Teaching My 6-Year-Old A 21st Century Lesson

If reading boardgame rules is fun, you have a promising law career in your future. For the rest of us, it’s far less painful to YouTube tutorials. This applies to nearly every 21st-century question. How to fix a drain, do a muscle-up, change a tire, troubleshoot Apple Airplay.

Since we are all “homeschoolers” now, I’m trying to be more cognizant of teaching moments in our normal routines. This week as we sheltered-at-home it’s been a boardgame bonanza. Even more than it normally is around our house. Boardgames are filled with teaching moments.  But this week we spotted an opportunity for meta-learning as well as the 21st-century skill of “googling it”. We broke out the boardgame Pandemic for the first time with our 6-year-old. Instead of teaching him how to play, we turned the tables.

The assignment

We asked him to learn how to play by finding a video on Youtube then teach us. I supervised his progress and interjected suggestions as he approached the problem.

How it unfolded

  • Finding the video

The first step required typing “how to play pandemic” into the search bar.  We use YouTube through a smart tv. That means painfully typing with a remote control. But there was a silver lining…as he added a letter the auto-complete options would narrow. Once I pointed this out to him, every new letter he typed came with fun feedback. Seeing the autocomplete list change. By the time he got to “how to pl”, all of the the suggestions began “how to play…”. When I asked him what would happen when he added an “a” to his query, I was delighted that he recognized the autocomplete list would not change. There was some thinking going on. Cool. By the time he got to “how to play p”, the suggestion “how to play pandemic” appeared. He reacted like he won the lotto.

The video I wanted to use was one of the first search results (I myself had learned to play from this video), so I prompted him to select it.

  • Learning how to setup and play

Just as an adult would need to he quickly learned he needed to pause the video every few moments to follow-along. A methodical, painstaking process. He had to maintain attention and be persistent. Worthy lessons of course. The actual rulebook can be used as a reference. In our case, we had a different edition of Pandemic than the video which was a slight but welcome complication since it provided another teaching moment.

  • Teaching us how to play

This was the step where I had to play my largest supporting role. Filling in gaps as he explained to mom. Teaching games to people is an art in itself. Requiring empathy and patience and strategy. Knowing what you need to explain upfront vs what will become trivially clear once you start playing. There’s a balance between how much a person should be asked to retain to get started and actually getting started. Our kid probably tilts more towards lawyer…overexplainer, so I have to cut him off (he gets excited, its actually pretty cool) in the spirit of expediency and momentum.

Next time you crack open a new game, see if you can have your child learn the rules and teach you. It’s a great way to get more out of the game than its embedded lesson. And when your kid gets good enough at this you can pass the torch of household rule explainer. It’s a thankless role. Another idea kids should learn early.

Happy gaming and homeschooling!

Here’s the video we used. I highly recommend Rodney Smith’s Watch It Played tutorial series.

The Distance Learning Links You Need

Resources for parents with kids at home

Start Here

  • Outstanding tips and resources for kids both offline and online (Link)
  • Shane Parrish’s crowdsourced thread of learning resources (Link)
  • List of all education companies now offering free subscriptions (Link)

Schools

  • Outschool: Live online learning for all grades and subjects (Link)
  • A Guide to Using Khan Academy Kids for Remote Learning (Link)
  • Beanstalk: Distance learning made free for the duration of the COVID threat (Link)

Focused Resources

  • Mystery Science: elementary science videos (Link)
  • Kurzgesagt: animated science videos  (Link)
  • 3Blue1Brown: animated math concepts (Link)
  • Moontower list of resources to teach kids about money & business (Link)

Game Focus

  • Moontower guide to game-based learning (Link)
  • Moontower reader Erik Berg’s favorite board games and why (Link)

Interactive

  • Nicky Case has the best explorable games to learn about complex phenomena (Link)
  • Nicky is building an explorable COVID game to understand how infections spread (Link).
  • Science Buddies: A great site for finding science projects by interest and age level. We want to do the one about germ spread. (Link)

Schedules

  • Khan Academy’s Recommended Schedules (Link)
  • That schedule floating around social media:

Let Your Kids Play Boardgames

I have 7 and 4-year-old sons. I had kids to have gaming companions. Go ahead and judge me. Luckily they like games like their old man. Well just like amoxicillin tastes like Bubble Yum, it turns out gaming is a stealth way to teach your kids how to think. They learn faster when they have a goal in front of them.

This post is intended to be a living document for resources to get your family gaming in gear.

General Tips

  • Normal people don’t like reading rule books. Learning rules is best done via Youtube videos. Just search for a tutorial of the game you are interested in and use the rulebook as a reference. If you need even deeper rule clarifications I’m 99% confident any question you can think of is covered in relevant BGG forum.

