Ken and Deb Zuroski, along with their three kids, Tristan, 18, Haley, 15, and Ian, 7, aren’t a very serious bunch overall. On a recent afternoon, there was a lot of good-natured teasing going on around the dining room table of their Squirrel Hill home.
They were playing a card game called Oink. In the game, you’re trying to get four-of-a-kind of different types of pig cards. They’re all puns, like Pigasus and Pigasso. Cards get passed around the table from one person to the next until somebody yells “Oink!” which means they have four of a kind. Then, everybody rushes to grab a little plastic pig in the middle of the table. If you don’t get a pig, you get an "O," then an "I," and so on, and whoever spells "Oink" first, loses.
When it was Deb’s turn to draw cards first, she warned the family they’d be moving quickly this round.
“We weren’t before?” asked Ken, exasperated.
Cards started to be passed around the table and when Deb yelled “Oink!” everyone lunged to the center of the table. Ian squealed and nearly launched himself onto the table.
As it turns out, there was more than just joking and friendly competition happening around the table, according to Ernie Dettore.
Dettore is known to some as “The Play Guy” in Pittsburgh. Officially, he’s the Play Content Expert at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children and a visiting professor of early childhood education at Duquesne University.
Dettore’s been studying play for the last 20 years, and he says the research is clear: Play is learning. It begins with babies and sensory play, a lot of putting things in mouths and exploring objects. As we get older, it’s dramatic and imaginative play, pretending to be lions or pilots or ballerinas.
“At around 7, 8 or 9 is when children really get interested in games with rules,” Dettore said.
He said all types of play have developmental benefits.
“We know that children play naturally, and that they learn from that play naturally,” Dettore said. “If you look at things like physical development, children when they’re outside they’re running, climbing, they’re using their gross motor skills and building large gross muscles. When they’re working with finer objects like puzzles and blocks and things of that nature, they’re working on fine motor skills.”
Games with rules can provide opportunities for parents to model, and for children to practice, very specific skills.
“You look at the social-emotional value, and things that require playing with someone, like cooperation and sharing, turn-taking, the ability to see someone else’s perspective,” Dettore said.
There is also cognitive development happening when kids play games with rules, especially when the games involve counting.
“The research is pretty clear now on board games, that if you play them four times a week at home and in school, so in two places, that you can make gains in numeral identification, counting, number line estimation, and number magnitude,” Dettore said.
The research Dettore is talking about was done with preschoolers. Other studies show that early development of math skills strongly correlates with success in math later on in middle school and even in high school.
Robyn Barber and her husband Aaron live in the Observatory Hill neighborhood with their three children, 7-year-old Zachary, 4-year-old Leila and 2-year-old Madeline.
“Often it’s about what’s fun, but we have noticed an improvement with counting,” Robyn said. “The kids know their counting, they know their colors, it’s great for their memory. Leila and I love to play memory together. It’s also good when they aren’t sore losers. We never let them win. But we applaud them when they are good winners.”
The Barbers like to play Parcheesi as a family, and Robyn is serious about not letting the kids win. She recently double blockaded her son and effectively prevented him for having a turn for about 5 minutes.
But that doesn’t mean Robyn doesn’t try to help Zachary win. She asks him questions about his strategy to get him to talk through his thought process.
”If they choose to do it a different way, that’s up to them,” Robyn said. “I want them to know how we think when we play, so that they can make those informed decisions. I think that’s helpful in life as well, to think about what you’re going to do and why you’re doing it, instead of just going ahead and doing something.”
The element of strategy is a huge developmental bonus to playing games with rules, according to Dettore. He said you can help a child learn critical thinking skills by asking her about the choices she’s making. That’s why playing games as a family is a unique learning experience: Kids generally don’t ask each other about strategy when they’re playing.
Parent Deb Zuroski said she quizzes her 7-year-old son Ian about his strategy when they play Mancala.
“I’ll ask him, ‘Why are you letting so many stones collect in that dish, because you’re going to have to give me stones if you do that,’” Deb said. “He talks about what he’s thinking and the way he’s planning his whole approach. He has beaten me in that game. It surprises me because I think I’m this awesome Mancala player, but he has a strategy and he can articulate it quite well.”
Dettore said games are a natural way to build critical thinking skills, because kids don’t even realize it’s happening. At times, that may hold true for parents as well.
“I think just family time and just being together is probably the most important thing for me,” said Robyn Barber. “If they learn something that’s great, but just being together and seeing each other having conversations, whether it’s about the game or what we did that day.”
Deb Zuroski agreed.
“It’s togetherness time with them," she said. "I don’t get a lot of time with them where I’m not yelling at them to do things. So having some opportunity to play a game. It’s fun, it’s bonding time. Sometimes when they were little it’s really sort of a learning opportunity. For me, it’s just fun.”
Dettore worries that kids aren’t playing enough, and as a result, they’re suffering some developmental delays. A 2010 study showed that kids are becoming less creative. Another study coined the term “problem solving deficit disorder.”
“There’s a decline in creativity, a decline in problem solving and there’s also a commensurate decline in family time,” Dettore said. “I always ask my students, what are some of the memories you have of you playing board games or card games at night? And invariably, everybody smiles. The whole room lights up because there are such good memories.”
Haley and Ian Zuroski both said they like playing games with their family more than with their friends, and all the kids interviewed for this story were excited to be playing games with their parents.
Dettore said that’s what makes board games such a great developmental opportunity for children — they’re learning without even realizing it.