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Games - Board Games

Board games are an educational plus,

Board Games promote active, rather than passive, learning; they:

  • games motivate kids to interact with their peers;
  • games boost language
  • games boost logic
  • games improve problem-solving skills

Furthermore, they do this in a comfy, low-key fashion. There the kids sit, happily playing CandyLand or Scrabble, while all the while they're learning colors, counting, strategy, spelling, and - in the case of our sons - the really malicious use of the dictionary. Board games also reinforce math concepts (just watch your kids calculate the rent when you land on their four hotels on Boardwalk), enrich literature units, and enhance studies of science, history, and foreign cultures.


For an overview of commercially available games, a good source is the BoardGameGeek at, which has general game information, plus reviews, ratings, and discussion forums. Click on "Games" and "Categories" for lists of game by skill, theme, or subject - for example, Ancient history (96 games), Medieval history (193), American Civil War (73), Math (14), Novel-based (48), and Environmental (11).

For young readers, there are dozens of board games based on popular children's books: a quick run through the "Toys and Games" page at turned up games based on The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Jean Marzollo's I Spy books, The Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass, The Dangerous Book for Boys, the Sherlock Holmes stories, the plays of William Shakespeare, and David Macauley's The Way Things Work - along with such edifying classics as backgammon, checkers, Go, Parcheesi, Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, and many versions of chess. For other sources, see at or Board Game Central at

For board game history, try Matthew J. Costello's The Greatest Games of All Time (John Wiley & Sons, 1991) which traces games from Babylon and Egypt to the Victorian parlor, the landmark invention of Monopoly, role-playing games, and the modern video game. The book, nearly 200 pages long, is a good reference source for study-unit-designing parents and teachers; it's also an interesting read for ages 12 and up, filled with human interest and catchy trivia. Also included are game rules and reproducible boards, a chapter on game design, and a game buyer's guide. Also see:

Online Guide to Traditional Board Games

Illustrated histories of many classical games, among them the Royal Game of Ur, Go, Mancala, Chess, Nine Men's Morris, and Senet, with rules for play, places to buy, and related links.

Play the Game of Senet Lesson Plan

From the San Diego Museum of Man, this page has excellent illustrated instructions for making and playing your own ancient Egyptian game of Senet.

For an online game of Senet, see Terry's Egyptian Page at

The British Go Association

The Web site includes a comic-book-style Go instruction book for kids and directions for making your own homestyle Go game, with printable boards.

Play Go online at


This site has instructions for making and playing a Mancala game, using an egg carton and a couple of tunafish cans.

Play online at Rocketsnail Games, where you have a choice of Mancala Classic at (with pebbles) or Mancala Snails at (with animated snails).

Folding Trees Paper Chess Set

Patterns for fold-your-own paper chess pieces and a printable board. It's in Japanese, but the instructions are self-evident.

See Chess Rules for Kids at for step-by-step animated instructions and an online game.

Viking Board Game

Illustrated instructions for the ancient game of Hnefatafl (that is, Nhev-eh-TAH-ful), a chess-like strategy game that simulates a Viking raid.

Play online at

Kids learn effectively through games, but they may learn even better by inventing and designing games themselves. One source for young game makers is the work (mostly) of eleven-year-old Ben Buchanan who, with Carol J. Adams and Susan Allison, authored Journey to Gameland: How to Make a Board Game from Your Favorite Children's Book (Lantern Books, 2001). This kid-friendly interactive text takes readers step-by-step through the process of transforming a book into a game. Ben and co-authors point out how to choose and analyze a book, create a map of the action, establish destinations along the way, invent characters and make playing pieces, decide upon rules, and devise quiz or trivia cards for extra literary challenge.

Board games can also be invented for topics across the curriculum: try centering a game around the planets of the solar system, the biology of wetlands, a trip to the art museum, a tour of the symphony orchestra. Here are a few helps and examples:

Technical Reading and Writing Using Board Games

Adaptable for a range of ages, this lesson plan has instructions and printable game boards for inventing story- or novel-based games.

Create Your Own Native American Board Game

From Discovery Education, a lesson plan in which kids design a board game about American Indian life and culture.

Game Board Templates

Downloadable game board and quiz card templates, and printable patterns for spinners and dice.

Make Your Own Folk Art Checkerboard

From KinderArt, an attractive painted checkerboard project for ages 8 and up.

Board Game Kits

A selection of make-your-own-game kits available for purchase.

Cardboard Cognition

This collection of board games, invented by teachers and students, has game descriptions, rules, images of illustrated boards and quiz cards, and references. A source for ideas and inspiration.

Fiction books about board games? For ages 5-9, Chris Van Allsburg's wonderful picture book Jumanji (Houghton Mifflin, 1981) - far better than the movie - features a pair of kids who find a mysterious board game in the park; as they play, they find to their horror that the game comes alive, complete with hungry lions, invading monkeys, and lost explorers. For the same age range, David Birch's The King's Chessboard (Puffin, 1993) is a mathematical tale set in India, in which a wise man teaches a king a lesson by requesting a reward of rice - one grain for the first square on the chessboard, two for the next, four for the next, and so on. This leads - figure it out - to catastrophe. Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, originally published in 1871 and now available in many editions, also centers around chess, as does Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game (Puffin, 1997), a Newbery-Medal-winning mystery for ages 10-13.

