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Connect 4: Four Things You Know Kids are Learning from Christmas Toys

There may be no better time to revel in toys than Christmas break with three children under the age of 8.  I have to admit I am the guilty kind of dad that can often find excuses like a ballgame or deadlines at school to avoid getting on the floor to play with my children… Isn’t that awful?  But this week the Christmas spirit got me and had me on the floor acting 8 again.  I think we, errrr Santa, tripled the GDP of Denmark this month with Lego purchases for our kids.  We did visit LegoLand in Atlanta to luxuriate in all things Lego. By the way, is it me or have Legos had more comebacks than heavyweight prize fighters in the 1980-90’s, but I digress.

Of course, my academic mind could not turn itself off.   In between sessions of Lego building, Connect 4, and wrestlemania (I have two boys who want to take down Daddy), I have been reading Elizabeth Green’s wonderful book about teaching Building A+ Better Teacher: How Teaching Works.  In the book, a number of teachers and education professors think aloud about what authentic learning looks like.  Particularly captivating is the story of Deborah Ball, elementary teacher in East Lansing, MI.  By all accounts a master teacher, Ball’s brain for teaching works much the same as germophobe works the hand sanitizer: always analyzing risk, perpetually forecasting holes in the system.  Her persistence is exhausting.  Her persistence brews excellence.

My brain felt like that when I was playing with my kids.  I guess I have always valued utility over frivolity.  Yes, it was good that they were having fun, but I wondered to myself “what were they learning?”  Here is what I came up with as I played with my kids on the carpet.

1 & 2. Legos teach dual skills of following directions and project management.  My seven year old daughter said quote “I could build anything with Legos, all I have to do is follow the directions.  There could be a thousand pieces.  Funny, not many Moms and Dads feel that way Christmas Eve when “some assembly required” actually means “those without a mechanical or civil engineering degree ought to solicit professional help.”  Likewise, these Lego setups require the same skills of building project manager or a city planner.  If a piece is lost or broken, weeks can be lost completing the project.  My kids had everything spread out on the floor and knew where every piece went whether they were building a summer home or a Coast Guard Cutter.

My Son Built a Port City over Christmas Break

My Connect 4 Champion sniffing out Red’s diagonal, horizontal classic trap

3.  Teaching kids games like Checkers, Connect 4 and MasterMind help build the strategic minds of children. Two weeks ago, my aforementioned daughter and I were waiting for a table at Crackerbarrell. We had nothing to do but sit in a rocking chair and play Checkers.  After one half hour session, she was beginning to see the patterns and was not easily defeated.  This week as Santa again went retro with our kids and gave them Connect 4, my daughter would not sleep until she beat me.  Early on, I could beat her with simple moves.   She would concentrate on her game plan: build a line of four up the side or maybe a subtle diagonal, and ignore my moves.  I’d pause when a win was inevitable and say “did you not see that?” Or I’d quip “are you forgetting something?”  She couldn’t see what I was doing.  She did not have EMPATHY.  My mind raced as I traced the ways we rue our students lack of empathy and the need for DEEP learning with Design Thinking.  However, after successive hour long sessions playing and losing, she began to learn to think two moves ahead.  She began to balance her offensive strategies with proactive defensive strategies (instead of waiting until I had three pieces aligned to block, she blocked two of mine from becoming a steak of three).  Eventually, she set up traps of her own and started winning games here or there.She was thinking not only about her own thinking, she was probing my thinking, my strategies.  The evening led to perhaps my favorite moment as a dad.  She said “Daddy, this is just like my 2nd grade teacher says when we are really learning well in class.  We are being metacognitive.  We are thinking about our thinking.”  Yes, “Honey, we are, aren’t we!” I beamed back.

4.  Stuffed animals and action figures help children with self-actualization and self-identification.  I was not aware that Beanie Boos were all the rage.  Thankfully Santa did.  Each of my kids got one, but each matched the identity of my individual children in simple ways.  If you have seen a Beanie Boo, you know they have huge eyes.  If you have seen my children, you know that they each have these big

Big-eyed Beanie Boo

brown eyes favoring their mother.  Naturally, my kids were drawn to these figurines because the eyes made them feel akin.  My oldest son had “Slush” a icey blue colored Huskey puppy that appeared equally distant and courageous.  My boy took several deep looks at Slush and said “he is just like me.”

Growing up, I generally eschewed toys for sports.  I learned much about life from pick-up games and the sandlot.  I am afraid that my children will have less opportunity for that in today’s legalistic, 100% supervised world.  I also fear that a time will come when they are like many of the students in my Middle and Upper Schools, tethered to a device for self-actualization and self-identification.  As we know, they will learn much from those devices, yet, it is good to see my kids being kids with some old-fashioned (though apparently now back in vogue) toys and playthings.  It was a Christmas to cherish.  I wish you the same with yours.

Until next time…play happily my friends

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