As parents, we are all familiar with the world of edutainment. We are bombarded with choices daily- from the endless ABC Mouse commercials to the learning description at the introduction to every Noggin cartoon to the countless app ads on our smartphones. How do we know which choice is right for our children? Do these things even work?
We are going to be delving into these questions and more over the course of several podcast episodes and articles on www.EngagedFamilyGaming.com. We are going to break the idea of learning into different topics and touch on these concepts separately. We have already talked about board games that help teach Math concepts (Read it here!) The first two editions of our learning through gaming series will specifically focus on Literacy and Language. We will be talking about Geography and Science shortly thereafter!
Before we go into the actual games, we need to discuss learning styles. Your child’s learning style will determine the type of game they will be most likely to enjoy and get the most out of. The three primary learning styles are Visual Learners, Auditory Learners, and Kinesthetic Learners. Visual learners are going to enjoy games with lots of graphics, bright colors, fun artwork, and maybe charts. Auditory learners will enjoy games where they get to listen to snippets of stories and hear others have discussions about different aspects of the game. Kinesthetic learners enjoy games where they get to be hands-on that have lots of pieces to move and manipulate. It’s good to think of the people you are going to be playing with to come up with the best game for your group.
While this article and podcast will focus on mainstream family-style games that are available at big-box retailers, we would be lax if we didn’t mention that there is a huge world of board games designed specifically for classroom learning. These games are designed to drill down and reinforce specific learning concepts like letter recognition, language acquisition, phonics, reading comprehension, storytelling mechanics and so forth.
Lakeshore Learning and Edupress are staples in the educational field. Please take the opportunity to go onto their websites and search for the topics you were looking to reinforce at home. We’ve played a few games in this style and while these games share some of the common game mechanics that we are familiar with, they do not have the spark that we like to have in our games to engage with our family. Unless you were using your gaming time as a type of additional homework, we don’t find the replay value to be very high or the desire to play to be very high. But, there is no denying that this type of game is a useful learning tool. They at least add a skin of fun over traditional learning.
Here at Engaged Family Gaming, we have come up with 12 games that are a lot of fun to play that teach some of these Literacy concepts as well.
Scrabble 8+ (Vocabulary Development and Letter Arrangement)
Scrabble, by Hasbro games, is a classic for a reason. It has retained its popularity through the years (think Words With Friends) because it is fun to play and challenging. In case you’ve never played Scrabble, it is a word game in which two to four players score points by placing tiles, each bearing a single letter, onto a gameboard which is divided into a 15×15 grid of squares. The tile must be placed in a crossword pattern (words flow left to right in rows or downwards in columns). The words must be standard and acceptable words in an agreed upon dictionary. Players score points based on the numbers on their letter tiles and can add bonuses from cues on the gameboard. Scrabble has many variations, including a Junior version designed to help younger kids with letter matching and recognition. This is a great game for kinesthetic learners because there are small pieces to manipulate which these learners LOVE to handle.
Bananagrams 7+ (Vocabulary Development, Letter Arrangement, Time Management)
Bananagrams, by Banagrams, is a similar game to Scrabble, but it doesn’t require a game board, pen, paper, etcetera. It is a letter tile game that comes in a fun banana shaped zip up pouch. It is easily portable and gives you more freedom than Scrabble because you play independently for speed while making your individual crossword board. There are no complications from trying to get the perfect spot on the board, or waiting for a slow player to make a decision, or from losing out on the triple letter space. This game moves quickly because you are working against a clock. There are some unique challenges and ways to manipulate game play which add some fun elements into the game and can allow you to put a crimp in your opponents’ play. In our playtests of this game, we found that this game can be more of a challenge for younger players because it lacks some of the structure built into Scrabble, but some of your outside the box players will enjoy this one much more. Much like Scrabble, this game appeals to kinesthetic learners because of the tile manipulation. Also, since there is no game board, please make sure to play this one on a smooth surface. The tablecloth became way more of a hindrance during play than any of us anticipated.
