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Board Games for kids: Do They Make Kids Smarter: by Gwen Dewar, PH.D. (2009 - 2012) 
The benefits of board games for kids? Some are obvious. Kids enjoy playing them, and board games are opportunities for  families to play together. In addition, social scientists have argued that games teach lessons about getting along with others (Kamii and DeVries 1980;  Zan and Hildebrandt 2005). For example, games may encourage kids to o consider the concept of rules o practice following rules o reason about moral problems  When kids play with older role models they can learn something else, too: How to win—and lose—with grace and good manners (Gobet et al 2004). Then there are the possible intellectual benefits. Many board games—including the classics, like chess, go, and various mancala games --encourage players to o detect patterns o plan ahead o predict the outcome of alternative moves o learn from experience But are gaming skills relevant in the real world? It depends. Studies about board games for kids  Some board games reward logical reasoning. For example, the game of Clue (see below) can be used as a tool to teach deductive logic (Neller et al 2006). And the game Mastermind has been used to test the aptitude of college students for computer programming (Lorenzen and  Chang 2006). However, we can’t assume that playing board games will make kids better students. Studies suggest that good chess players are better at recognizing and remembering certain configurations of chess pieces. But chess experts aren’t necessarily any better at recognizing patterns in other contexts (Gobet and Campitelli 2006). And while chess players tend to be more intelligent than non-chess players, the correlation may reflect self-selection: Smarter  people may be more likely to play chess (Gobet and Campitelli 2006). What we need are rigorous experiments. We need kids to be randomly assigned to treatment or control groups. We need  students and teachers to be kept ignorant of the purpose of the experiment. And we need to test students before and after the  intervention. As noted by Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli, very few studies of chess meet these standards. And the situation for  board games in general isn't much better. But here are some exceptions: o Chess. In one study of kids with learning disabilities, researchers assigned students to receive either 5 hours of  math instruction each week OR 4 hours of math and 1 hour of chess instruction each week. The kids were tested at  the beginning of the school year and again at the end. The students who’d received chess lessons showed more  improvement in basic math skills like counting and addition (Scholtz et al 2008). o Number-line board games for kids. In two independent experiments, some preschoolers were assigned to play  “number line” board games—-i.e., games in which players move game pieces through a series of sequentially-  numbered spaces. Before and after the intervention, the kids were given several math tasks. Whereas kids in control groups experienced no improvement, the kids who had played numerical board games had developed superior math  skills. o Mastermind. Studies using the game Mastermind, have yielded mixed results. When college students were assigned to play the game, they experienced improvements in their critical thinking skills, making fewer errors of reasoning  (Wood and Stewart 1987). But a study of 7th and 8th graders failed to find any similar effects (Bright et al 1983). So it seems that -- at least sometimes -- board game skills have translated into academic skills. Why aren’t the effects more obvious and consistent? It could be that there are no effects -- that the reported links between board game practice and real-life skills reflect statistical  flukes. But given that a successful game player must learn to control her impulses, follow the rules, and reflect, it makes sense that  gaming experience might translate into better performance on academic tasks that require focus and self-control. It also makes sense that games designed to give kids practice in specific subject areas -- like number sense -- would foster  transferable skills. Perhaps, then, the problem is that merely playing a game isn't enough. Intellectual breakthroughs are required. For instance, some kids need to realize that they can improve their performance with practice.   When people think of problem-solving ability as a talent or a gift, they take fewer chances and don't learn as well from their own mistakes. By adopting a different view--i.e., that problem solving is something we learn--kids may better develop their analytical abilities. Maybe, too, kids need coaching about metacognition. They need to become conscious of their own tactics and consider  about why they work (or fail to work).   Many players may fail to make these breakthroughs on their own. Perhaps, then, kids will reap the most cognitive benefits  when board games are part of general program for teaching math, logic, and critical thinking skills. Board games + metacognition = better critical thinking?  By all means, let kids play board games because they are fun. But--at least once in a while--adults can give kids something to  think about, too.  Research strongly suggests that kids become better learners when they believe that intelligence is malleable. And studies show that kids learn more when they attempt to explain their reasoning processes. So we might make board games a more powerful learning tool if we teach kids that problem-solving ability is like a muscle: It  can be strengthened with practice and learning. And kids might make more improvements if we encourage them to explain their tactics or the tactics they see others use. Kids don't explain themselves unless they are prodded  When researcher David Reid watched 2nd graders play Mastermind and Connect Four in the classroom, he noticed that kids  never asked each other to explain their reasoning--even when they were teammates making suggestions to each other. The teacher played a crucial role. She was the only person asking players to explain their choices(Reid 2002). Kids benefit from lessons in critical thinking  As kids get older, we might also use board games as part of program of teaching critical thinking skills. Why? We know that middle school students can make substantial improvements in problem-solving ability--even general IQ--when  they are taught general principles of critical thinking (Hernnstein et al 1986). If board games are used in conjunction with lessons on hypothesis testing, basic logic, and other topics, they may offer kids  important ways to practice their general reasoning skills. (Return To News)
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