You thought it was just fun and games? Well it IS fun and games; but it’s not JUST fun and games. The above list identifies some of the skills and experiences educators and parenting experts believe are prompted by playing board games.  (Follow this link for a list of articles on the benefits of board games.)

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This is not to say that video games never promote these skills, or that board games are inherently better than video games. But board games do bring people together, face to face, around a table. They are tactile, usually involving the manipulation of physical objects. And I think most people agree that sometimes kids need to get off the screen and engage in the physical world right in front of them.

This is always true, but for children who are still experiencing most of their school and enrichment time virtually, these tangible experiences take on new importance.

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Experts who have explored the benefits of board games identify opportunities in even the simplest games. Candyland® and Chutes and Ladders®, as examples, have the potential to help young children with counting, color recognition, turn taking, and coping with setbacks. As children age, however, I think it is important to make sure your game shelf includes games that have the potential to develop some more complex skills. 

I asked the owners of Charlottesville toy stores Alakazam and Shenanigans to recommend a few of their favorite games for combining fun with skills development.

Amanda Stevens of Shenanigans responded:

The throwback game, Guess Who, is a fun, timeless game that challenges players to use their deductive reasoning skills.  Developing strategies for guessing the correct character with the fewest amount of guesses engages logical thinking and reasoning skills for players of any age.

Mille Bornes is a card game with a racing theme. You want to be the first player to travel 1000 miles by earning miles through the cards in your hand.  Watch out for challenges as opponents can throw down obstacles cards that cause you to “break down” and lose miles.  While not an obvious “educational” game, this game requires the players to be mentally adding  two and three digit numbers, increasing number flexibility and mental math skills.  There is also quite a bit of reasoning and strategy employed to impede the other players! This is a great game for kids and a regular at my adult game nights!  

Three Little Piggies by SmartMax is one of my all-time favorite games for preschoolers.  It is a single player game in which players set up the game board and then have to put each piggie in a house while keeping the wolf out of the house.  This game requires players to execute a guess and check strategy and experience facing challenges in an engaging and fun way.  There is only one correct answer to each puzzle! The lessons from this game are many – hard work pays off when you finally solve the challenge and struggling a little bit while you solve a problem is a good thing as you can eliminate possibilities.  It also suits their attention span and they can play for as long or as short a time as they want.  Fantastic fun for kids, and I dare adults to not get hooked on this game, too!

Ellen Joy of Alakazam shared these tips and favorites.

One of my most important qualifications for a board game for the younger set is that it must be fun for parents to play as well, and Outfoxed is always my first recommendation for early game play for that reason. It’s easy to learn and fun for the whole family! A pot pie has gone missing, and players must deduce who the guilty party is before the fox gets away! Outfoxed game play centers around deductive reasoning: players have to search for clues and use their observations to eliminate potential suspects.  It’s a cooperative game, so children have to use social and emotional skills to work together to come up with a strategy to win. Skills used: deduction, visual discrimination, and cooperation. 

Dixit is another favorite. It’s a wonderful storytelling game that develops abstract thinking, picture comprehension, and creative expression through language. One player is the storyteller for the turn and looks at the images on the 6 cards in her hand. From one of these, she makes up a sentence and says it out loud (without showing the card to the other players). Each other player selects the card in their hands which best matches the sentence and gives the selected card to the storyteller, without showing it to the others. The storyteller shuffles her card with all the received cards. All pictures are shown face up and every player has to bet upon which picture was the storyteller’s.
If nobody or everybody finds the correct card, the storyteller scores 0, and each of the other players scores 2. Otherwise the storyteller and whoever found the correct answer score 3. Players score 1 point for every vote for their own card. The game ends when the deck is empty or if a player scores 30 points. In either case, the player with the most points wins the game. Skills used: abstract thinking, picture comprehension, creative expression through language, addition (point calculation)

Mancala is a classic…and by that I mean it’s been around for over 1000 years! The Mancala board is made of two rows of six pockets, or “pits”. Four stones are placed in each pit, and each player has a Mancala or “store”  on his or her end of the board. The object of the game is to collect the most pieces into your Mancala by moving the stones clockwise around the board. This game develops a math skill called subtizing, which is the ability to instantly recognize “how many” in a small set. It’s a skill that we use with dice, for example, but in this case is used to quickly assess how many stones are in the pit by looking at them. Mancala also requires critical thinking: players have to think ahead and strategize to win. Beyond all of that, this ancient game offers an opportunity for a history and culture lesson! Skills used: fine motor skills, math, critical thinking, social science.

