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My family and I were enjoying a memorable dinner in the restored dining room of Montana’s historic Many Glacier Hotel. There were white linens, glittering chandeliers, and live piano music. I imagined what it must have looked like at this spot 100 years ago–the same, except all the men and ladies dressed up sumptuously for dinner instead of arrayed in their pricey, earth-toned hiking togs. My four-year-old niece at the head of table contributed to the steady conversation. We talked about my incomparable roast chicken, and my sister decided she’d go for the prime rib next time. My mother and I were persuaded to take a little wine.
Partway through the meal, my brother-in-law subtly directed our attention to a table behind us. There an elderly couple sat, like us, enjoying the food and pleasing atmosphere. They had a small child with them, too. Except there was a significant difference. The napkin-swathed child, enthroned on her booster chair, was engrossed in her electronic tablet, a tiny, self-absorbed, earphone-wearing island.
We were gobsmacked. Most of us, along with our children, would admit to having our own problems with today’s ubiquitous entertainment technologies. But what these grandparents were allowing deprived the child of having to sit politely at the table, of talking with her elders, and of simply having to live real life. Before I bring the full weight of judgement to bear, though, I do understand there could have been extenuating circumstances. But I see children’s public indulgence elsewhere, too–little kids with their heads down, absorbed in their devices even while in the act of walking into an establishment. I see on Facebook that tablets are commonly presented to children as Christmas gifts–even though it strikes me that a little child doesn’t have the capacity to appreciate that he or she is receiving the most sophisticated toy in the history of the world. Adults can make far more advantageous selections as gifts for the children in their lives.
Consider, for example, the lowly pack of cards. In contrast with a glowing device, the colorful, typically fifty-two item numbered pieces of cardboard can play a bigger role in your child’s development than you realize. First, cards foster community. While the thought leaders in education extol the benefits of more technology, there is almost nothing children need more than community. A card game brings a small circle of children together–sometimes with the added connection of an adult to explain the procedures first. The game proceeds with the players in one another’s focus, not just the cards. Kids have to talk to one another, solve problems and disputes, show the littlest ones how to better hide their hand, and agree upon special rules.
When I was seven, my siblings and I had a simple set of Memory cards we had punched out of a magazine. We played the little animal match activity over and over. We played so many times, in fact, that the pieces got dog-eared and I quickly realized that one could make rapid matches with the overturned cards by recognizing a particular bent corner here or rumple there. It doesn’t sound like much, but my sister and I, who fought frequently, were brought together over this set. My toddler brother, too, who was three and learning his basics, probably participated. He would have picked up turn-taking, procedural conversations, and animal names from this game.
And then, someone in the States sent us a pack of Uno cards. My family learned the simple rules together and played it during our quiet evenings, with popcorn. (My dad also taught us War and 52 Pickup, which made him chuckle and made me remember how many cards were at play.) The game created peaceful conversations about taking turns and following the game’s rules. Then we took the cards outside one day and sitting in a circle with three of our Thai friends, taught them to play. The numbers and colors were obvious, but we showed them what “Skip” and “Wild” were for, and when to say “Uno!” even though none of us were clear on what it meant. After that, we played many games of Uno with the neighbor kids, out there on our back patio.
Cards are also advantageous in that they spark children’s creativity. Once children get tired of one game, that deck speaks to them, challenges them to figure out new uses for those colors, numbers, and symbols. After many rounds of Uno, I took to thinking about that pile of cards. How there were number sets in them, several of the same number as well as sets going from zero to nine. First, Uno became giant matching game. We arranged the cards upside down in a large rectangle and got to work, taking turns trying to match sets of two. Next, we played Fish and stacked sets of four in front of our crossed legs, with a pleasingly large pile to “fish” from.
But I knew there had to be another game in there, one involving putting stacks of cards in numerical order. And there was. The cards were first distributed evenly among the players. Each player would keep his pile upside down, and make a decision with each flipped up single card placed on the floor. Would it go in her recycle pile, start a numbered stack (if it were a one or zero), or continue one of the numbered stacks in progress? Once each card from the stack in hand was flipped up, you’d pick up your recycle pile and start again. The game was to move rapidly, perhaps cards flipped simultaneously, and whoever got rid of all cards first was the winner. I remember playing this game by myself in the garage, when there was no one to share it with. I liked the process of card-sorting, and I got that satisfied feeling of having made something new.
Besides providing social connections and encouraging creativity, card games are an inexpensive source of academic enrichment. A contest with cards brings out all sorts of opportunities for children to focus on vocabulary, language, reading, listening, distinguishing and remembering details, numeracy, and more. Think back to that ragged Memory card set we owned. Participating in game play involved reading and comprehending the directions, articulating the rules to a younger child, using vocabulary involving exotic animals, focusing on relevant details, and studying placement of identical cards by means of rows and columns. A mundane game like Uno encouraged a small child to be conscious of colors and distinguish numbers. War and card-sorting enforced numeracy. As the child grows, increasingly complex games can be added to his repertoire, quite possibly giving him an academic edge.
A deck of cards comes with many advantages, but it truly defeats the flashy competition when it comes to price. A card game is a cheap way to say “I love you.” However, add to that the gift of your time in teaching the game to the child, along with your purposeful selection of a superior present, and you’ve made an investment that is priceless.
Remember: Give a kid a tablet, and he’ll play a game . . . give him some cards, and he’ll invent three.