Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Summertime Gaming Can Reinforce Lessons

Today’s the last day of school on the medieval frontier of Northern Virginia...the medieval side. (Alas, our school board thinks starting school the second week of August, putting the first term SOL testing right before the December holiday break, will increase SOL scores instead of focusing on paying teachers decently and letting them teach instead of handle bureaucracy....) Already last week summertime recommendations started coming home: a list of recommended “series” books for summer reading, a 22-page handout with math problems to solve, a list of educational websites to visit, a page of “dice games” that are really just math exercises with dice, and a thick, door-stop-sized reading/writing workbook someone ordered but apparently didn’t use all school year. All this comes slathered in the repulsive stigma of homework, something the seven year-old Little Guy has grown to dislike and resist throughout the school year, more so in these final weeks before summer vacation. So what’s a parent to do? I’m turning to two things we know and enjoy: fun themes and games.

The Little Guy – and most elementary school kids, I suspect – maintains a host of interest in various media properties: Minecraft, Transformers, Pokemon, Star Wars (particularly Clone Wars), Godzilla, Doctor Who. Interest in them waxes and wanes, but they sometimes help him engage in educational activities disguised as fun. (I’ve blathered on about themes in games before in “Introducing Newcomers to Games: Theme & Mechanics.”) Just the other weekend we caught him sitting in bed reading a Star Wars book aloud to our cats (granted, they like hanging out in his comfy bed anyway, but apparently reading was a bonus). We’re embarking on a first-edition Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign at his insistence; so far he’s enjoyed accurately adding up the results of numerous d6 rolls, especially when tossing handfuls of dice when using a Force Point. He reads all the powers and attacks on the cards when we play the Pokemon collectible card game.

So I’m thinking of a few game-related activities that can both entertain him and stretch those intellectual muscles during summer break:

Storytelling Games: I’m not a huge fan of indie storytelling games, though I’ve tried a few. Yet I’ve seen a few game-related items that can inspire some creativity and provide a reason to practice writing skills. Rory’s Story Cubes come to mind: roll a handful of the dice and start choosing symbols to inspire a story, even just a sentence. The related game, Untold: Adventures Await, currently seeking funding through Kickstarter, provides a bit more structure in crafting a storyline. I have a ream of lined handwriting paper I picked up at a discount book fair recently and it’s perfect for practicing handwriting (something the local schools don’t seem to spend much time on) and writing a few sentences inspired by Rory’s Story Cubes rolls. I’ve seen other dice sets meant to inspire storytelling efforts (notably Imagination Generation Story Time Dice but also various media-themed Rory’s Story Cube sets), but I haven’t acquired or tried them yet.

Card Games: We have a few card games that reinforce reading and math concepts. The Minecraft Card Game? caters to his interest in Minecraft but also forces him to make choices gathering elements and crafting tools as well as totaling the points needed to win the game. We haven’t played the Pokemon collectible card game in a while but it’s a good diversion for an afternoon; it engages him in reading the card powers and calculating damage and hit points. He’s indicated an interest in the Star Wars Destiny game which merges cards and dice mechanics – like many such games it involves practical reading and math skills – but until I can acquire two starter sets (which seem to be hopelessly unavailable through the distribution chain), we’ll have to wait.

Miniature Wargames: This branch of the adventure gaming hobby helps kids implement their measuring skills, using rulers to determine how far units can move and what enemy targets are within range of attack. I’m excited to attend one of this summer’s gaming conventions where I signed the Little Guy up to play in a Panzer Kids game someone else is running. I’m also thinking of merging wargaming with his love for Star Wars by adapting Daniel Mersey’s The Men Who Would Be Kings Victorian skirmish rules for use with my collection of 25mm Star Wars minis and 54mm Star Wars Command figures.

Roleplaying Games: I’m tempted to broaden our roleplaying game experiences because they reinforce lessons in reading, writing, and math. Much as we’ve enjoyed Hero Kids, I’m tempted to try B/X Dungeons & Dragons for a deeper math and reading experience. Of course we’ll continue our Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign, for which we’ve also recruited my wife and one of her co-workers.

Practical Experience: We have several opportunities out of the cozy home gaming environment to put school skills to use and managing his expectations and frustrations in a social setting. The local library has a few Pokemon card game events over the summer, something I’ll encourage if he shows interest in picking up the game again at home. He’s indifferent about the library’s summer reading program (truth be told he reads a decent amount on his own, assuming it’s a subject that interests him), though it is sponsoring a few special events we’ll attend, most notably the “Snakes Alive” show with critters his Dad can’t stand. A few road trips to area gaming stores as well as a regional convention can offer him practical experience evaluating products he wants and spending a given budget. Last year we gave him $20 to spend as he wanted at the big summertime convention; he was extremely disappointed after spending it all (and then some) the first day and asked “Doesn’t my $20 regenerate tomorrow?” Gaming in public can also provide opportunities to learn how to manage his feelings in both winning and losing graciously.

Dad’s Fantastic Toy Shop: I’m a bit more willing to indulge the Little Guy when he shows interest in games he sees in my office, what I sometimes call “Dad’s Fantastic Toy Shop.” Sometimes he just wanders in and starts asking questions about items he sees, usually “Can we play that game?” He has a good grasp of reading, though some games will still be too complex for him. Next year in ACE – the local school enrichment program for gifted students – they’ll study ancient Egypt; I have several Egyptian-themed games that might appeal to him and develop his experience and interest in that period. It’s a good chance for us to try some of the many games in my collection and give him some freedom to explore themes and game mechanics.

So that’s our plan for both having fun and keeping school skills fresh during the summer break. It’s a father-son plan customized to our interests, game collection, and opportunities as well as the Little Guy’s intellectual and maturity levels. This specific plan isn’t the best one for everyone seeking to take this path, but it might offer some ideas for parents hoping to keep their kids engaged in learning while having fun with games.