Everyone Should Be Included

The article Making Games Work for Kids of All Ages and Needs, (Child Mind Institute) offers some great ideas on adapting popular games for children with diverse abilities.

Our blog post Cooperative Games for Families suggests ways for changing up classics, such as Candyland and Monopoly to adapt them as cooperative games with opportunities for diverse players to participate.

One concern that I have about board games is that while some games that promote cognitive development are relatively affordable, many other games are out of reach for struggling families.  Buying used games may not be an option, since game pieces get lost and boards and cards are easily damaged. We are currently launching a project to get quality board games into the homes of low income children through food distribution and housing programs. Your support for this program will help us purchase high quality games for families with limited resources. Please designate “games” with your donation.


In our next post, I will share three picks of my own, along with some picks from board game reviews, and compile all these into a wish list for distribution to financially struggling families.

Enrichment to Go

Two of the pictures referenced in the note. We’ve left out the faces for confidentiality reasons, but boy we wish you could see the smiles!!!!

When the schools closed last March, so did the afterschool programs. Children were now home all day, every day, not even allowed to go to one another’s homes.  Knowing that many of children don’t have enough nourishing food to develop healthy bodies, we wondered how they could have access to enough nourishing materials to developing healthy minds.

Without afterschool programs and day camps, how would under-resourced children spend all that unstructured time?

The only materials we didn’t buy locally were the art supplies we sent to the Buck Mountain Food Pantry.

Would they be pestering already overstressed parents with choruses of “I’m bored, I’m bored?”  Or would they be on screen all afternoon and every Saturday and Sunday? How would the time spent by children of low-income families differ from the time spent by families that can afford Legos, art supplies, creative board games, science kits, puzzles–the many things that develop creativity, strategic thinking, and interpersonal skills? We didn’t know for sure, but our experiences suggest that access to these materials is typically very limited in homes struggling just to buy groceries and pay the electricity bills.

How children spend their out-of-school time is related to positive outcomes. The gap is becoming the gulf.

Magnets from Shenanigans.

We called a special meeting of our board of directors to discuss how we could get quality enrichment materials into the homes of children with limited resources.  We decided we would purchase the materials locally, because supporting the local economy supports local children. Our board members got very busy reaching out to food distribution centers and toy stores to develop a plan for getting affordable, enriching supplies into homes all summer and beyond.

Volunteers at Buck Mt. Episcopal Church receive sidewalk chalk.

Since then we have distributed just shy of 600 items through food distribution centers.

Our primary partnerships were with Buck Mountain Episcopal Church and New Beginnings Christian Community Center, but we also donated through Ivy Creek Methodist Church, The Unitarian Universalist Church, and by way of Shenanigans to Albemarle County Schools Food Distribution Programs.  Shenanigans and  Alakazam Toys have been critical partners in the process, offering discounts, delivering products, and patiently taking the time to problem solve and share ideas with us. We also very much appreciated a donation of books from The Free Book Bus.  Other than the books, all of the materials distributed were covered by cash donations, for which we are beyond grateful.

The generosity of our community during these very tough times has been heartening. That generosity has supplied art materials, science kits, puzzles, construction toys, games, and puppets to engage children’s imaginations, awaken their curiosity, and challenge and delight their developing minds.

Origami paper from Alakazam

We love this program and have decided to keep it going, at least through March and possibly beyond. We are currently making plans to add Hope House, which provides housing to families facing homelessness. We will be providing each unit with age appropriate board games selected because they develop strategic, creative, and collaborative thinking skills—AND ARE FUN!

Because we want to keep this program going, and to reach more children than only one small non-profit can reach alone, in the coming months I will be sharing more information about the program, the rationale behind it and the types of materials we are selecting. Please, steal our ideas.  And contact directly if you are interested in starting a similar initiative through your program.

Enriching Children’s Lives During a Global Pandemic

September 21, 2020.

Looking back on the last day of the strangest summer most of us have known.

