Photo by Getty Images/RITZ PIX , REETU CHHIPA PHOTOGRAPHY
Puzzles, blocks, board games, and pick-up sticks might seem to have gone the way of penny candy and being allowed to walk home from school alone at 8 years old when it comes to today’s kids. But these “old-fashioned” games do something for children that Minecraft,iPads, and the Wii never will. They offer children “spatial orientation” — a better sense of how to manipulate and exist in the world around them.
"Spatial orientation" has grown-up application in everything from engineering to whether or not a person can read a map. Or whether they can put together furniture from Ikea. Or drive in heavy traffic. In other words, it’s vital and eventually develops into STEM (Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology) skills.
“Spatial orientation is all about how people think about space,” says psychological scientist and researcher Jamie Jirout of Rhodes College whose study on children at play was recently published in Psychological Science. “It’s about how different objects fit in space and imagining how objects look from different angles.”
Jirout’s study found that children who play with blocks, puzzles, and board games — “simple” toys by any definition — are far more likely to build these spatial reasoning skills than children who play with other toys. “Providing children with access to spatial play experiences is a good way to boost spatial development,” she says.
So what are the top five simple games that help build this sense of space?
Battleship: In Battleship, “you are thinking about space,” Jirout says. “You need to figure out which direction their ship is in and how you can use effective questioning to get there.” It’s not a game one might immediately jump to when you think of STEM skills, but those are precisely the skills it builds.
Hopscotch: Although, not in the category of blocks, board games, and puzzles, this very physical game also involves numbers and spatial orientation, says Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, Director of Defending the Early Years, an organization dedicated to helping educators fight testing and all the things that take away from the way children truly learn. “Children practice large and small motor skills and spatial relationships as they draw the game with chalk, McLaughlin says. “And then toss their pebbles and jump along the numbered spaces. There is so much to figure out and do.”
Chutes and Ladders: Many parents probably have fond memories of this game and of rolling the dice and climbing to the top only to shoot back down the slide. But this game is more than just luck and chance and fun. “The board itself is made up of a grid,” Jirout says. There is a counting, math component to it all, but also a strong sense of spatial orientation. Where is my opponent compared to me? How can I catch him? What number do I need to get to get there?
Jenga: There was no game more exciting — or more simple — than Jenga. Simply pull a block from the tower and hope and pray it doesn’t fall. But there is so much more to it, says McLaughlin. “Children develop eye-hand coordination and experiment with gravity as well as cause and effect,” she says. “They will learn that the blocks are more stable on some surfaces than others. The sounds that travel from the falling blocks will very depending on how high the tower gets, and the surface they are playing on.”
Blocks: Give a child an old-fashioned stack of blocks and let them go to town. There are so many varieties — cardboard, wooden, Legos, Bristle, and more — but they all have one thing in common: Children are manipulating in three dimensions. They are feeling the weight of the blocks in their hands. They are imagining something in their head and making it real. Blocks help children learn how to manipulate and change the world around them.
Games like Minecraft and other electronic building games can also help with spatial orientation, but they don’t have the same heft and weight (literally) as old-fashioned blocks. “When a child is figuring out and acting on the actual blocks, her curiosity and exploration will lead her to understanding the real world,” McLaughlin says. “A digital game can not be taken apart, changed, and acted-upon the way actual blocks can.”
It’s official: You have to go back to move forward. I know what my kid’s next birthday list is going to include.