  • Find Moontower on BoardgameGeek. This is the best game reference site in the world. It’s an amazing compendium of user-generated content. One of the most engaged, enthusiastic niche communities on the web. I am stunned out how much you can customize your menus and widgets on the site. I don’t fully understand why more communities aren’t copying its features. It does have a learning curve but the ability to catalog games and log plays is superb.

Games for Kids Under 10

  • Evolution: The Beginning (Link)

It’s a card game where you must manage populations of carnivores and herbivores as you try to eat the most food. The punch-counterpunch dynamic of the game maps faithfully to how predator-prey games in nature balance themselves. Concentrate too much on defensive traits and competing populations grow quickly. Modify a species to be an aggressive carnivore and more scavengers appear in the ecosystem. React and adapt. It imparts a beautiful sense of how evolution favors adaptation to the prevailing competitive landscape as opposed towards some march towards a higher form. An organism’s fitness is a purely relative concept. The game’s elegance mirrors nature well.

  • Forbidden Island (Link)

Simple and fun coop game by the same game designer who brought you Pandemic. The game gets kids to work together and while the replayability for adults is limited there is enough variation in board layout and characters to keep kids engaged. Take about 30 minutes to play and requires no more reading than identifying the names of regions. I hear the follow-up Forbidden Desert may be even better.

This was the gateway game that got us into European boardgames 11 years ago. Unless you are used to playing games for hours it might be a reach for age 6 but I’d feel very comfortable teaching it to an 8-year-old. While its conflict is economic like Monopoly, it feels less punitive and the entire design is one of the most elegant I’ve seen. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t enjoy playing this game. Lessons in negotiation, market dynamics, odds, and planning. I highly recommend the Seafarers expansion. We almost never play it without “the sea”. I do not recommend the Cities & Knights expansion which feels likes it changes the essence of the game a bit much.

  • The Magic Labyrinth (Link)

By far the best version of a memory game our household has ever played, No reading required and adults and kids are on equal footing since the game is about trying to remember you and others’ footsteps through a maze with invisible walls. This game was a big hit around here and is one of our favorites to gift since its fun and has few rules to learn.

  • Quacks of Quedlinburg (Link)

Quacks is a bit like a deck builder. It’s known as a bag builder but with a don’t-bust-press-your-luck mechanic. To most of you, that means nothing but for the remaining, you should know this an outstanding game. It’s fun, and while seasoned gamers won’t like this necessarily, it has enough luck to allow a first grader to compete with an adult. I found myself thinking quite a bit about the value of the “options” (they’re actually chips representing ingredients in a potion recipe) in the game and their respective costs. The concepts of theta, volatility, and vega would be visible to someone with a finance background if they looked past the game skin.  An engineer would see this game as a very pure simulation (most likely AI) based problem especially since the game has no trading interactions. Avi tells me the designer is coming out with a much heavier follow-up catering to a less casual crowd.

This game is a centurd old commodity futures trading game. No reading required and is a pure trading game. Open outcry style. It’s a frantic free for all where kids will offer to deal sets of grains (think rice, wheat, corn, barley, etc) to corner the market on a single commodity. The action unfolds in a way that gives a very organic sense for what is getting cheap (offered) vs expensive (what is scarce and in demand). The feeling of market pricing is intuitive and turns over quickly. Rounds take no more than 10 minutes. If your kid can count to 8 they can play although I suspect age 6 or 7 is the floor at which they can think more strategically.

This is another gateway classic. It has the feel of trying to occupy area in an evergrowing modular puzzle. With younger children, I recommend not playing with the “farmers” because the scoring can confuse them unnecessarily.

Games for 10 and Up

A party game like Codenames. Both games are great for teams and so many ages. As word games go Codenames and Balderdash are hall of famers.  Decrypto is an instant classic and honestly, you can play it without buying the game. You just need paper and pen.

A several generations old classic. A game of M&A and stock ownership using the hotel industry as the theme. It’s in a sweet spot of complexity and has clever market-driven dynamics.

  • Power Grid (Link)

A bit higher on the complexity scale. Auctions, networks, optimization, opportunity costs, replacement costs, and cutthroat market dynamics.

A friend argues that you can learn 80% of what you need to know about trading from a few dozen plays.

Games and Investing

I would credit a lot of my reasoning about business and money from playing games. While actually investing is the ultimate game to learn from here are some of my recommendations to get kids and teens starting to think about investing.

  • Incomplete information games: Poker, Bridge, and Magic the Gathering

As a trader trainee, our curriculum included lots of poker. There is no better controlled environment for learning to make decisions under uncertainty. Many fellow trainees had extensive Magic the Gathering backgrounds for similar reasons.

