Baylin Stich could have let his 14-year-old brain turn to mush this summer. Instead, the Ashland High School sophomore is staying sharp by playing cards and board games.
"Unlike video games or watching TV, these games keep me mentally active," Baylin said in between perusing thousands of game boxes at the Funagain Games store in Ashland on Thursday afternoon.
Hanging over shelves stocked with preschoolers' playing cards to complex abstract strategy boards is a sign that states: "Grow Your Brain, Play a Game."
Summer Ed is part of a series of stories about students' summer activities that prevent learning loss while building new skills. Email your ideas for the series to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep kids' brains active
Experts recommend children do the following to prevent learning loss over summer months:
• Join a summer reading program.
• Explore parks, nature preserves.
• Visit museums, cultural centers.
• Practice math skills while baking, shopping, playing board games.
Research shows that games can teach children reading, math and logic, free of academic stress.
While taking on fun roles of explorers, knights or scientists, they also improve their eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity.
And kids who aren't good test takers have their confidence boosted with each skillful move on the board, say experts.
Ruth Alexander, a volunteer tutor in Ashland who served seven years on the Ashland School Board, created a ladder game that students use to practice equations.
"Children who are introduced to math through games never say they don't like math," she said.
Above all, children learn to play by the rules and they polish social skills not needed to succeed with workbooks, flash cards and most video games.
To be invited to play a game around a table, kids have to practice getting along with others.
"They need to have basic math skills to count spaces, money and points, and to calculate odds," said Tom Vasel, a math teacher and youth pastor in Florida who produces game-related podcasts for his popular website www.dicetower.com. "But more important, they have to talk to other people to play a board game."
Every third Saturday of the month, about 20 students gather at the Gresham Room at the Ashland library to play cooperative games such as Mice and Mystics, Forbidden Island and Pandemic.
These games are popular because players work together to beat the game, not compete against each other, said Christopher DeFrisco, who with his wife, Chris, started the free game night four years ago.
It's no wonder that principals, teachers and librarians justify game playing during precious classroom time and host after-school game clubs.
Jade DeBoer, 16, of Jacksonville remembers attending the sixth-grade game club at St. Mary's School in Medford.
"With games, you have to think ahead," she said, while showing people how to play the sequencing game Quoridor as part of her summer job at Funagain Games.
Nearby, Baylin was still circling the store in pursuit of a new challenge.
He comes from a family of dedicated gamers.
His older brother, Gavyne Stich, is a senior at AHS who co-founded the school's Board Game Club three years ago.
Their mom, Renee Stich, believes playing games helps children concentrate and learn.
"The kids I see playing board games are in honors classes and have great GPAs," she said, "and they know how to win and lose gracefully."
Baylin is a big fan of the fantasy card-trading game Magic: The Gathering. He said he likes teaching newer players some of the tactics he's learned over an hour a day of practice.
Dozens of players will spend today and Sunday at Funagain competing in a Magic tournament.
But it won't be a cut-throat contest, said Funagain Games' operations manager Nick Medinger, who credits the card game with keeping once-disengaged teenagers from failing school.
"There is math, logic and thinking in that game," he said. "You're presented a set of literally thousands of cards that you have to decide how to combine for the most efficient use. If there's a better way to teach problem solving, I'd like to see it."
Medinger said board games always have challenged kids' brains, from Candy Land to Scrabble. But since the 1990s, family-style games have become more sophisticated and that keeps people interested.
He said students — middle school and older — drop into the store all day long, but none of them are there to find a game that will help them get better grades.
They're there for fun and that's OK.
"Whatever the game, it will teach kids something," he said. "Just find a fun game with a set of rules that the kid has to follow and play it."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email@example.com.