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Board games can help kids’ social skills, say experts

Dr. Freeman, psychologist, also owns 'Brooklyn Strategist' cafe

February 9, 2022 Monica Fish, Wealth of Geeks via AP
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As we enter the third year of the pandemic, school closures, lockdowns, isolation, and decreased socialization have taken their toll in many ways. The U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory in December on the growing Youth Mental Health Crisis, and experts are seeing a drastic decline in children’s social skills.

Parents have racked their brains to keep their kids social while socially distancing, but according to 7 in 10 parents surveyed by OnePoll, they see kids’ social skills at risk. Two-thirds of surveyed parents worry their kids have gotten more socially awkward, and 30% or more are concerned they have trouble sharing, staying quiet for long periods of time and waiting their turn.

What’s something you could do today? The answer may surprise you.

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Get Out Your Board Games

What’s an affordable solution for parents that doctors recommend and kids will put their device down for? It’s a 4,000-year-old invention that everyone can agree on — board games.

They are such an effective tool for developing social skills that leading experts and therapists have played board games with kids for decades. It’s why Dr. Jon Freeman, clinical psychologist, neuroscience researcher and founder of the Brooklyn Strategist, a game café at 333 Court St. in Cobble Hill, offers an after-school social skills program. He founded the café in 2010 as an after-school activity, giving kids successively difficult games that would challenge them.

“After we observed a shortage of social skills in kids, we realized how much work there was to do,” he said. “Our programs focus on neurodevelopment by having fun and developing and articulating strategic approaches through socialization and gameplay.”

It’s such a game-changer that school administrators have recommended that kids play at Brooklyn Strategist after school, even pre-pandemic.

Playing “War Room” at the Brooklyn Strategist game café. Facebook photo

Experts Explain How Board Games Teach Social Skills

“As an occupational therapist of 20 years, I’ve played a lot of board games with kids of all ages and abilities,” says Keri Wilmont, occupational therapist, and toy expert. “Board games are a great way for kids to alternate going first, taking turns, listening, and learning how to cope when others might not want to follow the rules and try to cheat or bend the rules in their favor.”

“Therapists aren’t playing games with kids by accident,” adds leading Emotional Dynamics expert, Erik Fisher, Ph.D. “Games can be an avenue for them to build many of the cognitive skills required for successful academic performance, as well as life. Games practice and build attention, concentration, memory, critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. And as a bonus, it helps them learn how to manage to lose and gives them a chance to see that failure tells us when it is time to learn.”

“Making new friends and being able to collaborate with another person is important in a school environment. Board games allow kids to rehearse basic social skills through play,” said Dr. Amanda Gummer, widely considered the go-to expert on play, toys, and child development. “Fast-paced, luck-based games with a focus on fun can be a great way of getting children more opportunities to play with others and begin to develop an understanding of friendly competition.”

“More recent games have introduced cooperative elements, and that’s a great game-changer (no pun intended) regarding social dynamics. Instead of the neurotransmitter reward (e.g., dopamine) coming from being declared the winner at the expense of everyone else, the reward is now associated with working as part of a larger group,” explains Brooklyn Strategist’s Freeman.

Among the games that experts recommend as building social skills are Sneaky Snacky Squirrel Game (for ages 3-6), Candyland (ages 3-plus), Zingo (ages 4-plus), Richard Scarry’s Busytown, Eye Found It (ages 4-plus), Ticket to Ride (ages 6-plus), Uno (ages 7-plus), Lattice Hawaii (ages 8-plus), King of Tokyo (ages 8-plus),  believe it or not, Pandemic (ages 8-plus), and Settlers of Catan (ages 10-plus).

Among the skills these games teach are sportsmanship, following instructions, collaboration, teamwork, attention and confrontation.


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