How Family Card Games Teach Math, Memory and Self-Confidence
Looking for a way to help your children take turns, follow rules, learn math and memory skills and face competition in a healthy way? How about a game of Crazy Eights?
Card games can teach math and memory skills, as well as strategic thinking, psychologist and sociologists say. Also, the conversation and friendly rivalry that come with sitting down to play cards can strengthen family ties. Family games also can build children’s confidence: The rules are the same for everyone, and it is fun to play a game in which anyone can win.
“To be able to compete against parents and sometimes win is symbolically important to kids. They get a sense that ‘my time is coming,’ a little foretaste of not being under the parent’s thumb,” says William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Children also can learn to win and lose gracefully, he says—“to be happy but not gloat, and to lose and not pout.”ENLARGE
Card games generally aren’t rocket science, but for many families, the ease and fun are half the point. Mary Brett and her husband Craig, a cardiologist, have kept their four children, ages 15 to 21, interested in playing cards by making sure the children see their parents enjoying the game. “We can make fun of each other and not take it too seriously,” says Ms. Brett, of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Dr. Brett sometimes dons crazy hats to lighten the mood. Their 15-year-old daughter Bridget says, “Seeing my parents go back and forth, I will tell you, is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.”
Ms. Brett often carries a deck of cards in her bag to play during spare moments such as waiting for a pizza. The family plays with Ms. Brett’s parents, who are in their 80s, on summer vacations at a lakeside camp in Vermont.
Card-playing has honed her children’s memory skills and taught them to plan competitive strategies in advance, Ms. Brett says. Bridget, who struggled with basic math as a young child, says playing cards helped her gain confidence and skill.ENLARGE
At a time when children’s schedules are packed and digital distractions are everywhere, youthful card sharks are increasingly rare. “A whole generation of consumers didn’t learn to play cards the way an entire prior generation did,” says P.J. Katien, vice president, sales and marketing, for the U.S. Playing Card Co., Erlanger, Ky., owner of the venerable Bicycle, Bee, Kem and Hoyle brands. Still, he says he sees interest among young parents in teaching their children card games as an alternative to videogames. Sales of traditional playing cards have risen between 1% and 2% industrywide in the past two years, he says.
Tim Sullivan of Attleboro, Mass., says playing a card game his family calls “Tim & Louise” kept him, his wife Ellen and their four children entertained for hours during this past winter’s blizzards. (The game, a simple trick-taking game that originated in the 1930s, is known by many names, including “Oh Hell” and “Oh Shoot.”) His children, ages 9 to 16, are naturally competitive, and card games teach them to take teasing as well as dish it out, Mr. Sullivan says.
Their 9-year-old daughter, Molly, takes pride in holding her own against her parents and older brothers. “It feels good to beat them, and it makes me feel like I can do more,” she says. That confidence comes in handy in basketball, swimming, softball and going on “scary rides at the amusement park,” she says.
In the family, memorable hands become a running joke. Mr. Sullivan’s son Jeremiah, 16, astonished his siblings two summers ago when he made an extremely risky bid and rebounded from a 100-point deficit to win a game. His 12-year-old brother, Ryan, says Jeremiah has been exercising bragging rights ever since. “The first couple of times he told the story, we said, ‘Oh yeah, that was pretty cool,’ ” Ryan says, “but after the 10th time we got a little tired of it.”
Such verbal sparring can be “a good way to make family memories,” says Cynthia Copeland, author of “Family Fun Night” and other books on parenting. “Kids remember silly, fun, bonding moments more than they remember a trip to an amusement park.”
To get children hooked on cards, some families start by teaching their children beginner games, such as War and Old Maid, when they are small, and challenge them with a variety of games as they get older. A regular family game time, say, on Friday nights, can help. Many parents also make sure their children see them having fun playing.
Both card and board games are linked in research to better math skills in small children. Both create opportunities for face-to-face play, conversation, taking turns and following rules.
Parents say it is easier to interest video-savvy children in colorful board games with splashy graphics than in staid-looking playing cards. Game designers are flooding the market with creative new board games. And sales of “hobby games,” or nontraditional tabletop games ranging from Dungeons and Dragons to collectibles such as Pokemon, have been rising 15% to 20% a year since 2010, according to ICv2, a trade publication. Sales of family board games such as Monopoly and Clue rose 5% in the year ended Feb. 28, according to the market-research firm NPD Group.
Traditional card games can be more engaging in other ways, however. For small children, card games tend to provide more counting and matching practice. Shuffling and dealing cards can instill greater manual dexterity. And skilled card-playing often calls for more nuanced social skills, such as bluffing one’s opponents into unwise bets. Some grandparents impress youngsters with their skills in counting cards—remembering which cards have been played so they can anticipate opponents’ next move.
Fifteen-year-old Matthew Siegel says learning to keep a poker face while playing Texas Hold 'em with his grandfather, 78-year-old Victor Spetalnick of Valley Stream, N.Y., has served him well at school. “I’ve had my share of being teased, and keeping a straight face and not looking like it’s getting on your nerves is helpful,” says Matthew, of Armonk, N.Y.
Mr. Spetalnick, a retired assistant high-school principal who plays cards every two or three weeks with Matthew, says his grandson often beats him in gin, “and I’m not an easy person to beat. He really has to earn it.”
Playing cards is an easy way for several different generations to sit down together, and grandparents and parents say games afford an unusual opportunity to bond with children. “It’s much better than sitting across the table from one of your kids and saying, ‘Tell me about your day,’ ” says Ms. Copeland, the author. “You learn so much more about each other in the context of a playful setting.” Carl Harnick, 80, and his wife Fran, 77, have maintained a family card-playing tradition for years by making it part of a biweekly ritual of baby-sitting for their two grandchildren, Isabella Harnick, 15, and her brother Ben, 10. The four go out for dinner and ice cream, and then they play Kings in the Corners, a variation on solitaire, says Mr. Harnick of Lake Success, N.Y., a retired accountant. Ms. Harnick, a retired teacher, says the best part of card-playing is the conversation: “We learn about their friends and what’s going on at school.”
Isabella says playing cards has changed her views on competition. An avid soccer player, she has occasionally seen opponents have a meltdown if they miss a goal, she says—an attitude she has come to regard as “ridiculous.”
“You don’t win everything in cards. You can’t expect to win everything in life either,” she says.
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