Rory’s Story Cubes 8+ (Language Development, Vocabulary Development, Story Sequencing, Storytelling)
Rory’s Story Cubes, by Gamewright, is a pocket-sized creative story generator. The original game comes in a box with 9 cubes (dice) with different images on each side. Players simply roll the cubes and let the pictures spark their imagination and tell a story out loud based on the pictures on their cubes. There are several expansions to the base game with different themes (actions, voyages, clues, Batman, intergalactic, etc.). There are infinite ways to play with Rory’s Story Cubes. The rules suggest playing solitaire or with others. The 8+ age suggestion is misleading. This game can definitely be played with younger players. We’ve used this game as a party game or ice-breaker and I’ve used it to work with my youngest on speaking & listening skills. My oldest finds a way to use these as story starters for creative inspiration in his writing activities. They can also help early learners with literacy development and problem solving. Again, because this game involves dice rolling, it is great for kinesthetic learners. And, because the stories are told aloud, we’ve had great luck honing our children’s auditory learning skills with this game. Finally, because of the creative images on the cubes, this game works as a great inspiration for visual learners. All around, these are a terrific learning tool to add to your arsenal.
Fitzit 10+ (Language Development, Vocabulary Development, Reading Comprehension)
FitzIt, by Gamewright, is a card based party game where you play a card with a simple statement on it. The player has to name an object that fits the attributes on their cards and then play them to the grid. The more cards you play, the faster you score. Gamewright has a few party games in this style, but we like this one because it is simple to play, plays very quickly, and the statements are easy to read for early readers. Again, the 10+ guideline is a bit misleading. Our early readers love this game because it encourages creativity, imagination, and helps them reinforce their reading comprehension skills. They players’ answers require your child to display an understanding of the words they read to come up an object that makes sense.
In a Pickle 10+ (Language Development, Vocabulary Development, Reading Comprehension)
In a Pickle, by Gamewright, is game of creative thinking and silly scenarios. Players try to win a set of cards by fitting smaller things into bigger things (there’s some juice in a pickle, in a supermarket, in a parking lot). Play the fourth word card to claim the set, unless one of your opponents can trump with a larger word. The player with the most sets at the end is the BIG winner! This game is more abstract than FitzIt and really encourages creativity and imagination. The scenarios get very outrageous and it requires players to think outside of the box and invent options that seem preposterous. The silliness is fun for kids, but we think the 10+ guideline on this one is accurate because of the challenges in making the words fit.
Last Letter 8+ (Vocabulary Development, Letter Recognition, Picture Cues, Time Management)
In Last Letter, by ThinkFun, each player gets five cards featuring intricate, fun, and brightly colored illustrations. Players must race to come up with and shout out a word from one of the picture cards in their hand. The word MUST begin with the last letter of the word previously called. The first player to get rid of all of their cards will win the round. This game is an awesome game for visual learners! The fast paced nature of this game might make it more challenging for younger players who are slower to process what they are seeing in front of them. If play around the table gets too excitable and loud, you may lose younger auditory learners as well. But, be prepared to be surprised by the creative words kids come up with from the images that adults would not normally think of.
Smartmouth 8+ (Letter Arrangement & Recognition, Vocabulary Development, Time Management)
In Smartmouth, by ThinkFun, players race to make the best word in 60 seconds. Players roll the die to determine the word category, slide the Letter Getter to reveal two letter tiles and, using those letters, shout out a word that fits the given category before the timer runs out. The player who calls out the first word and the player with the highest-ranking word both collect a letter tile for the round. Once all tiles are gone, the player with the most tiles wins. The categories of adjective, verb, natural objects, famous people, man made objects, etc. help reinforce language skills learned in school. The game includes dice rolling and manipulating the letter tiles and the timer and slider which will appeal to kinesthetic learners, while the picture cues on the dice will appeal to visual learners. Because answers are shouted out loud, auditory learners will be engaged as well.
