Monday, January 7, 2008

Teaching Strategy to Five-Year-Olds

Now, some would say that five-year-olds can be pretty crafty, and I would agree with them. I would respond that a cat can be pretty crafty too; but you don't generally try to teach them chess.

So anyway, just before our unexpected trip to Southern California last week, I figured it was time to teach the Pillowfight Fairy how to play a strategy game.

Now, we don't play a lot of board games around here. I played them a fair amount when I was growing up; but I haven't had many ready opponents in recent years. My wife and I don't generally enjoy the same kinds of games, for one thing; I'm the kind that goes for pure strategy, like Chess or Stratego; my wife is more the kind to go for word games, like Scrabble. And there are a bunch of really good boardgames out there (like Clue, or Risk, or Monopoly--known in Tonya's family as Monotony, given how long it takes to finish a typical game) that really require more than just two people. It's often a big hassle to get a game night organized, given that there's Tonya, and me... and three kids who are at an age where they need a whole lot of supervision. I suspect Game Night at our house would resemble nothing so much as several rounds of that Chessboxing sport that I blogged about back in November.

Besides which, I have a really competitive streak that I'm not particularly proud of. That is, I get really invested in the game, to the point where I start feeling dark and evil feelings toward my opponent. I get so invested that my own sense of self-worth starts to get tied to how well I'm doing. If my opponent(s) deliver me an embarrassing defeat, I become, well... embarrassed. A couple of years back I was involved in a game of Risk with a bunch of old friends, among whom I'd somehow gained a reputation as some kind of strategic genius; but I hadn't played Risk in a long time, and misjudged my position, and played too aggressively, and spread myself too thin, and wound up getting wiped off the board long before anyone else. They were all surprised that Suuuuuper-Genius got knocked out so early; and frankly, I was too. It smarted. I admit it, I'm something of a sore loser.

(That is, I'm only a sore loser in strategy games. I was actually rather amused by my low placement in the recent Homeschool Blogger Awards.)

So I tend to shy away from strategy games these days. I can be pretty good at them, but I don't like the way I feel about myself after I've finished them.

Nevertheless, I remember that my own Dad taught me to play Chess when I was in the second grade; and I knew how to play Checkers, and a bunch of others, well before that. And the Pillowfight Fairy received a few strategy board games for her birthday, so I figured it was time to start teaching her to play. We started with something simple: Tic-Tac-Toe.

Now, when I was growing up, Tic-Tac-Toe was something that was just played on a piece of paper with a pencil. But apparently that's not sophisticated enough for some people; my wife found a carved, painted wooden set as she was shopping for Christmas. Good Grief! What will they think of next?

So she bought it.

Her reasoning was that the Adrenaline Junkie would probably learn better with the pieces she can manipulate by hand, as she's not very deft with a pencil yet. Yeah, yeah; leave it to my wife to come up with a practical reason for whatever it is....

I pulled it out and undid the shrink-wrap, and then noticed it: there are five O's, and only four X's. What's up with that? Everyone knows the X's are supposed to go first, and that means there have to be five of them! Who designed this set?

(Answer: someone who figured that it costs less money to carve O's than X's. After all, with O's all you have to do is drill-press through the center of a big dowel. With X's, you have to attach your Dado-head blade to your table saw and make a whole bunch of cuts. The former is easier and thus less expensive, obviously.)

So I asked the Pillowfight Fairy whether she wanted to be X or O, and she chose X. Then I explained that we would be taking turns putting our pieces down, and that the goal was to make three in a row--and I demonstrated all the different ways that the X's could be arranged into a winning pattern. Then, with the rules (but no strategy!) explained, we started.

Red to move.

I picked the center-left space, thinking: I don't want to beat my daughter up too badly the first time we play a strategy game. So I intentionally picked a weak opening, in the hope that my daughter would be able to take advantage. After all, Tic-Tac-Toe does not require players who can look forward six moves--especially given that the O's only have five pieces to play, and the X's only have four.

