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The Secret Power of Board Games

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By Stephan Nazarian

With the holidays in the rearview mirror, I’m hoping to convince you to carry over one holiday tradition throughout the new year. If your family is anything like mine, the long open stretches of time afforded by the holidays means board games. While games can simply be a way to pass the time during your next snow day, they can also be a powerful tool for challenging your child’s brain. Everyone knows the timeless classics, but the arrival of the internet has given a platform to the widest variety of games in human history, some specifically designed to help strengthen your child’s brain and others hiding that mental goodness under a thick layer of family fun.

Consider the following games, organized by the skill they primarily challenge, for your next family game night:

  • Logic and Reasoning. The oldest games in the world almost always revolve around strategy, and strategy means logic and reasoning. These ancient games remain a powerful tool for building your child’s fluid reasoning skills, whether it’s Go, Chess, or Mancala. If you are looking for something more modern, strategy games like Catan, Axis & Allies, Risk, and Diplomacy force players to weigh dozens of factors and make strategic decisions to press an advantage. All of these games, based on concrete rules but with no defined path, build the type of flexible thinking that makes tests like the SAT and ACT much easier to tame.
  • Language. Perhaps no type of game has benefited more from the boom in game development as much as those requiring our language processing skills. From the old standbys like Scrabble and crossword puzzles, to fun new party games like Apples to Apples and Bananagrams, these games challenge players to utilize their language skills in new and different ways. But most importantly, they allow children to work on these vital skills without even knowing it. 
  • Memory. Most of the games on this list will test a child’s memory, whether short-term or long-term. Chess grand masters can recall the step-by-step gameplay of matches they played decades before. Scrabble requires players to quickly search their long-term memory. And many card games your family may already be playing (my family played Hi Low Jack) reward players for remembering what cards have appeared. There are also many games that reward memory directly, such as Guess Who, Simon Says, and, of course, Memory. 
  • Creativity. Mastering Calculus is important and clear enough that a robot could learn it, but success in the humanities requires a bit more creativity. Games like Dixit, Salad Bowl, and Pictionary challenge players to be more creative. Building creativity is essential for a wide range of humanities skills from writing essays to understanding the complex metaphorical language in Shakespeare. 

Any of these games can be a fun evening for a family while also helping children to build crucial skills for their future success. But the best advice when it comes to games is mixing it up. My grandmother could knock out the New York TimesSunday crossword in under 10 minutes and she absolutely always knew who was holding the Jack, but one of the biggest benefits to games comes from the learning. As you challenge your brain to understand not only the rules, but also the strategies that underpin the game, new neural pathways are being built. Once you’ve become an expert, construction has usually long since concluded. So trade games with your neighbor, go to a restaurant where they have a collection of board games, or check out new games from your local library. Challenge your child to read the rules and explain the game to the rest of the family. Ask them how the game you’re playing this week is different than, and how it’s the same as, the game you played last week. With the current boom in board game, you could play a new game every single week and never run out of new option

Erica MechlinskiThe Secret Power of Board Games

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