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7 best board games to help children think big
Like sneaking veggies into dessert, these board games teach STEM, strategy, and executive functions through the joys of play.
- Many popular board games offer little more than colorful distractions, lacking both thoughtful design or quality learning principles.
- However, the recent board game renaissance has resulted in a host of new games that teach children a range of hard and soft skills through play.
- We look at some of the best new board games and offer tips to find even more.
Monopoly is the worst. No, we're not talking protracted game sessions or sore losers tossing the board across the room like a vengeful titan. We're talking game design.
Thing is, Monopoly asks little thought from its players. They roll the dice, move the appropriate number of spaces, and whether that move helps or hinders their game is ultimately a matter of luck. The only true strategy is to trick, exploit, or intimidate fellow players into making deals against their best interests. (We said it was bad game design, not that it wasn't true to the metropolitan real estate milieu.)
Nor does Monopoly stand alone. Many classic board games fail to engage children beyond bright colors and rote play. Trouble, Mouse Trap, and The Game of Life require little of players beyond leaving the pips to divine success or failure—what game enthusiasts call "roll your dice, move your mice."
Parents looking for something more in their children's entertainment are in luck. We're currently living through a board game renaissance. New games come out yearly that help children develop skills in STEM, strategy, and executive functions. Less about luck and more about engaging with core mechanics, these games challenge children to plan their moves around probability, cause and effect, and reading other players.
Two quick notes on our thought process. First, to keep this family friendly, every game here can be played with at least four players. This means otherwise excellent board games like Go and Chess will be absent. The games also need to be playable by the average 10-year-old. Sorry, Twilight Imperium. We love you, but your table-top spread is too intimidating for this list.
Settlers of Catan
Settlers of Catan is Monopoly done right. The game tasks players with settling the island of Catan by securing the resources to build roads and settlements. Children must plan around the probability that they can extract the resources necessary to meet their rural-planning goals. If they can't extract a resource, they'll need to trade with others in nonzero-sum deals. Unlike Monopoly, Settlers' mechanics prevent a single Uncle Pennybags from hording everything for himself.
Yet, Settlers' best quality is its infinite replayability. The game's board features hexagonal tiles that can be rearranged to keep the experience fresh, and its many expansions add new gameplay elements. This requires children to master the the game's mechanics, not its exploits.
Settlers of Catan by Kosmos/Catan Studio. Designed by Klaus Teuber. 3-4 players (standard game). Winner of Spiel des Jahres Game of the Year (1995). (Photo: Catan Studio)
"[Settlers is] teaching Americans that board games don't have to be either predictable fluff aimed at kids or competitive, hyperintellectual pastimes for eggheads," wrote Wired magazine. "Through the complex, artful dance of algorithms and probabilities lurking at its core, Settlers manages to be effortlessly fun, intuitively enjoyable, and still intellectually rewarding."
Parents of younger children should consider Catan Junior. This reimagining reduces the complexity of trading and building, while maintaining the core principles. It even includes the one thing the other games on this list lack: a ghost pirate.
In Evolution, players shepherd an entire species through its evolutionary history in the hopes of staving off extinction. To do so, they'll need to evolve the species' traits to meet ecological limitations while outmaneuvering their opponents' ever-adapting beasties.
The game introduces children to biological concepts, such as adaptations and evolutionary arms race, with an airy excitement that's certainly lighter than a textbook.
Evolution by North Star Games. Designed by Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, and Sergey Machin. 2-6 players (standard game). (Photo: North Star Games)
"Evolution features sophisticated biology. Traits can be put together in a dizzying array of combinations, so each game can be very different. The theme of evolution is not just tacked on: it drives play," writes Stuart West, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Oxford, for Nature.
Like Settlers, younger siblings can enjoy a toned-down version of the game, Evolution: the Beginning.
Don your crown! In Kingdomino, children play as royalty trying to carve out the most valuable kingdom in all the land. Drawing dominoes that feature differing landscape types, they'll have to construct their kingdoms one piece at a time.
Simple enough, but the game requires foresight and executive planning to succeed. Players who pick the least valuable property this round may have first dibs the next. And with only a 5x5 grid to work in, children will need to learn spatial organization skills to know which land type to invest in.
Add to that a multiplication-based scoring system reinforcing mathematics, and you've got some quality learning for all knee-high kings and queens.
