For the last two years, now, it goes without saying that parents around the country are playing a more active and critical role in educational support and instruction because of COVID and intermittent periods of remote learning. Research study after research study since 2020-present, reflects parents’ ongoing concern, regarding their kids’ coherent and sustained learning. One important study published in the American Journal of Qualitative Research found that “Parents described having difficulties with balancing responsibilities, learner motivation, accessibility, and learning outcomes. (“COVID-19 and Remote Learning: Experiences of Parents with Children during the Pandemic”).
These days, when we think of the word “game,” many of us think of interactive games played online, using televisions, computer tablets, and/or phones. Game participants are often not even in the same room, town, or state.
Can your playing games with your kids actually “help” them? Can your playing with them not only be fun but also provide instructional support? Yes, growing levels of research and scholarship assert just that. A collaborative study from Vanderbilt University found game-based learning can help students out-perform peers, as well as affect standardized tests results (“Substantial Integration of Typical Educational Games Into Extended Curricula,” Journal of the Learning Sciences, vol. 27, 2018:2).
The focus of this blog is to explore and recommend how parents can engage kids in games that further support skills taught in school—elementary-high school: memory, inquiry, discovery, observation, listening, problem-solving, and imagination—skills your children will require for both college, career, and daily living. In addition, these games are family-focused and not technology-centered. No, not anti-tech, just activities your family can create without and with technology.
“[D]evelopmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotionally, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain. Furthermore, play supports the formation of the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships . . . that children need to thrive” (“The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children” American Academy of Pediatrics).
While there are many established games offered online and commercially for parents to consider, the suggestions below are for original games which you can create and hone with your kids. These are designed to help your kids explore questions, challenge themselves, and most importantly, initiate and develop their independent thinking. In many ways, the games are interactive conversations between you and your kids. The games are explorations, allowing you to observe, listen, and learn more acutely who your kids are, what they think, and aspire to. The games described here provide flexibility in types of questions and categories presented to your kids while not overwhelming them in terms of complexity. In the end, these games rely on sharing welcomed conversations, fun, and opportunities to enjoy learning as a family.
If you have not before played games regularly, or even irregularly, with your kids, first begin by telling them how much you want to play games with them and why—to spend more time together, have fun, learn, and explore together, for example. Also, keep in mind that your kids may have so much fun with you that they will want to repeat the experience. To do so, be prepared to build in some time that is designated as parent/kids-time. This time should be sacrosanct so that your kids will not only feel special to you, but also, they will take pride in knowing they hold a special place with you. NOTE: This special-time is yours and your kids: no cells, emails, texts, calls, etc. You may very well be wonderfully surprised by how much setting aside your special-time will impact your kids—perhaps an impact that will last well-beyond the games themselves.
The games below focus on the primary content areas taught in grades K-12: English language arts, social studies, math, and science. As the games and the conversations continue, encourage your kids to create their own questions, and then you work at answering them. Moving forward with the games continues to promote kids’ understanding of interpretation and the use of words and concepts, analysis of alternatives, and making informed decisions. In the end, these games become powerful learning tools.
Game Power Tools
What’s in a Word?
What are your first thoughts and/or images when you see or hear the word:
Interestingly, you might be surprised at how many interpretations and images and meanings a single, “common” word or even phrase can be understood in so many ways by different people—even between parents and kids—age, experience, geographical location, for example.
The goal of this game is to identify how one person’s using the same word to describe an image, concept, even a place or time can be differently interpreted by another and still be accurate.
To start, select a word for all to use. Write the word. Next, each player creates a list of two or three similar words: selections can be places, images, feelings, scientific, historical moments, even people or animals, or a favorite pet.
For example, the word bright could be used to describe images of the sun, a lightbulb, a fire, even to describe a person from a variety of perspectives; yet, the images and what they represent are far from alike.
