Board Games as Summer School

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The New York Sun

These two weeks before our children go back to school in September are similar to the two weeks when they had just gotten out of school. There’s no school and there’s no camp.

But unlike the period in June when we were so relieved for our children to have some unstructured time, these weeks are a little more difficult. On one hand, we want them to get in their last few moments of relaxation. But on the other hand, we want them to be prepared for what awaits them on their first day of school.

“We’ve been swimming and playing baseball and doing all the outdoorsy things that should be done in the summer,” a mother of three elementary school-age children said. “I know some people are making their kids do worksheets, and I guess part of me feels that we should be getting ready for school, but I just can’t do it. I don’t remember worrying about school over the summer when I was a kid. Why should they?” she asked.

She is not the only parent wondering why children should be doing schoolwork during the summer, but she is one of the few who has decided to do absolutely nothing academic over the summer.

“The summer has become the time to get a leg up on something. SAT tutoring, writing skills, your kid’s soccer game, you name it,” a mother of two high school students who also tutors children for college placement exams, said. “Summer is not for catching fireflies anymore.”

Many parents I spoke with feel summer is too lengthy a time to put academics on hold. “I actually think it’s a great time to brush up on weak areas because there’s much less going on,” a mother of two boys, 11 and 8, said. “I insist that they read every day and most days I also give them some sort of bonus work to do. I try to keep it fun and challenging. They are the ones who actually remind me when a day goes by and we haven’t sat down for a half hour to do some work,” she said.

It’s great if your children enjoy doing the work, but what if they don’t? Is there a way to improve a child’s reading, writing, and math skills without doing homework?

Perhaps nothing can replace the gains that result from a weekly session with a $200-an-hour tutor, but for those parents who don’t want to play that kind of game, there are other options.

Another kind of game, if you will.

Long before Nintendo and PlayStation, there were traditional games that have been played for generations — in some cases, for centuries. And unlike the little handheld Game Boy, these games — my favorites include Scrabble, chess, mancala, backgammon, Battleship, Risk, Trivial Pursuit, Stratego, Blokus, Cranium, Connect Four, and Clue — improve academic skills and social skills at the same time.

In an hour-long game of Monopoly (I pray it doesn’t last much longer), children must read instructions, negotiate rules, take turns, challenge each other, and solve problems. Younger children improve fine motor skills while older children improve their listening and speaking skills, as they bargain for properties and evaluate whether it makes sense to trade Park Place for Pennsylvania and Illinois avenues.

Boggle is a family favorite, especially because you can handicap the results so that all ages can play together. For example, my first grader gets a point for two letter words, my third grade gets a point for three letter words, and I get a half point for four-letter words. Boggle also has a feature I wish Monopoly came with: a timer.

I would be remiss in this column not to highlight the many academic benefits that children reap from playing chess. I am, after all, married to a man who was the captain of his high school’s chess team. Now I spend a good part many weekends reading the newspaper in the basements of dingy schools while my children compete in chess tournaments.

“Your brain is a muscle and playing chess is the best exercise for that muscle,” my husband reminds me when I complain that we should be outdoors fishing. He’s right, I concede. Chess has been proven to develop a child’s memory, concentration, self-esteem, creativity, problem solving ability, and intellectual maturity.

As for preparing for the SATs, there is probably no way to make that especially fun. But if you play Scrabble for an hour a week with your children when they are between the ages of 7 and 17, my bet is that the SAT score in vocabulary won’t be too shabby. It won’t be substandard, inferior, lacking, mediocre, pedestrian, or deficient, either.

The New York Sun

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