Family game night is more than just fun

With TV and video games competing for our
family’s attention, board games have been
relegated to the dark recesses of our memories,
as something we did with our parents when we didn’t have
cool high-tech gadgets and satellite television. But dusting
off these games can lead to a family bonding experience that
is not only fun, but can improve kids’ mental and emotional
development, helping them perform better in school and
social settings.

Toronto mom of three, Robin Hicks, has enjoyed playing
board games since she was a child and loves sharing her
favourite pastime with her kids, Joseph, 7, Helen, 4 and
Georgia, 2. With more than 40 board games in their game
closet, family game night is a regular occurrence in the
Hicks’ household. “We usually play board games together
once a week,” says Robin. As a paramedic, Robin’s shiftwork
hours don’t allow her to spend as much time as she would
like with her kids, making face-to-face playtime even more
meaningful. In addition to facilitating family bonding, Robin
says board games are a useful learning tool for her young
brood. Good sportsmanship, following rules and taking
turns are important social skills Robin hopes to reinforce in
her children through playing board games.

Jennifer Kolari, child psychologist and author of Connected
Parenting, says playing as a family is a great way for parents
to assess how well children have developed certain social
skills. “We let our true emotions out more with family
than with others,” says Jennifer. The ability of board games
to reinforce important social skills make them a unique
developmental tool. “Kids learn so much about sharing and
being a good sport and getting along with each other through
board game playing.”

Practise good sportsmanship

Nothing sours family game night faster than a sore loser.
Temper tantrums can quickly cause games to be locked in
the closet for the rest of eternity. That’s a shame, says Jennifer,
who argues board games can be an excellent forum for teaching good sportsmanship. “Part of a game
is winning and losing, and being happy for
other people when things go well for them in
the game, and learning to be a good winner if it’s
you that wins,” says Jennifer. Robin says talking
to her kids about winning and losing before
playing can help set the stage for a tantrum-free
game night.

Follow the rules

While no parent likes to transform into the role
of traffic cop during family fun time, Jennifer
says controlling cheating is a good way to teach
kids the importance of following rules, a skill
that will last them well into adulthood. “The
tendency as a parent is either to come down on
them and say ‘no one’s going to play with you
if you do that’ or just let them do it because you
want family game night to go well,” she says.
Talk about the rules of the game before playing
and stress the importance of being honest.

Learn to win and lose gracefully

Losing a game can bring on the waterworks in
many kids, but Jennifer says learning to lose
gracefully is an important skill all kids need to hone to succeed in life. Jennifer herself has faced
the dreaded game night tears. “My son was the
biggest sore loser and every time we played a
game, he would end up in tears,” she says. In
response, the family decided there would be
two winners. “The winner who won the game
and the winner who handled losing the best,”
she says. Don’t forget to control your own emotions,
too, demonstrating to kids how to handle
themselves when things don’t go their way in
the game.

Encourage behavioural changes

“Everything that happens in board games can
be applicable to life,” says Jennifer. Robin agrees,
saying she has witnessed behavioural changes
in her children that she attributes to the board
games they’ve played as a family. “Since we’ve
been playing board games together, they’ve been
getting along better and can work through their
differences,” she says. One notable difference is
improved sharing and negotiation skills. “They
all really like books and if one of them is looking
at a book that the other one wants, they’ll go get
a different book and say, ‘here, I’ll trade you’,”
says Robin.

Choosing a board game

With thousands of board games to choose from, selecting the right
one for your family can be a challenge. Follow these pointers to
ensure your family game night starts with the right move.

Focus on skills

Select a game that will reinforce
the specific skills that you want
to focus on. Sean Jacquemain,
Events Coordinator at Toronto’s
Snakes and Lattes, a board game
café that with more than 3,500
games for adults and kids, says
having a clear idea of what you
want to accomplish by playing
the game will help narrow the selection.
Some games are educational
and aim to reinforce cognitive
skills such as reading, logical
reasoning or spelling; others are
effective at teaching the value of
co-operation, sharing or trading.
Jennifer recommends finding a
toy store where staff can walk
you through the advantages of
different games.

Know your kid

Choose a game that’s not only
age-appropriate, but that also
suits the temperament of your
child. Chance games such as
Snakes and Ladders, where winning
or losing is purely based on
the roll of the dice, can be hard
on kids who don’t handle losing
well. “Although they’re simple
games, when you’re sent all the
way back to the start of the game
when you were at the end can be
really devastating,” says Jennifer.
While she doesn’t advocate
eliminating chance games all together
since adversity is also an
important skill to learn, switching
it up with memory games or cooperative
games that encourage
team work and sharing can help
make family game night not only
about winning and losing, but
simply about having fun.

Look for what new games have to offer

While many of the parents Sean
meets in Snakes and Lattes arrive
for the nostalgic factor of sharing
their favourite childhood board
games with their own kids, he
says new designer board games
have a lot to offer and are more
adept at encouraging skills of
co-operation. “In older board
games like Monopoly or Risk,
you get eliminated and then
you sit around and watch others
play,” says Sean. Newer board
games, especially story-telling
games, have been designed
in a more sophisticated way
that promote interaction and
bonding, rather than eliminating
players.

Lisa Evans is a Toronto-based
freelance writer and frequent
contributor to ParentsCanada.
When she worked as a teacher,
she loved to get her students to
make their own board games.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2013.

Watch ParentsCanada editor Janice Biehn talk about family game nights on CTV Kitchener’s News at Noon.

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