Shrewd move: board games that prepare students for life

Board games developed by Israeli chess masters are being used in a Dublin primary school to foster problem-solving and critical thinking


Two studious-looking third-class pupils are sitting in the reception area of Rathdown Junior School.

Their heads are down over a hexagonal board and they are taking turns to move what look like giant, shiny black-and-white gobstoppers that rest in individual spaces.

Having come to school with notes excusing them from outdoor play during the lunch break, the girls have chosen a strategy board game, Abalone, to entertain themselves indoors instead. It’s totally coincidental that this is the moment The Irish Times arrives for a demonstration of a lesson in strategy games and to hear of the benefits the school believes they provide.

Every pupil at this school in Glenageary, Co Dublin, from its mixed preschool right through to the girls-only junior school, has a weekly class of “thinking” games scheduled in the timetable.

There’s an air of quiet concentration among the girls in the P5 (fifth-class) classroom. They are seated facing each other on either side of tables, with a board game between each pair. Even the arrival of a photographer hardly causes a head to rise.

It’s the only school in Ireland that uses a methodology called the Mind Lab to develop thinking abilities and life skills through strategy games.

When the school introduced this formalised, cross-curriculum approach to game-playing in 2009, it saw the importance of encouraging outside-the-box and strategic thinking, says Kiara Drake, who was appointed principal last August.

She has noticed that the girls “definitely” have a better approach to problem-solving than pupils of schools where she had previously worked.

In the 21st-century workplace, “you need to be able to evaluate and respond to situations as quickly as you can”, she says.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum published a report in January that predicted that, due to increased robotics and artificial thinking, the three most important skills needed in the workforce by 2020 would be complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity.

Learning how to learn is at the core of Mind Lab, which was founded by two Israeli chess masters in 1994.

The method is based on the notion that the most effective way to learn is through an immediate, enjoyable experience that you want to do again and again.

Game-playing fits that bill nicely. But it is the added value that teachers trained in the Mind Lab method bring to it that enhances the experience, along with linking it to other elements of the curriculum.

Language of thinking

Research by Prof Donald Green of Yale University in the US showed that although playing thinking games over a period of three months improved all children’s scores in “language of thinking” tests, the improvement was much more dramatic among those who also took part in a weekly lesson in the Mind Lab method, discussing strategies after they played the games.

All the Rathdown teachers were trained by Mind Lab in 2009, but “I just happened to really click with it”, says Natasha Pearson, who was in charge of first class at the time.

“I could see the potential with the children. It is a great help with children who may lack a little bit of confidence, or may not be as outspoken as other children in the class.”

She now teaches all the Mind Lab classes, ranging from 30 minutes a week to 45 minutes for older girls, such as this P5 class, who are today playing the four games – checkers, Abalone, Octi and Quoridor – used in the Mind Lab Olympics, at which Rathdown represented Ireland in 2011 and 2013.

Pearson draws on a set of 30 games, typically introducing one over a four-week cycle, starting with an explanation of its history, rules and effective strategies, before the girls start playing it for themselves and discover how the skills apply in real-life situations.

The youngest children start with the basic “traffic-light” strategy of stop, think and go before moving on to more complex methods that incorporate skills such as forward-planning, memorising, emotional control and reading an opponent.

“We encourage them to look at their opponent’s face, body language, [and think] what are they going to do next and what can I do,” says Pearson, who walks among the girls, occasionally asking about strategy or suggesting a move.

A formal handshake opens and closes each game as the girls rotate around the tables.

“It’s to say there are no hard feelings if you lose or win, and to say good luck,” says Felin Neiland (11), who is playing a game of Octi with Chloe Galvin (11).

Chloe likes checkers best but finds Octi “annoying”. It requires players to insert pegs into their pieces, which then dictates which directions the piece can be moved.

“You forget to put in pegs and the other opponent gets your piece, and you can’t do anything about it,” she says, after agreeing with Pearson that she has moved too quickly, without a plan.

“I hate it,” Maria Farrell (11) says of Octi. “Well I am not very good at it and I find it confusing. When I put all the pegs in one piece I can go any way, but then I don’t have back-up.” She much prefers Abalone.

However, her opponent, Juliette Grimley (11), really likes Octi and its potential for surprise. “I think it’s because of the strategies you can do, and you are able to jump over” your own or your opponent’s piece, she says, deftly moving her red counter to the board’s end line.

“Wait, does that mean you’ve won?” asks Maria.

“I won,” Juliette giggles, although quickly pointing out that it’s the best of three.

One of the most popular games is Mancala, a name given to a family of thinking games that have been traced back to the fourth century, according to Pearson. For this, P5 have made their own boards, in shapes such as a rainbow, swan or snake.

Charlotte Mitchell (11) listens to me struggling to grasp Felin’s explanation of the rules about “sowing seeds” from one pit to another, and says sympathetically: “It is one of the hardest things to learn.”

“When parents come and they try to learn how to play some of the games against their daughters, it’s very hard for them,” agrees Felin.

But it is second nature to these girls, and Drake believes the habits they get into of being in competitive situations, using different strategies and the need for perseverance are beneficial and applicable to real life. “You find yourself in a situation and you have to work through it. You can’t reset the game.”

Mind Lab operates in schools around the world, but the recession wasn’t a good time to introduce it in Ireland, says Gerry McCarthy of Future Kids, which used to be an agent for it here. Lack of finance and curriculum overload means this structured, in-school approach may not suit many schools. But any school – or family – can tap into the cognitive, social and emotional benefits of strategy games. Look for ones that are all about skill rather than luck. McCarthy suggests Quoridor, Quarto, checkers and Abalone.

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