Kingdomino by Blue Orange Games. Designed by Bruno Cathala. 2-4 players (standard game). Winner of Spiel des Jahres Game of the Year (2017). (Photo: Kevin Damske/Wikimedia)
This one's for the younger kiddos. Dragonwood tasks players with venturing into the titular forest to fight vicious yet cartoon-y monsters. The game centers on collecting cards in runs, pairs, or color combinations that allow players to attack. The more enemies they defeat, the higher their score.
Dragonwood has a fair amount of luck involved, as kids never know what they'll draw. Yet, this mechanic in turn teaches children to adapt their strategy based on the resources available.
It further combines probability and risk-reward with decision making. A child may want to tackle that dragon before another player gets the chance, but if they wait to draw another card, they may be able to attack with an additional die, increasing the chances of success. Decisions, decisions.
Dragonwood Promo Trailer www.youtube.com
And now something for the older crowd. 7 Wonders puts players in charge of an ancient kingdom currently constructing one of the Ancient Wonders of the World. They'll have to manage their kingdoms' armies, trade, natural resources, and civic institutions, while checking the clout of those dastardly civilizations in the offing.
What's great about 7 Wonders is its many pathways to victory. A kingdom can dominate through trade, scientific advancement, civil development, and military conquest. Since players take turns drawing from a shared pool of cards, they must consider how their choices not only affect their kingdom, but their opponents'. As a bonus, it introduces children to some of history's most fascinating civilizations.
7 Wonders by Repos Production. Designed by Antoine Bauza. 2-7 players (standard game). Winner of the Spiel des Jahres connoisseurs' award (2011). (Photo: Schezar/Flickr)
Century: Golem Edition
If your rascals ever wanted to create giant golems to do their chores, then here's their game. In Century: Golem Edition, players embody a caravan leader who must trade for magic crystals to create these larger-than-life creatures. Each one nets victory points, and whoever has the most impressive gaggle of golems wins.
The game features hand-building mechanics, meaning children will need to collect cards that synergize well. The key to success is to craft a hand that allows for quick acquisition or transmutation of crystals. Without careful planning and an understanding of how cards play in sequence, another player may snag that much coveted golem.
Century: Golem Edition by Plan B Games. Designed by Emerson Matsuuchi. 2-5 players. (Photo: Plan B Games)
Arguably the most eye-catching game on this list, Photosynthesis is all about planting trees. Using sunlight as a resource, players must plot a forest to prevent their opponents from rooting in on their territory. The more of the forest that belongs to their species of tree, the higher their score. But to succeed, children will need to develop spatial organization skills and an understanding of how members of an ecology affect one another.
Like Evolution, this game is about introducing children to science with fun, colorful presentation. Children become horticulturists and discover botanical concepts like, well, photosynthesis with playful mechanics.
Photosynthesis Board Game
What board game to play next?
These seven board games will get your family's collection started, but as we said, we're living through a table-top renaissance. Many great games could have found a home on this list: Azul, Dominion, Carcassonne, Splendor, and Ticket to Ride to name a few. And we could have added even more by considering different skills, such as the jazzy creativity of Dixit or the jolly cooperation of Forbidden Desert, or looking at a wider age range.
But with new games coming out every year, many of them excellently designed, the contemporary board game scene can be as unnerving as it is promising. The paradox of choice tells us too many options can foster anxiety, and resplendent box art looks nice on a shelf but tells you nothing about the game inside.
To help, here are a couple tips for finding the best board game for your family:
Look to the awards. In the board game world, the Spiel des Jahres holds all the prestige of an Academy Award (sans the needless self-importance). Some of the best board games have claimed the award, among them Kingdomino and Settlers of Catan. Another one to research is the Mensa Select. Presented by Mensa Mind Games, this award goes to games with designs that are both creative and mentally challenging.
Try before you buy. With the recent increase in board game sales, community toy, hobby, and comic book stores house more board games than ever before. These stores often feature demonstration events or house store copies you can play. Some library chains have started to diversify their board game collections, too.
Visit BoardGameGeek. BoardGameGeek is an online database and forum. It offers gameplay information, age rankings, and complexity ratings. You can also find reviews written by parents and game enthusiasts. These reviews will often feature in-depth discussions of gameplay and mechanics, which can help you determine if a game is right for your family.
With these tips, you can find the best board game for your family, one that will hopefully become a new classic.
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All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.