  • Fantasy sports and sports betting

Point spreads and draft positions are valuable early lessons in market efficiency

  • Trading firm Susquehanna’s posts about boardgames

Boardgames: More Than Monopoly and Poker (Link)

On Trading Games (Link)

Articles

  • Designer Nick Bentley on how to get your kids into games and speed their progress (Link)

  • Gameschooling Teaches “Successful Intelligence” (Link)

Top Youtube Channels for Instructions and Reviews

  • Shut Up and Sit Down (Link)

Matt and Quinns are exceptionally bright. And even more hilarious. They are amazing guides to the gaming world. My favorite board game channel.

  • Jamey Stegmaier (Link)

A top game designer reviews and breaks down games expertly

  • The Dice Tower (Link)

Tom Vasel is prolific and has a sense of humor befitting of a game zealot.

Podcast Series Devoted to Games and Learning

  • Games in Schools and Libraries (Link)

Kathleen Mercury is the queen of teaching game design to youngsters. Her passion for turning kids into “producers not consumers” is unrelenting. With an open-source attitude, she is spreading the lessons of her innovative and fun approach to parents and teachers everywhere. She interviews the top practitioners in the game-based learning world.

  • Boardgaming with Education (Link)

Ian Zang covers game-based learning and gamification practices with experts, enthusiasts, and teachers. Get in the weeds of using games to improve education.

Lists By Experts

  • Kathleen Mercury’s recommended games for the classroom sorted by age group (Link)
  • Kathleen Mercury’s “best-of” list if games used in her day camp. (Link)
  • A thread of lists by game camp organizers. (Link)

Lists by Friends

  • Erik Berg’s Favorite Games and Why (Link)

Moontower Gift Guide for 2019

It’s the official start of holiday season. I thought this would be a good time to share some of my favorite finds from 2019 including a gift guide in advance of Cyber Monday.

Moontower Gift Guide

Everything in this list is something I have gotten great use out of and found to be reliable. Several of them have been secret Santa gifts I’ve been given. You can’t go wrong buying them for your white elephant exchange or jumping on them if someone else brings it to the party.

1. A car jump starter. I have a VicTsing model (link)

  • Doubles as a high capacity power bank
  • I keep this in my car and have used it many times to give myself a jump without anyone’s help as well as used it to help other motorists. It’s a quicker, easier process than putting 2 cars nose to nose.

2. A 12v/120v power inflator. There are many types to choose from. I have this Bonaire model (link)

  • Set target tire pressure and hit ‘go’. It auto shuts off when the tire is filled. The best part — a digital guage.
  • Comes with regular 120v power cord and the 12v that plugs into your car’s ashtray. I had to use that one on Friday actually.
  • Comes with multiple needles for filling basketballs or bike tires.

3. Asus ZenScreen. My laptop has a 13″ screen but the ZenScreen connect via USB to give you another monitor. (Link)

  • Draws power from your laptop so no need for a separate power supply
  • The included case acts as a stand allowing you position the monitor horizontally or vertically

4. Youtube Premium (Link)

  • I watch more Youtube than I do TV. If you have the same habit, it’s worth the monthly subscription to get rid of the ads. I started paying for it this year and I’m happier for it.

5. Youtube TV (Link)

  • If you are thinking about cutting the cord, I just wanted to share our solution. We switched to Youtube TV in January and we have been happy. It has all the channels we want and there is no lag when you change channel. The lag was always a pet peeve from our Comcast setup. The quality is good and we are saving a little bit of money.

6. Shady Rays Sunglasses (Link)

  • I like their aviator styles. I wrote this summer: I ordered some Aviator style sunglasses from Shady Rays. They are about $60 bucks. If you break or LOSE the glasses up to 2 times they will send you a new pair for the cost of shipping. 

7. A massage gun. I got a Hypervolt (Link)

  • For the person who likes when the masseuse karate chops their back rapidly Street Fighter II- style. They are pricey but if that therapy is your jam, these guns are pretty awesome. Get your kids or partner to do your back. You can do your legs, IT band, etc yourself. There’s 3 intensity settings and it lasts several hours from a single charge.
  • I actually got a knockoff from China for a fraction of the price and it works perfectly. If you are interested and in the Bay Area hit me up and I might be able to help.

8. “Demonslayer” sake (Link)

  • At $50 a bottle this is a treat but it’s very smooth junmai daiginjo. I mentioned a bit about sake from my trip to Japan. (Link)

9. Most practical stocking stuffer

  • White Wizard Spot Remover (Link). We give this to everyone. Takes blood out of white sheets. If you have kids you keep this stuff in a holster. I have no idea if it’s destroying the environment but it’s so good I assume I’m being evil.