Early in March, I went to the beach with my family, thinking that when I got back it would be time to start focusing on our summer inclusion collaboration with Charlottesville Parks and Recreation. I felt pretty relaxed about it, because so many of last summer’s Inclusion Counselors were returning, and one would be stepping into a new role to help coordinate the program.

These are just some of the cancelations my inbox contained in March of 2020.

By the time our four days at the beach were over, COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic. By the end of the week, Governor Northam had closed the public schools for two weeks, and we had no idea if they would re-open nor how summer would play out for the children of our community.

It soon became obvious that we needed to plan for a summer like no other. Our work is about out-of-school time, and man were the kids in our community out of school!

Crises and tragedies have a way of forcing people to think outside the proverbial box.

It is our hope that these three actions we took in response to the pandemic will be of lasting value to children and families with limited access to enriching activities:

  • Blog Posts Featuring Affordable, Inclusive Enrichment Activities for Social Distancing
  • Enrichment to Go: Delivery of Enrichment Materials to Families Through Food Distribution Programs
  • A Zoom Poetry Workshop

Our next few posts will talk about each of these activities, starting today with

A brief tour of the our 2020 Spring/Summer Blogs.

From our popNpoems posts.

Our first response was to share activities that are enriching, inclusive, and available even while quarantined or social distancing. I wrote up the blogs, but I had great help from board member Sue Smith and volunteers Amy Vandenburg and Lily Zhou-Mei Ji  who identified many of the activities shared. Lily even got in her car and took a picture of Beta Bridge for one post. Thanks so much to you three imaginative people.

When we began posting, we were all under stay at home orders, which is reflected in our earliest posts. We looked primarily for activities that actively engaged children and youth in movement, science, and the arts. We also included games that promote strategic thinking, creativity, and collaboration. Ideas for transformative staycations were posted three times. Here are just a few examples of the activities we found or created and shared: build-your-own theme park; sidewalk art; escape rooms; magic tricks; forts, shelters, and cities; backyard naturalists; converting regular board games to cooperative games; recycling art.

Inclusion is a core value and we made every effort to find activities for a wide range of abilities and interests. You will also find some stories in ASL and on audio files, and some movement activities suitable for people with limited mobility. We would be very interested in hearing from you if you have links to inclusive enrichment activities.

With 60 posts typically featuring 4 activities each, we feel that we have a good supply of activities to help children stay engaged in meaningful activities outside of their regular school hours. We will add a few seasonal COVID friendly activities as fall and winter go on, but will be focusing on new activities less frequently. Most of our activities are not age specific, but because of our efforts to offer a wide range of activities as well as ideas for adapting activities, you should be able to find activities suitable for different age groups.

Although these posts went up during the pandemic, they will always be relevant. They were specifically posted for children stuck at home, but most of them would also make great activities for afterschool and week-end programs. Sharing information about out-of-school time curricula has been identified as a strategic goal in our three year plan, so expect to see more links to awesome out-of-school time activities for all children in the year and years to come.

Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay devoted to making the world an enriching place for all children–Mary Anna Dunn, Director.

Virtual and Social Distancing Enrichment Fall 2020


Access to enriching activities for all children and youth has never been more important. And it has never been more challenging. Out-of-school time providers have outdone themselves in rising to the challenge. We’ve created a new web-page to share what we learn about programs offering virtual and social distancing activities, with regular updates through the fall.

This list is not exhaustive. We are reaching out to local programs and will update this post regularly. If you know of a program that should be added to this list, please contact us at Please also contact us if we have missing or inaccurate information about your program.

Poetry and Pop Part 3

Canyon Moon.

Writers in Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Adaptive Recreation‘s summer camp identified Harry Styles as a favorite musician. I felt that “Canyon Moon” offered an opportunity to explore descriptive language in landscape poetry.

As you watch this lyrics video, pay attention to the colors the lyricist uses.

(Note to helpers, YouTube might follow this with viewing with suggestions for videos you consider inappropriate. You may want to monitor minors).

Now read, “Girl Riding a Horse in a Field of Sunflowers,” by David Allan Evens. His poem is awash in color. The poet also adds some details from the landscape to help us see the place: sunflowers, lake, trees, brush.

Even though the song and poem are about scenery (moon rising in a canyon, girl riding through a field of sunflowers) they are also about feelings. Without coming right out and saying it, both writers let us know that they feel sad when they are separated from someone.