Now, you and your kids can explain your choices. First, the beauty of this game is there are no right or wrong answers, and secondly, your conversations explaining your choices help your kids in definition, reasoning, and interpretation—all without the potential test-anxiety and when necessary, without a classroom. Fun with an instructional twist.
You and your kids can play this game at home, on the road, even with signs and tv commercials. One interesting way to keep this game alive and up-to-date would be for you and kids to have some writing pads (or cell/tablet Notes) close at hand at home and/or in the car so that the list can be one that is constantly growing. Then, during your special-time, select a few of the words to play the game. Together, discuss how words can have different meanings and how many ways they can be used.
Story-Building Together with Your Words: Extension
As an adaptation of this game, create a story together, using your words with your definitions. You can take a few of your words and begin a story and ask kids to jump in and add their words to the growing narrative. This part of the game can be recorded, even videoed when you and kids are more comfortable. You and your kids may even think about sharing your new and original stories with family members, like grandparents, or you could even make a community effort out of it, inviting a few friends with their kids to join in.
Pieces of History
What makes the images and/or places we recognize memorable? The answer is not only about the name or date or place but also about the meaning each represents to us, personally and historically, which is important. We all have unique memories of moments, places, and images that have made an impression on us.
You and your kids can play this game, using images from family pictures, images in books and magazines, on television, or actual images, symbols, or places in your area. To begin with your kids, the focus can be on family or on a specific, favorite historical image or location that has meaning for you. Start with a picture-story; in other words, as you introduce, for example, an image, share with your kids its backstory:
- Location of image (geographical, time-period, unique features)
- Why it is important to you
- What makes this image a piece of history you keep in memory
Without your kids’ consciously knowing it specifically, this game can be historical, geographical, scientific, cultural, musical, architectural, as well as artistic. As you and your kids gather images of locations such as a favorite family spot, the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, or documents like the Declaration of Independence, or astronauts walking on the moon, your conversations focus on why it is important to them?
- What have they learned about the image they did not know before?
- How does the image make them feel?
- Do they think they have any connection to the image(s) as you continue to add pieces?
Next, you can add another image or ask kids if they have any kind of image they would like to add to yours, and the story continues. As in the other games, your kids can initiate the game, thereby switching roles of leader and questioner.
Remember, the term, images, here includes a host of possibilities, as listed above.
How It Adds Up: Problem-Solving
Problem solving is a critical skill our kids need to develop and hone continuously as a life-long ability—personally and professionally. This game focuses on word problems for you and kids to solve. But to extend the game, any situation or moment can provide the opportunity for you and them to problem solve together. Because this game can focus on math, as well as words, let’s use an example of how you and they can make math games fun and instructional.
Use everyday examples your kids will recognize. One idea: use your local grocery store, asking your kids to buy some fruit, but not to spend more than $5.00. For example, apples and oranges. If the apples are 40 cents each and oranges are 50 cents each, how many of each can they buy with the money they have? The aim of this game is scaffolded:
- Begin the process of kids’ handling money
- Empowering and supporting their initial attempts at decision-making and differentiating
- Supporting kids who may be reticent with math by being there not to direct but to guide and provide positive support
This game can grow each time grocery shopping occurs—both in the actual store and if you and your family shop for groceries online.
Annual calendar events provide an adaptation of this game. For example, let’s use the Halloween Candy Purchase. In many parts of the country, the purchase of Halloween candies/goodies begins well-before the actual date. With this game, turn over the decision-making to your kids. Wherever you purchase the candy/goodies, involve kids in the selections and the “whys” of each decision. Kids can consider the following to make and share their decisions:
- Size of candy bag(s): kids must remember and discuss previous traffic of people from previous Halloweens (Remember, all occasions, celebrations, and other events can apply).
- Type of candy(ies): one kind only? Why? Why not?
- Variety of candies in one bag: Why? Why not?
- What is the better buy based on size? Based on variety? A bit of both?
