a chance on this.'
'They learn from experience. What can we do to improve our experience next time. For example, in Shark Chase, where the kids have to roll the dice to keep their pieces ahead of the shark which wants to eat them up. They've learned that next time they will have to roll the dice quicker if they want to avoid being eaten.
"Another important lesson they learn in terms of their social and mental development is that sometimes in life you win and sometimes you lose. They learn how to enjoy healthy competition and learn how to handle frustration and disappointment. They learn to lose gracefully and to be happy for the success of others.
"Playing games also helps them learn the importance of taking turns. It teaches them about sharing. It helps them address moral problems.
"For instance, we saw how sometimes a child rolled a dice and it flew off the edge of the table onto the floor.
"The question for the other children is: will we let her have another turn? What's the right thing to do? It's a moral decision. It's about learning to detect those problems and have the patience to wait for others.
National Game Playing Week was dreamed up nine years ago as a promotional tool by the games giant Hasbro, but Aisling McQuaid insists that the Bracken pupils would be playing board games without any prompting from beyond the school gates.
She said: "In this school I am the maths co-ordinator, so I constantly promote the use of board games. I don't mind if it's Hasbro or who it is. We regularly use teacher-made board games. I have made lots of games. You could have dotted cards which I'd print and laminate, or ones with spatial patterns for matching. So regardless of this being National Game Playing week, it's going on every day in this school in most classes."