September-October 2008 Selected Content
Word Birds and Other Games - Sue Smith Heavenrich
A couple years ago I read a study that found that children who eat dinner with their families tend to do better in their academics. That got me to thinking of our family meals - the ones we manage to squeeze into a week already filled with children's soccer and karate. Our dinner hour is the one time we all come together to talk. The radio is tuned to the local NPR station, sparking lively discussion about daily events, politics, religion and other topics similarly not suitable for dinnertime conversation.
But some evenings we leave the serious, scholarly discussion behind and delve into "Word Birds." To the uninitiated, Word Birds sound like random words tossed back and forth across the dining room table like verbal ping-pong balls. In fact, they are games with rules - we just don't know the rules until we get going.
Word Birds started with simple letter substitution puzzles I created when my children wanted to learn to read. Think of a three-letter word in which you can substitute the vowel and come up with another word. For my just-beginning-to-read children, I wrote "pit" on the page, and then "p _ t" next to it.
"What other letter could you put in the middle to make a word?" I asked. They sounded their way through the alphabet, trying each letter: pat, pet, pot, put. I used simple words, such as "bog" and "top" at first. Once they got the idea, I wrote a pair of words, leaving out the crucial middle vowels. I challenged them to find the missing vowels that would make sense. My children called this game "pit-pat;" NPR's puzzle master, Will Shortz, calls this type of puzzle "reduplicated elements."
From three-letter words we moved to four-letter word pairs: tick tock, flip flop, chit chat, knick knack. Word challenges erupted during dinner conversation, and we began to set the table with knives, forks, pencils and paper.
When changing one letter seemed to be too easy, I suggested that maybe you could change a word into something completely different by changing only one letter at a time.
"You mean like changing 'moon' to 'star'?" they asked.
"Exactly," I answered. I explained that each time you change a letter you have to make a real word.
"Let's start with something easier," I suggested. "Let's change 'word' to 'bird.'" I wrote WORD on a piece of paper. "If I change the o to a. . . ."
"That's ward," said my older son. He recognized this word from reading Sword in the Stone.
"Now change w to b," I suggested. I explained that a bard was a storyteller, a poet, a traveling singer and teller of tales.
"Then all we have to do is change the a to i and we've got BIRD!" he said. From there we explored other word pairs: cat/dog, warm/cold, seed/grow, slow/fast, and of course, moon/star. Because the words flew fast and furious, puzzles of this sort became known as "word birds" around the dinner table.
As the children grew older, their word games became more sophisticated. They played hangman, scoured the thesaurus for material, snuck Scrabble (TM) tiles to the table, and challenged each other to fast-paced games of "categories."
"Categories" is the game where one person leads off with a general idea, such as "flowers" or "animals." Then everyone has to come up with something that belongs in that category. It's a great game for developing brainstorming and language arts skills, and there are many variations. For example, in playing alphabet categories with the topic "animals," the first player lists an animal name beginning with A, the next player finds a name beginning with B, and so on.
The thing about Word Birds is that once you know you can create your own games, there is no such thing as "cheating." It is simply "making up new rules to a new game" - which is how the newest Word Birds game came about.
Someone begins the game by saying a single word. Usually this word has nothing whatsoever to do with any ongoing discussion - it is simply a random word. The astute Word Bird player will offer a word in response, and the game is on. The rules are simple: you must come up with a word that is somehow related to the word spoken by the person before you, and you can't break the chain. The game ends when you laugh so hard you tip over backwards in your chair - or until someone gets up to dish out the ice cream.
Our first word chain went like this: banana, apple, tree, maple, corn. Anyone can challenge you at any time. For example, it is easy to see how you how you could get from a banana to maple. But corn?
"Maple syrup; corn syrup," my younger son explained. Apparently the relationships can be tenuous at best.
"OK," I said. Then added my link to the chain: bunion. Since my husband was next in the circle, he didn't flinch.
"Foot," he said. When "centimeter" was offered we fell into metric measurements until I changed meter into poetry. The neat thing about Word Bird categories is that they can be stretched to math as well, generating lots of opportunities to think about the relatedness of numbers.
Think of a number chain: 3, 6, 2, 8, 9. The relatedness between these numbers depends on the ages of the players. In our chain, 6 is 2 x 3, and 2 is a factor of 6. Eight is two cubed (older player) and 9 is 8 + 1 (younger guy).
At this point, Word Birds have become a part of our life. Not only are they fun, but they also stimulate our brains, help establish new neural connections, and engage our creative side. New research demonstrates that playing puzzles is vital to maintaining brain health in older adults. I expect we'll continue encouraging Word Birds at the dinner table for a long time to come.
© 2008, Sue Smith Heavenrich