10. Games

Boardgames I started playing this year with my 6-year old:

  • Evolution — The Beginning: I wrote about it here
  • Forbidden Island (Link): Simple and fun coop game by the same game designer who brought you Pandemic. The game gets kids to work together and while the replayability for adults is limited there is enough variation in board layout and characters to keep kids engaged. Take about 30 minutes to play and requires no more reading than identifying the names of regions.
  • The Magic Labyrinth (Link): By far the best version of a memory game our household has ever played, No reading required and adults and kids are on equal footing since the game is about trying to remember you and others’ footsteps through a maze with invisible walls. This game was a big hit around here and is one of our favorites to gift since its fun and has few rules to learn.

Boardgames for 10 and up:

  • Settlers of Catan (Link): This was the gateway game that got us into European boardgames 11 years ago. Putting it here because we recently re-discovered it when I took a chance and taught it to Zak. Honestly, unless you are used to playing games for hours it might be a reach for age 6 but I’d feel very comfortable teaching it to an 8-year-old. Teaching someone the rules is the most painful part, but I have yet to meet anyone who did not enjoy playing. Even non-gamers. It’s a gateway game for a reason. While its conflict is economic like Monopoly, it feels less punitive and the entire design is one of the most elegant I’ve seen. Dusting it off was like seeing an old friend and wondering why you let it take so long to connect.
  • Decrypto (Link): A party game like Codenames. Both games are great for teams and so many ages. As word games go Codenames and Balderdash are hall of famers but Decrypto is an instant classic we started playing last Christmas.
  • Acquire (Link): I’m putting this game here even though it’s several generations old. It’s a classic game of M&A and stock ownership using the hotel industry as the theme. Many Moontower readers are finance pros so might appreciate the rec if they didn’t know about it already. It’s in a sweet spot of complexity and has clever market-driven dynamics.
  • A general tip: normal people don’t like reading rule books. Learning rules is best done via Youtube videos. Just search for a tutorial of the game you are interested and use the rulebook as a reference. If you need even deeper rule clarifications I’m 99% confident any question you can think of is covered in relevant BGG forum.

Video Game

  • We just discovered Portal : Bridge Constructor (Link). Available on many platforms including iOS and Android. We are playing it via Xbox Game Pass which has 3 months for a $1 intro rate which gives you access to tons of free games. If you liked Lemmings growing up you will dig this game. The whole house is addicted to structural engineering principles now.

11. Finally, a rec I received from Twitter — Storyworth memoirs (Link)

  • Our knowledge of our parents before we are born is very limited. If you have ever asked them to recount their stories, you may have left the conversation wishing it was written down. And that’s just for the stuff they thought of when they were on the spot or during that evening around the table. Storyworth is a service which prompts them every day with a question that they answer and at the end of the year you can get physical and/or digital copies. I’m sure the efficacy of this depends a lot on your parent’s bandwidth, willingness, and literacy but I thought the concept was worth surfacing here. I actually think they should have a version for family recipes!

An elegant game which will give kids (and adults) intuition for how competition shapes evolution

A lot of you know I had only had kids so that I would have future boardgame companions. I’d go as far as saying it was imperative to have an even number of family members to balance teams. Tragically, we have nobody to break voting ties (we have a history of crowdtexting friends to settle debates). The point remains — we like games in our household. A fun game I started playing with Zak this week is Evolution: The Beginning which is a junior version of a more complex game.

In Evolution: The Beginning, you’ll adapt your species to succeed in a dynamic ecosystem where food is scarce and predators roam. Traits like Flight and Horns will protect your species from Carnivores while a Long Neck will help them get food that others cannot reach. With hundreds of ways to evolve your species, every game unfolds in a beautifully unique way.

It’s a card game where you must manage populations of carnivores and herbivores as you try to eat the most food. The punch-counterpunch dynamic of the game maps faithfully to how predator-prey games in nature balance themselves. Concentrate too much on defensive traits and competing populations grow quickly. Modify a species to be an aggressive carnivore and more scavengers appear in the ecosystem. React and adapt. It imparts a beautiful sense of how evolution favors adaptation to the prevailing competitive landscape as opposed towards some march towards a higher form. An organism’s fitness is a purely relative concept. The game’s elegance mirrors nature well. And you can scoop it at Target.

Between the artwork and some memorizing, Zak (turning 6 this week) could play without being able to read fully. His interest and energy were bursting as the game started to ‘click’. I felt the same. Playing a game that is slightly out of reach is an avenue for learning that speeds downhill using his own enthusiasm as fuel. “Sit down and do workbook” is all uphill in molasses. I’m pretty excited to have passed the Candyland phase since a much richer world of learning lies within complex games.

The gaming world likes to point to the benefits of using games to practice computational thinking. Google for Education has an entire portal dedicated to the formal reasoning processes that you will be familiar with if you have coded, managed a project, or even planned a trip.

To explore Computational Thinking with Google read more…

When playing games with kids, Evolution game designer Nick Bentley has great tips...

And if you want to connect IQ, its broader cousin “successful intelligence”, and gaming then read about “gameschooling“.