- As a follow-up, after the calendar event, discuss the results of the decisions made
- Did your choices work as you intended?
- What did/did not work?
- What might you change next time?
We used Halloween as the example, here, but any special occasion would work. Your kids could become am essential decision-making member during multiple occasions.
At the end of the game, parents and kids discuss how the problem was solved and what they learned from doing so.
Pieces and Puzzles
What do darkening clouds, lightening, and rainstorms have in common? What do batteries, wires, and light bulbs share? And what do paper airplanes, flocks of birds, and large passenger jets have in common? The answers to each of these games involve words and concepts from science.
Think about it: science and nature are all around us, regardless of where we live. You and your kids can make a fun exploration out of just walking and observing, noting what you see and how you think it works, how it affects you and your community, what you like and don’t like, as well as the “hows” and “whys” of the event. This game can be simple and fun, as well as instructive and memorable for everyone.
Research has clearly illustrated and proven that each “piece,” or experienced moment, in what we call the Pieces and Puzzles game provides our kids with direct, empirical, learning—hands-on discovery. That you and your kids can accomplish this important learning skill through fun at home further buttresses what they are learning in school. I still remember the many times my Father took the time to play such games with me. I never thought about the instructional piece; rather, I knew I was having fun with him and what we were doing: a microscope that we could use in the backyard to explore and examine insects; the beach in Galveston, Texas that leads into the Gulf of Mexico—how the sands seem to both move your body and erode at the same time under your feet; how in the rural areas of Texas where there are no artificial lights, allow the sky to light up with stars and constellations—all were our special-time.
My microscope was just like this one. My Father and I had so much fun, discovering and exploring.
My memories of these experiences all predate the technology you and your kids have today. With cell phones, computers, along with your eyes and ears and touch, you and your kids can plan on times during the week or once a month for
- What’s immediately around us?
- Just what is a tornado, hurricane, heatwave, Nor’easter? What does each one look, sound, and feel like?
- Why do some trees grow in one area and not another?
- Why do some states have basically very little foliage and others so much?
- Does every state experience all four seasons?
- What do a variety of things look like under a microscope?
With each activity, you and your kids can keep a video diary of each experience and record of your observations and thoughts. Be sure to keep these video diaries because they will mean so much to you and your kids as they themselves become parents.
These games are indeed facets of science, as well as science-family fun.
Game Power Summary
What’s in a Word? Differentiation and similarity of words, words that often have more than one meaning and interpretation
Story-Building Together with Your Words: Extension: Being able to construct and see, as well as share a cohesive and coherent narrative, impacts our kids’ lives forever: college statements of purpose, rationale for job application, reports, summaries, the list is indeed endless
Pieces of History: What we see and experience through images, memories, symbols, documents, places, etc add layers to who we become and how we think and interact
How It Adds Up: Problem-Solving: Math and problem-solving are with us until our end. Being able to utilize and trust our own skills in these areas are critical on a daily basis.
Pieces and Puzzles: Our of children will need to have a serious degree of mastery throughout the primary content areas—English language arts, science, social studies, mathematics—in varying degrees. Parents’ early and continuous supportive instruction are critical. Children are keenly likely to listen to and interact with you unafraid, trusting, and even excited if they know you are there for them to guide, explore with them, and see with them through fun.
All the games suggested here hone curiosity and inquiry, as well as tickle kids’ imaginations towards wonderment. Ultimately, helping your kids in this way goes a long way toward completion of the life-skill puzzle of examination, inquiry, observations, listening, exploration, discovery, curiosity, and imagination. It can also function as a means of decompression during the most uncertain times.
The Last Thoughts: With each game you and your kids can keep a collection of videos, a written diary, or a scrapbook of playing them, chronicling your experiences, thoughts, and observations from doing so. Be sure to keep these diaries and the memories of exploring Game Power meant to you as parents and your kids as learners.
Rememory: Thinking about my past with my Father and Galveston in our now beloved Maine.