Developing Critical Thinking through Play: Bananagrams

By , January 11, 2010

This Christmas we received a game called Bananagrams. After playing it these past weeks, I’ve realized it’s an excellent way to learn critical thinking skills while having fun.

Chess is the game most commonly associated with critical thinking. Certainly, there are few games that require so much thought. The only “chance” in chess is an opponent’s mistake in his/her planning and strategy, or inability to analyze the best possible moves within a reasonable amount of time.

Chess, then, is probably the ultimate game for teaching critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most ego-involved games ever—one’s self esteem is so integrally entwined in chess play that many people avoid it altogether. That’s particularly true in my family. I’ve had a long, mixed relationship with the game. Aly is teaching herself, but would rather play against her computer than against me.

Bananagrams could be an alternative to chess in the sense that it teaches critical thinking skills without threatening one’s self esteem.

Bananagrams is a variant of Scrabble. Players use letter tiles to create a crossword grid of their own that uses all available letters.

The game’s structure appeals to me because a player builds the best words they can, using the available tiles. Each time they draw more tiles (one at a time) the requirements change as possibilities expand. What had been the best words will shift as additional “material” creates new, better possibilities. Each player must think flexibly, looking beyond the patterns they’ve previously set to imagine something better. They must take the structure they’ve established in new and different directions. What’s been played may need to be torn down in order to be rearranged to better advantage. The game is about pushing the envelope, looking at what is there, and imagining what might be. It requires one to be willing and able to shift one’s paradigm.

Pretty heady stuff for a simple game that employs banana puns for different elements of play, but it works. Bananagrams is also very comfortable for non-competitive types like us, as each person has their own project. There are no turns to wait for, no scoring. It can even be played as solitaire. Its portable structure (the whole game fits into a coat pocket) makes it easy to take along and play when and where we like.

Besides the critical thinking aspect, there’s also the obvious benefit of developing vocabulary and spelling. These qualities shouldn’t be ignored, either.

Developing critical thinking is very important to me, and Bananagrams is a fun way to develop these skills. I’m still holding out hope for chess, though.

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