Zingo 3+ (Letter Arrangement & Recognition, Vocabulary Development, Picture Cues, Time Management)
Zingo is a new classic with a few different variations of the game available. It’s like Bingo with a fun twist. The original Zingo is a matching game that encourages pre-readers and early readers to match pictures and words to their challenge cards. The Zingo! Zinger dispenses tiles as players race to be the first player with a full card and yell “ZINGO!” With two levels of play, this matching game builds language skills through fast-paced play. This game is designed to develop early literacy skills for very young players. Zingo Sight Words and Zingo Word Builder are also available and these games introduce more challenging literacy skills. Our children request these games regularly and LOVE to play them. While these are learning games at their core, they use fun and exciting game mechanics to keep young players engaged!
Letter Tycoon 8+ (Letter Arrangement & Recognition, Vocabulary Development)
Letter Tycoon, by BreakingGames, is word game for 2-5 players that can best be described as a cross between Scrabble and Monopoly. Players take turns forming a word using a seven-card hand and a three-card community card pool, scoring money and stock rewards based on length and letter strength in their word. When enough of the alphabet has been claimed, players finish the current turn, then score all money, stock and letter patents owned. The game has an awesome antique look and style that really appealed to my family. The game mechanics were easy to understand and fun to play, but our younger players had difficulty competing with adult players. The game aesthetic really appealed to us more than other games in this genre and encouraged discussion about some of the historical and antique aspects mentioned in the game.
PaperBack 8+ (Letter Arrangement, Language Development, Vocabulary Development)
Paperback, designed by by Tim Fowers, is a Word building/Deck building game with an aesthetic that completely immerses players in the world of writing and story building. The cards are uniquely illustrated and fun. Players are supposed to be an author trying to finish kitschy paperback novels. They compete to complete Westerns, Science Fiction, Romance or even a Crime Noir. There is no age recommendation for the game, but we have found that the player should be at least 8 years old to grasp the game mechanics. Players start with a deck of letter cards and wild cards. Each hand they form words, and purchase more powerful letters based on how well their word scored. Most letters have abilities that activate when then are used in a word, such as drawing more cards or double letter score. Players buy wilds to gain victory points. This game functions similarly to the other word building games in this list and emphasized the same skills but it has the added game mechanic of a deckbuilder.
Dixit 8+ (Language Development, Story Sequencing, Storytelling, Picture Cues)
Using a deck of cards illustrated with dreamlike images, players select cards that match a title suggested by the “storyteller”, and attempt to guess which card the “storyteller” selected. Each player starts the game with six random cards. Players then take turns being the storyteller. The player whose turn it is to be storyteller looks at the six images in his or her hand. From one of these, he or she makes up a sentence or phrase that might describe it and says it out loud (without showing the card to the other players). Each other player then selects from among their own six cards the one that best matches the sentence given by the storyteller. Then, each player gives their selected card to the storyteller, without showing it to the others. The storyteller shuffles his or her chosen card with the cards received from the other players, and all cards are then dealt face up. The players (except for the storyteller) then secretly guess which picture was the storyteller’s, using numbered voting chips. If nobody or everybody finds the correct picture, the storyteller scores 0, and each of the other players scores 2. Otherwise the storyteller and all players who found the correct answer score 3. Players other than the storyteller score 1 point for each vote their own pictures receive. A large part of the skill of the game comes from being able, when acting as the storyteller, to offer a title which is neither too obscure (such that no other player can identify it) nor too obvious (such that every player is able to guess it). The game ends when a player reaches the end of the board (30 points). Much like Rory’s Story Cubes, this game helps children to learn storytelling skills, story sequencing, and helps broaden appreciation for art and gives players the ability to articulate thoughts concisely and to comprehend metaphor.
Tales and Games (Series) 7+ (Various)
Iello games has produced a series of games based on classic children’s stories and fairy tales. The games are designed to look like beautiful hardbound storybooks with classically illustrated covers and spines. Each game takes about 20 minutes to play through and they all have different mechanics and designs. They and are designed to be played by players ages 7 and up. We have included them here because they have sparked interest in the classic stories that they are based on in our household. I’ve had to bring my children to the library to find their own copies of these tales to read. The stories released so far are: The Three Little Pigs, Baba Yaga, The Hare and the Tortoise, The Grasshopper and the Ant, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Pied Piper. Interestingly, my middle child was reading some of these stories in his guided reading group, so these were a great tie in to encourage him to discuss the stories and enhance his reading comprehension.