“You rolled a six, Tommy! You can’t skip over the Lose a Turn space! We won’t let you play if you don’t play by the rules.”
Big brothers are great at telling little brothers what to do. For the younger one, though, lots can be learned from playing a game with clear rules that everyone else around the game board expects will be followed. While it may not be easy for a preschooler to wait for his turn, or for a child in the early elementary years to accept a bad roll of the dice, these experiences actually contribute to building the kinds of skills that young game-players need to become strong readers. How could that be?
Because children need skills in what we call Awareness & Regulation to be able to take in the information they hear, and to learn from what happens around them — including the lessons that educators plan. Eventually, they use these skills to learn while they’re reading independently. What are Awareness & Regulation skills? These skills include, among others, managing emotions and behaviors, planning and following through on tasks, paying attention, understanding other people’s points of view, managing time, and making decisions and evaluating the consequences.
While Awareness & Regulation is an important area of children’s development, the skills are often overlooked when talking about how to help children get on the path to strong reading and learning. But it makes sense that if a child cannot tune out distractions, he or she won’t be able to ignore the hallway noise and learn from what the teacher is presenting; or, if a child can’t plan and carry out a specific task, she won’t be able to have a chance to fully experience and learn from, for example, the science experiment the class is working on any given day, or the book the teacher is reading and talking about.
And while it may not seem like it, board games and puzzles are excellent everyday opportunities for helping children learn and practice these skills. During any given game or puzzle, children need to focus on the task at hand, strategize and plan for upcoming moves or plays, perhaps collaborate with others to get things accomplished, learn to control their emotions when they lose (and win), and/or look at things from different perspectives. Some games may also help with developing reading skills more directly—depending on the type of game, the game-playing may encourage learning letter knowledge, word reading practice, and/or building up knowledge of the world.
That means that in our story above, as happens in households across the world, the little sibling has the chance to build his Awareness & Regulation skills thanks to his older sibling and the game-playing experience: Tommy knows that unless he can play by the rules and manage his emotions and behavior, he might not be invited to play next time. And by practicing this self-regulation—the managing of his emotions and behavior— over time (sometimes more successfully than others, of course), Tommy is building the key skills he needs in order to learn, and to read, successfully.
So if you’re here in the U.S. and have extra family time over the Thanksgiving holiday, choose a board game. And when your child isn’t first to the Candy Castle, or when she is sent back to start in Sorry, support her as she tries to manage her emotions, and maybe help her figure out a different game strategy for the next round. Because when you encourage her to find a way to handle the disappointment and channel those feelings into thinking about the next time she plays (rather than slamming down the dice and walking away from the table), you are actually giving her a great chance to build reading skills. In this case, the last one in may very well be the winner.