What is a place that you really love?

For the next activity, you will need an image of a place in nature that you really love. Here are just a few examples of places in nature: beach, garden, lake, woods. (A note to helpers: for poets who need visual cues, consider providing photographs of several places you know the poets love and letting them pick one. Or choose from this small collection of Place Images).

Write a poem that lets readers know what it feels like to be there.

Your feeling doesn’t have to be directly about the place. It can be about something you or someone else is thinking about.

Remember to use colors and details to help us see where you are.

Harry Styles repeats the same sentence several times. This is a technique used often by songwriters, but poets sometimes use that strategy as well. You might want to try repeating sentences in your poem.

These Pre-writing and Template pages can be useful in getting you started. You might decide just to do Page 1 and then write a poem without a template, but if you need one, pick a template to get you going.

A Note to Helpers

Some poets may need support writing their poems, but of course we all want to allow the poets to express themselves. Our Notes to Helpers offer suggestions for providing support only to the extent it is needed.

Poetry and Pop.2

Firework, Part 2

August 5

Firework is a song that uses a lot of comparisons to explain feelings. “Like a plastic bag/drifting through the wind.” “Like a house of cards/One blow from caving in.” Comparisons can make writing much more powerful than simple statements. How boring this song would have been if she had said, “Do you ever feel sad and insignificant? Like your world isn’t stable?”

Poets and Songwriters Love Comparisons

OPTION A. Grab a piece of paper. Write down 2-3 emotions, next to each emotion write or draw an image to go with it. An example from “Firework” might be “Sad. Plastic bag drifting.” An example from your imagination might be “Happy. A vase of sunflowers.”

OPTION B. If you’re the kind of person who likes to have suggestions, download this Metaphor and Simile Think Sheet.

Poets Don’t Always Say things Directly. Read A Blessing, by James Wright. At the very end of the poem, what do you think he is feeling? And what is he comparing himself to (hint: what could break into blossom)?

Write a Poem about Your Feelings

As mentioned, Perry uses a LOT of comparisons in “Firework”. Poets tend to prefer to use fewer comparisons. Pick one of your comparisons and use it to write a poem about a feeling.

Poets usually break their lines before they get to the end of the page. You can learn more about line breaks and white space through this video.

Option A. Write a poem about a feeling. Use a comparison to help your reader understand what the feeling is like. Use some strong action verbs to talk about what you do when you feel that way. Remember to think about where you want to break your lines.

Option B. If you need some ideas try one of these Poem Prompts. And here are great “doing words” you might want to use in your poem.

Poetry and Pop, Part 1

July 26, Sound in Firework

We just finished a poetry workshop with Charlottesville Parks and Recreation’s Adaptive Rec Day Camp. The workshop was so much fun I thought I’d share our activities here.

Our workshops always starts with a pop song, chosen by participants in current and past workshops. We look at devices lyricists use to make their writing powerful. Then we read a poem that uses similar techniques. Finally, participants write poems of their own.

The different options provided with these activities are intended to make them accessible to children and youth of all ages, all interests, and all abilities. Materials are included to assist writers with developmental differences.

For the first two posts, I will share activities based on “Firework”, by Kate Perry. Next, I will share activities based on a song our Adaptive Rec campers chose.

Repeating Sounds

Kate Perry  often uses near (or slant rhyme) instead of full rhyme. The “in” in “wind” is repeated in “again.” The words almost rhyme, but they are not “full rhymes” because they don’t have the same final letter.

Listen to “Firework” by Kate Perry, reading the lyrics as you go.

Notice how she repeats the short “i” as in wind and the long “i” as in “light.”  Listen for other repeated sounds, too, as well as repeated words and phrases. Repetition makes poetry and lyrics sound good.

Poets also use near rhyme. Read and listen to rhyme in “Snail” by Langston Hughes, What full and near rhymes pair with “go?”

If you would like to know more about repeating vowel and consonant sounds in song lyrics and poetry, read about assonance, consonance, and alliteration.

Some Poems Are Written to a Person or Thing

“Firework” and “Snail” are both examples of a kind of writing called an “apostrophe,” or an address to someone or something. “Do you ever feel….?” Kate Perry asks someone. We aren’t sure who it is — maybe the listener. When Langston Hughes says “Dreaming you go…” we know from the title and first line that he’s talking to a snail.

