Game for Anything

As well as assisting learning, playing games at home can help develop a wide range of social, thinking, and memory skills, and create opportunities for success that are particularly important for dyslexic children who may be struggling in school.

Before I started working with dyslexic children in 1988 I was a French teacher. The French word for board games, card games etc is "jeux de société", which translates as "social games". In our high speed, hi-tech world, traditional family entertainments such as sitting down together to play cards or board games are disappearing from view. And a raft of valuable social skills are disappearing with them: turn-taking, patience, tolerance, right attitudes to winning and losing, self-control and communication skills, attention, concentration, memory, and a whole range of visual and auditory skills which are particularly valuable for the dyslexic. By ignoring "social games" we are closing down one of life's important training grounds.

Probably the most valuable commercially available game resource a family can possess is a pack of cards. If you don't know any card games go to W H Smiths and buy a paperback for about a fiver that will teach you as many as you need to know, and buy a couple of packs of playing cards while you are in there. If you don't know where to start on that road take a slightly different track, and go and buy a pack of "Uno" and play that: you won't regret it. Not only does a card game meet all the above criteria for "social games", but young children playing card games are learning and practising foundational mathematical skills: counting, sequencing, recognising clusters of "pips" as different numbers, to name a few. A simple game of "pairs" is good for visual memory. "Go Fish" and "Happy Families" develop auditory memory. Rummy combines memory with reasoning ("I've just picked up a six. I remember she discarded one a few turns back. Therefore she might discard another one and that will give me a set.") Trumping games, like whist, are excellent for memory and attention. Our favourite family card game is called Racing Demon. It's the best game I know for speed, visual attention and concentration.

A bit of personal history. We've played cards, and racing demon in particular, with all our children; and certainly in the case of the two youngest since before they started school. My eldest daughter, (dyslexic) was being given secondary maths work by the time she was in year 4. She's now at University studying medicine. The middle one was two books ahead of her peers in the infants and in Y8 was being called "an outstanding mathematician" by her maths teacher. The youngest was again streets ahead at Primary school, got level 5 at KS2 SATS, and maths is now her best subject. Since neither my wife nor myself are particularly strong mathematicians I suggest that all their hours spent playing cards have had an effect.

For all the commercial games available, you often can't do better than some of the old standards. For pure reasoning, combined with the right amount of luck and guesswork to make it sufficiently unpredictable, I don't think you can beat Master Mind. If you're reading this before Christmas, it's a great idea for a stocking present: compact and inexpensive. Like many other games, Master Mind can also be played online. Another perennial that is excellent for strategy and reasoning is Rummikub. So is Othello. So is Draughts. These are two-player games, and as such provide you with the opportunity of giving a child some exclusive attention for the duration of the game. There will be emotional benefits alongside the cognitive skills gained.

The best games are often the simplest, and one of the simplest and best is Rummy. It is an excellent game for adaptation, as the point of the game is the collection of sets, and much learning also involves sets. (Apologies for repetition to those who have been on one of my courses!) Basic Rummy is played as follows: 7 cards each are dealt, the remainder are placed face down in the centre and the top one turned up and left next to the pack, thus starting the "discard pile". Players must collect two sets of cards, which can either be 3-4 cards OF THE SAME SUIT in sequence, or 3-4 cards OF THE SAME VALUE in different suits. This is done by taking turns to pick up one card at a time, either from the top of the unseen pack, or from the top of the discard pile, and then discarding one card. The discard may be the card that has just been picked up, or it may be another card. Through this selection process, players alter their hands until the winner lays down all his cards, discarding the last one.

So now you can play rummy. (Reasoning, memory, communication, social skills etc.) To adapt this for learning specific sets, play with just four cards, to make one set, not two. Your four colours are your four suits; and on the cards you write spelling families, topic vocabulary, or whatever needs to be learnt. To make a winning set you need one word in all four colours, or all four words of one colour. You can also add a further memory element to the game: instead of just putting the winning cards down, the winning player must put them FACE DOWN on the table for one complete round, then repeat (or spell) them from memory before turning them over, winning the game if he gets them right, otherwise changing his cards. Anxiety shuts down thinking. To a dyslexic child who experiences failure and frustration on a daily basis the anxiety response is practically automatic when the word "remember" is mentioned. To set the memory task in the risk-free context of a card game can help to by-pass that anxiety trigger and get the brain remembering.

You can find games all around you. Move a few objects in the living room while your children are out of the room and see if they can "spot the difference". (Visual memory). Play "I went on holiday and I took..." on car journeys. (Auditory memory).

See how many words you can make beginning with P in 30 seconds. (Processing speed.) Play 20 questions. (Verbal reasoning). Bingo and pairs have a thousand faces, and all of them wear a smile.

I have a weak back and need to do regular exercises so that my backbone has sufficient muscular support. The exercises bear little resemblance to walking. Lately I have been ignoring my exercises ("Too busy!"). Two days ago my back gave way; today I am walking with two sticks. These games are like my exercises: they bear little resemblance to the activities they support, but we ignore them at our cost.


Bob Hext is the founder of Crossbow Education and lectures widely on the use of games and puzzles for teaching.

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