Black to move.

A most promising beginning! The central square is the most strategic location in Tic-Tac-Toe; possession thereof almost guarantees that the possessor won't lose. Almost....

Red to Move.

And what was Red's move? To throw a fit: "I was going to move there!" But honey, that's the way strategy games work; I move wherever I want, then you move wherever you want that's still legal; then I move wherever I want; and each of us keeps trying to limit the other's option until one of us is crushed under the other's sheer force of logic.

Note: I didn't actually say that. I was a little more accommodating. In fact, noting the essential symmetry of the board, I magnanimously offered to move my last token to a different spot--all while noting the deadly fact that I now knew her next move in advance! (Cue loud Mwahahahahaha sound....)

Red to Move and Lose in Three (Mwahahahahaha!)

The trap thus being set, I allowed my prey to proceed apace toward her doom:

Black to Make A Big Jerk of Himself

Of course, there really is only one correct response to this move, If one is strictly following the rules of the game.

Unfortunately, it was I, playing as Black, who was being suckered into a trap. Like I mentioned in this post, "If you aren't winning, change the rules." It appears that the rules were about to change; I had underestimated my opponent, as I was about to discover.

Black About to Touch Off a Screaming Fit By Red, For Refusing To Take Back That Move!

My trap was sprung! Or so I thought. After all, if we were strictly following the rules of Formal Tic-Tac-Toe, play would proceed: "... A2, C1 Mate" or "...C1, A2 Mate".

But as (I think it was) Eisenhower once said, "If you can't solve a problem, enlarge it"--meaning, of course, that intractable problems aren't always so intractable if you widen your scope of operations. In closing off the avenues of victory in Tic-Tac-Toe, I opened up my daughter's eyes to all the other wonderful things there were to do that day. She very quickly decided that since I wouldn't recant that move (and believe me, it is not easy to explain the concept of "Touch-Move" to a five-year-old), that her Daddy was mean, and that she didn't want to play anymore, and she went off to play with all those toys with the blinking lights and annoying sounds that all her other relatives got her for Christmas.

So, we're going to have to try this more in the future. After all, after we've mastered Tic-Tac-Toe, we've got a Mancala set we haven't done much with, and Backgammon, and Dominoes, and Checkers, and (of course) Chess.

So do any of my readers have success in teaching strategy games to young players like the Pillowfight Fairy? If so, how did you go about doing it? After all, Tic-Tac-Toe is an odd place to start, because the strategy is so simple that it's only possible to win if the opponent makes errors, which simply doesn't happen once the person gets past a certain level of experience. How did you teach your kids more sophisticated strategy games?


Margie said...

I used the book "Chess for Children, Step by Step: A New, Easy Way to Learn the Game" or something like it which I got at my local library to teach my children (ages 5 and 7 at the time) the basic moves of the different peices. The peices are introduced one at a time, with their own games. After learning the basics they are able to play the real thing, although still don't grasp much of the strategy.

Timothy Power said...


This looks like a very helpful suggestion. I'll have to take a look into something like that. Thanks!

Anna said...

My 5yo received Connect Four for Christmas.
In Connect Four, the strategy is a little easier to see, there are more options, and if you took 'her' spot, there's almost always another really wonderful spot available.
Fair warning, Rachel's first move was to fill up the bottom row. Then she caught onto building up. I don't think she's learned to place diagonally yet, but there are plenty of playing options so the game's not at all boring.
Enjoy, and please update. I really enjoy reading your blog, because my own are about the same ages.

Timothy Power said...

Anna, I will certainly try to keep you updated on what happens here. Alas, I haven't had the time to follow up yet with the strategy games. We're still getting back into the swing of things after the Christmas break and the funeral of my Grandmother. And I'm already using what scarce evening time I have in giving Piano lessons to my oldest. But I will report what happens when we can actually get something started here.