Write a Poem to an Animal

Write a poem to an animal. Think about where it is (the snail is on a rose) and what it does (the snail crawls along the rose, drinking dew). Here’s a “Talking to an Animal Think Sheet” if you’d like some help getting ideas for your poem.

Now the fun part. These “Poem Prompts” are options for you to use as you turn your ideas into poetry. The first is a very open-ended prompt. The next two provide more structure. For this poem, we ask you to focus on near rhyme and other forms of repeated sounds.

We’ve provided a Word Bank, in case you need it. The words are color-coded by sounds, so if you pick words that are the same color, you will have repeated sounds in your poem. If writing things by hand is a challenge, these words can be printed onto standard mailing labels, such as Avery 8160, so you can peel them off and paste them down to write your poem.

There are also numerous website to help you find rhymes and near rhyme. Rhymedesk is a family friendly website. Rhymezone is an uncensored website, but it offers options for poets looking only for near rhyme. You can find more options by entering “rhyming dictionary” in your search engine.

A Note to Helpers

Some poets may need support writing their poems, but of course we all want to allow the poets to express themselves. Our Notes to Helpers offer suggestions for providing support only to the extent it is needed.

Cool and Cooling During COVID-19

July 22

Temperatures this week are in the upper 90s. Around here the pools, lakes, and spray parks are closed, but even if they are opening where you are, with new cases of COVID on the rise, you may be looking for ways to play it cool at home. Here are a few outdoor activities for hot weather.

  • Put it on Ice. These way cool activities did not come with a warning that prolonged direct contact with ice on the skin can cause tissue damage. Well, it can. Please read this first and provide tools and supervision!
  • Water Balloon Mayhem. “What? Balloons,” you may be saying. “Do you know the harm they can do to the environment?” Yes. Here are three options for eco-friendly balloons that may work better than conventional ones anyway.
  • Spray it On. The spray parks may be closed, but that can’t stop the good times. Please combine fun and environmental stewardship. Play near a garden in need of watering. Set a time limit on activities involving running water and maybe add a valve to the nozzle of your hose.
    • Grab a squirt gun or any squirt toy for some games that won’t dampen your spirits.
    • Playing in the hose is classic kid fun. You can change it up a little by making it a game of tag or water limbo .
    • Okay, this may be for people with too much time and PVC piping on their hands but I couldn’t resist the PVC spray park. Could this be made with enough flexibility that the kids could develop design skills by changing things up some? Maybe some valves and movable parts?

Shadow Shows

July 19

You don’t need anything more than hands and a light source to create a magnificent theatrical production. Don’t believe it? Watch this video.

Now that you’ve got the idea, see what you can do.

Get started with some easy hand puppets that are not any less amazing for their simplicity.

Below are two videos that are more complex, including a panther, which you can use to make your own Pink Panther video.

This is just a beginning. Enter “hand shadow puppets” in your search engine, for more shows and tutorials. With no money and a cast of one, you can put on a fantastic show.

Drive Through Enrichment

Just Passing Through.

Virginia is opening up, but the number of new infections keeps increasing. If you’d rather stay in your car, you can still enjoy some fun summer activities.

Virginia Safari Park has always been a drive through experience. Although there are opportunities to get out of the car, they are by no means essential to having a great experience at a park where the animals roam outside your vehicle. You can buy a bucket of feed to offer the creatures through your window, but don’t come in a brand new car! You WILL get feed all over everything. Bring hand-wipes and plenty of coins for the nearest car vacuum. During the pandemic, tickets must be purchased online.

An Abbreviated African-American History tour in Alexandria may leave you eager to come back when more is open, but according to The Washington Post, there are some stops of the current tour that “are moving sites to be seen and history to be discovered, even if you’re just looking at explanatory markers outside the public library where a sit-in took place in 1939. What the driving tour and the guide do well is recount another side of the city’s story, which has so often been centered on names like Lee and Carlyle.” –Washington Post, July 9.

There’s virtually no limit to the number of scenic drives in Virginia. Enjoy the coast, the mountains, or historic battlegrounds and countryside. Or if you want to try something more random, type “Random Location” in your app store to find apps that will route you to a random location. On your app you can designate how far you are willing to drive.