In M.T. Anderson's The Game of Sunken Places (Scholastic, 2005), 13 year-old Gregory and friend Brian are sent to visit Gregory's peculiar Uncle Max in Vermont, where they find an old board game that plunges them into a fantastic other-worldly adventure. William Sleator's Interstellar Pig (Puffin, 1995), for ages 12 and up, similarly features a game that is more than it appears to be: as sixteen-year-old Barney begins playing Interstellar Pig with the weird neighbors next door, he finds that he's put the entire Earth at risk.

And Philip Pullman's Once Upon a Time in the North (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008), a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy, is the tale of the original meeting of aeronaut Lee Scoresby, his jackrabbit daemon Hester, and Iorek Byrnison, the great armored bear. It doesn't have anything to do with games, but it includes a game - a pull-out at the back of the book called "Peril of the Pole." It's recommended for 4-6 players and their daemons. (Find your daemon by taking a short personality test at

Schooled, Think of these as discussion books

Homeschoolers, when they appear in fiction books at all, don't fare very well. Or at least usually, when they fare well, it's because they got themselves into school. The hero of Gordon Korman's Schooled (Hyperion Books for Children, 2008) is no exception. Thirteen year-old Capricorn Anderson, homeschooled on a next-to-abandoned communal farm by his hippie grandmother, Rain, knows absolutely nothing about life in the outside world. When Rain falls out of a tree, breaks a hip, and is hospitalized, Cap is sent to public school, where he arrives clueless, wearing cornstalk sandals, and willing to believe that bullfighting is a school sport. The story is told in a handful of different voices - that of Cap himself; Zach Powers, the most popular kid in school; Mrs. Donnelly, Cap's social worker, and her 16-year-old daughter Sophie; Naomi Erlanger, who falls for Cap in spite of herself; and Hugh Winkleman, computer geek, captain of the chess club, and school loser. Cap's kindness and equanimity eventually triumph over social adversity and he ultimately realizes that school is where he really wants to be. His grandmother sells the farm and the two of them move into a condo.

Yes, yes, I know.

Other books with homeschool protagonists include Katherine Hannigan's Ida B...and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World (HarperTrophy, 2006), recommended for ages 9-12, in which Ida B has spent a happy homeschooled childhood talking to the trees in her family's orchard and launching little rafts carrying notes on the nearby brook. Then her mother gets cancer and Ida B has to be sent to public school. It's a difficult transition, but all ends happily with the help of a wise and caring fourth-grade teacher. In Stephanie Tolan's Surviving the Applewhites (HarperTrophy, 2003), for ages 10-13, roles are reversed: 13-year-old juvenile delinquent Jake Semple is kicked out of school and ends up living with the Applewhites, an outrageous, outlandish, and artistic homeschooling family. Since the Applewhite version of homeschooling is to leave kids entirely alone, Jake has to make his own way - and eventually, against a background of Applewhite zaniness, comes to realize his own potential.

And in Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl (Laurel Leaf, 2004) for ages 12 and up, the homeschooled and self-named Stargirl shows up in tenth grade, toting her pet rat and her ukelele - with which she sings "Happy Birthday" to people in the cafeteria - and wearing costumes that range from kimonos to Indian buckskins. Her quirky independence, kindness, and near-magical qualities eventually win over the student body - as well as the heart of Leo Borlock, the 16-year-old narrator - but Stargirl is rejected once again when, as a cheerleader, she cheers for the opposing basketball team. She and Leo, who wishes she were more ordinary, eventually part ways, and at the end of the book Leo, looking back fifteen years later, is still trying to understand what it all meant.

Elementeo - Chemistry is your friend in this game.

Elementeo, a gorgeous chemistry-based game, is an action-packed War of the Elements in which opponents battle to wipe out each other's stashes of electrons. It's played with 40-card decks of beautifully illustrated Element cards, all straight out of the world of fantasy: the Sodium Dragon, Hydrogen Sorceress, Helium Genie, Iron Centaur, Phosphorus Phoenix, and Zinc Gladiator - but there's real chemistry here, too. Each Element card includes the relevant chemical name, symbol, and family, atomic mass and number, oxidation state (under "Power"), and an intriguing paragraph about the element's chemical properties. The game also features 19 Compound cards (Rubbing Alcohol, Milk of Magnesia), 20 Alchemy cards (Electron Exchange, Nuclear Fusion), and an illustrated Battlefield board.

The game can be played at five different levels; the first is appropriate for players as young as nine; the fifth, for advanced and college-level students and chemistry-savvy adults. Visit the Web site (see below) to view the cards or for a video tutorial.

$ from Elementeo at

© 2008, Rebecca Rupp


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Home Education Magazine, PO Box 1083, Tonasket, WA 98855; 800-236-3278
Contents Home Education Magazine 1996 - 2012