The Power of Learning – Through Play (and Board Games)

The Power of Learning - Through Play (and Board Games)

The Power of Learning – Through Play

(and Board Games)

This post was written by guest contributor Chrissy Wissler.


If you’re a parent, then there’s a good chance you’ve heard a thing or two about play—and how important play is for our children’s development.

Of course, this thing called “play” isn’t necessarily easy to define (even among researchers) and of course each of us as parents have our own life experiences. It’s also possible our attitudes and beliefs regarding play—what play is, what it should look like, even when it’s allowed—are different. You may have never considered the unbelievably powerful learning tool we have at our fingertips – playing board games.

And to be clear: I’m not just talking math and reasoning and logic. Board games go deeper than this. They can teach patience, lessen anxiety, or even help a child to work through their anxiety. Games can teach (and allow practice for) negotiation, compromise, empathy, and so much more. All these things aren’t necessarily taught in schools, yet we can teach them at home with our kids.

Chrissy and daughter

Do I Have Your Attention, Parents?

I hope so because I’m certainly excited. These are exactly the kinds of skills I want to be teaching and supporting in my kids. Because frankly these are the kinds of skills I’m constantly using as an adult. But before we dive into all that (and I promise—we will), let me outline what you can expect from this article—actually this series of articles.

Truly I could write whole books about play, its importance in our children’s developing brains, how play has greatly declined here in the United States, and on. But there are many other professionals who’ve already done this work and their research is quite astonishing. Instead, I will give you a general overview of how children learn through play and how one board game publisher, HABA, has made learning through play the very core of their business model.

Why HABA?

HABA has been awarded for their top-quality, child-oriented board game designs, receiving the German Wooden Toy Design Prize, Game of the Year, and the German Games Prize. (If you’re in the board game world, you’ve probably heard of the Kinderspiel des Jahres – HABA has won quite a few of these, and been nominated or recommended nearly every year.)

We’ll be taking a closer look at some of HABA’s games— Brandon the Brave, Monza, Tiny Park, and Animal Upon Animal—and the foundational skills your kids will be learning every time they play these different games.

Because our kids learn through play—and through board games.

What is Play?

In order to talk deeper about play and how kids learn, we first need to know what play is. Frankly, even the researchers don’t have a consensus on what defines play. For our purposes and for these articles, we’ll be using the Children’s Museum of Minnesota definition as our baseline:

Playing Animal upon Animal
Playing a game, or simply building

Play is pleasurable for the child. They must enjoy the activity, otherwise it’s not play.

Children are intrinsically motivated to play. They play for the simple joy of play itself; they play because they want to play.

Play is process oriented, which means the actual process of the play, the doing of it, is more important to kids than the end result.

Kids are actively engaged in play at all times, either physically or mentally (or again… it’s not play).

Play is also non-literal—which means it involves make-believe.

If you’re a parent, you’re thinking about your child right now. You can probably relate to most of these (if not all). And while many of us inherently know that play is important for a child’s growth, we may not fully understand the actual implications of play.

Play actually sets the stage for our kids’ future learning and successes – all the way from kindergarten to adulthood.

What Play Teaches

When children play, they’re learning and practicing dozens of cognitive skills, everything from language and problem solving to creativity and self-regulation. Then there’s the social and emotional growth children get to practice during play, such as learning to negotiate and compromise with others.

If you think back to your days on the playground, making up some game like the floor is lava, all the kids you’re playing with need to agree on the game and the rules of the game. If not, no one will play with you.

That’s a pretty powerful motivation to learn those skills, don’t you think?

Play also allows children to cope with fear, anger, and frustration. When you look closer at pretend play, children have the ability to play act some area of their life they might be struggling with. Maybe they’re having a hard time at school with the other kids, maybe they’re struggling with a teacher; so they want to be the teacher in a game. Or maybe they’re dealing with loss in the family, perhaps a favorite pet or missing toy. In this way, play has opened the door for them to revisit and understand this challenging experience. They get to practice regulating their emotions along with empathy for others—and for themselves.

There are, of course, traditionally recognized areas of play—like block building and running and jumping—which help to develop fine and gross motor skills.

Playing Pyramix
Building fine motor skills… but also strategic thinking and empathy.

Why Play?

Through play, our children develop a lasting disposition to learn—and hopefully, if we do our jobs right, they will develop a life-long love of learning.

In all these different types of play, whether it’s exploratory play or pretend play or physical play, children are doing this in a safe and risk-free environment. They get to experiment, to take chances and risks in a place where it’s safe to fail, and to get up and try again. (And that’s developing and practicing resilience.) Kids know they’re in a safe place, which in turn helps them grow confident in their abilities to solve problems, and to become divergent thinkers (they learn there’s not just one solution to a problem).

All this they’ll carry with them long into adulthood.

What About Board Games?

But how do board games fit into this? How do kids learn through playing board games, especially now that we’ve expanded our definition of play?

That’s exactly what we’re going to examine over these next four articles.

What’s Special About HABA Games?

HABA has a full staff of designers (whom they call ‘inventors’), who put the importance of learning through play as a priority. They pour this knowledge and understanding of childhood development into the design of their games. Each HABA game focuses on what a child can developmentally accomplish at different stages. And while there are general learning themes that carry over from game to game, each one has its own unique focus and skill set for your developing child.

HABA has worked hard to make their games both playful and fun for children, where fun is the primary factor and all the learning that happens is secondary.

Because if it’s not fun, it’s not play.

So what do you think? Want to go on this learning journey with me? Stay tuned for a closer look at what our young kids are learning when they sit down at the table with us and play board games!

Playing at the HABA booth - PAX Unplugged 2019
HABA games capture the imagination of kids of all ages.

More Resources

 If you’re interested in learning more about how children learn through play, I highly recommend you read this article published by the Minnesota Children’s Museum.

Other fantastic resources are Free to Learn by Peter Gray, Play by Dr. Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan, and just about any book by John Holt (our favorites are How Children Learn and Learning All the Time).


Chrissy Wissler is a professional writer of fiction, parenting blogs and raising differently-wired kids, and also—a gamer. She runs the Homeschool Board Game Club in Torrance, California, sharing her love of games and supporting kids with the community. If you’d like to learn more, check out: facebook.com/chrissykidsboardgames and ChrissyWissler.com.

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