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Supporting Parents: Lucy Rycroft-Smith on board games, black eyes, and the importance of a 'mistakey' atmosphere

23 Jul 2019

Parenting is a thankless, ridiculous, disheartening and frankly dangerous pursuit. For every one moment I can recall where my children have taken the time to appreciate or thank me, there are in the region of thousands of others where they have apparently expected me to wrestle their problems to the ground for them and skipped off gaily afterwards with nary a look behind. The ratios are way off.  If you happen to also be a teacher as well as a parent, you might at times feel impaled on a double jeopardy javelin where you are pretty much surrounded by thankless children all day every day, and it is not so much sharper than a serpent’s tooth as harder than a bear’s right hook to the eye socket at times. (I have had four black eyes in my life, and three of those were from my own children).

Lucy profile

Is there a way to help children solve problems that gradually scaffolds the process so they become less dependent on you?  This could well be the central question of both parenting and teaching, and particularly pertinent in maths teaching where ‘problem solving’ has somehow become an object of focus as well as just an important process.

My solution comes from perhaps an unexpected quarter: board gaming. For the last ten years, I have enjoyed playing a range of games with my children from the serious and strategic to the silly and luck-based.  I have played games where I have bounced rubber eggs; pretended to be a cheese smuggler; used a giant compass on a treasure map; tried to get a field full of pigs rather than chickens; lied and lied again and then lied about lying; invented the never-forgotten yoghurt trousers and aimed the deadly weapon of mathematical calculation at a force of advancing zombies

The advantage of board games to support children’s problem solving and mathematical skills are many.  Firstly, a well-designed game doesn’t feel like work: it feels like play – and that goes for parents, too.  Games have been a foundational part of my relationship with my children for a long time.  Games are where they first understood that I might not always tell the truth, that they might be better at something than me, and that I feel ok about making mistakes in front of them. This requirement for a playful, enjoyable, exploratory, mistakey atmosphere is crucial for problem-solving skills to develop. An important point to note here is that it is easy to suck the joy out of a game by offering too much advice too soon, or trying to micro-manage children’s gameplay.  In order for them to enjoy it, to feel agency over their decisions and be able to play, they have to be free to make their own decisions for their own reasons –some of which (‘I’m playing this piece because I like the colour’) may not be good strategy. So what? They need to learn this stuff independently, at their own pace. 

Secondly, a well-designed board game fosters deep understanding of thoughtful decision-making, a significant component of problem solving. In a strategic board game microworld, you make decisions that can have short- medium- and long-term effects, and you try clusters of decisions together in clumps called ‘strategies.’  Some are riskier than others, but might have better payoffs.  Sometimes a strategy fails because it was a poor choice, but sometimes it fails because of information you didn’t know or because something unpredictable happened –and knowing the difference is a great skill to have in your toolkit.

Thirdly, good problem solvers are aware of and proficient at managing their own emotions.  So many parents and teachers say to me that they are scared to play games with children because ‘they don’t like to lose.’  That, for me, is board game 101: we need to be clear with children from the youngest age that mature game players derive pleasure not only from winning (and there are also many co-operative board games out there, too) but from fun and tricky and calculated gameplay; from worthy opponents and compelling narratives. In my house and my classroom, we thank the other players, shake hands, and say ‘good game’ at the end, as a matter of course. We are allowed to enjoy success, but draw the line at too much cruelty or joy in another’s misfortune, because ultimately we want to win because of our good decisions, not another’s poor ones. 

You can start with co-operative games, or short one, or silly ones: but if you get the role-modelling right, children will soon learn that the sting of losing is absolutely nothing to be afraid of – and certainly no excuse to behave badly. My advice: please, please do not let children win, ever – you are not doing them any favours. Losing board games is a great, safe preparation for all kinds of later failure.  In board gaming, you can play again straight away and learn from your mistakes; it’s got the architecture of persistence built-in. When my children beat me , fair and square, it’s such a joyful, earned moment for them and vicariously for me, too. It’s for this reason that I would also advocate generally sticking to the published rules and not ‘bending’ them too much – the microworld needs to be predictable, stable and fair for children to be able to properly explore the decision-making process.

Finally, plenty of board games explicitly help practice mathematical (by which I mean logical, spatial, statistical and numerical skills) too – meaning that a better repertoire of techniques allows for more sophisticated problem-solving choices. I would heartily recommend games like City of Zombies, Loony Quest, Wits & Wagers Family, The Mind, Castles of Burgundy, The Shipwreck Arcana, Qwinto, NMBR 9, Welcome To.., Can’t Stop and the Quacks of Quedlinburg – but there are hundreds more out there, of course!


Lucy Rycroft-Smith taught mathematics for over ten years, and is an award-winning mathematics resource designer and freelance writer, writing and speaking on education for the Guardian, the Chartered College of Teaching, the BBC and the Times Educational Supplement and hosting the TES podcast Mathematics. She is co-editor of Flip the System UK : A Teachers' Manifesto and writer of the forthcoming book The Equal Classroom: Life-Changing Thinking About Gender (due for publication in autumn 2019). Lucy is currently editor of the Cambridge Mathematics blog Mathematical Salad and writer of Espressos. She is currently studying at the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University and is part of their Mathematics Education Research Group. 

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