Musings on Playing Games with Aby

You may or may not be aware that, professionally, I have a background in special education. I taught English and reading to students with varying exceptionalities in a large, urban high school. From serious cognitive delays to extreme emotional disturbances, my students had a multitude of learning disabilities. Given my love for board games and the love of my students, it only made sense that I’d want to merge the two. I have periodically been aligning specific games to the Common Core to make them more “sexy” for classroom use. By sexy, I of course mean being able to link them to standards and data and all that fun stuff “the man” says demonstrates learning. I agree to an extent. It is my firm belief that board games can have an infinitely positive impact on learning. But this post isn’t about how board games can enhance the academic environment of students with disabilities. This post is about how board games can enrich the lives of people with disabilities. Let me tell you about Aby.

IMG_7274Long before I ever thought of becoming a teacher, I knew a girl named Aby. Aby was adopted by an incredibly loving woman named Flo. From the onset Aby had a multitude of problems. I can’t remember exactly what her numerous surgeries were for as a baby, but I know she had several. The doctors said she would probably never be able to talk and her cognitive delays would be significant. You see, Aby has Down syndrome, and many of her difficulties are common for people with that extra chromosome. Aby, of course, didn’t know she had Down syndrome, so she went through life being happy and feeling loved. With great care and determination, Aby learned sign language and ultimately to talk. She attended public schools and was in inclusive classes up until middle school when she transitioned into resource classes where the focus was on life skills rather than academics. She continued on through high school, graduating and going onto a program for people with disabilities. It hasn’t always been easy for her, but she has persevered and blossomed into the beautiful, gosh, 22 year old she is today.

I recently went home to Florida to visit family and friends. Much to my delight, I hosted three game nights at my parents’ house. Flo and Aby were all set to attend the first game night, but there was a school function that took precedence. Needless to say, I was bummed, but I still had a fun night with my stepmom and aunt. The next game night was with my stepmom and dad. Finally, on that third night, Flo and Aby came over for games. I was pretty stoked.

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The tentative plan for the night was fairly simple:

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We didn’t get to play all of these games, but we had a fantastic time nonetheless. There is nothing more infectious than the sound of true joy, and I got to hear it a lot that night.

First, we played Tier auf Tier, which is dexterity game by Klaus Miltenberger where players are trying to stack animals upon each other to complete secret goal cards. I have the balancing bridge version of the game, which means that players are trying to stack the animals on each other on a narrow bridge.

My stepmom initially questioned my choice because she wanted to play “real” games. Perhaps I should’ve shared that I was planning this night entirely around Aby before that point, but she quickly approved of my decision.

IMG_7278Aby was immediately drawn to the animal pieces. I explained the rules once, and she was ready to jump in. I honestly couldn’t tell you what her favorite part of the game was whether it was rolling the dice or picking the animal from a given area or stacking them on the bridge. She had a bit of difficulty understanding how the animals on the goal cards needed to touch; she kept thinking they simply needed to be on the bridge when, in fact, they needed to be continuously touching one another. Regardless, she paid attention to her goal cards before picking an animal from the box. She looked at her card, in the box, at her card again, and at the animals. She then looked at the animal in hand, her card, the animal in hand, and placed it on the bridge. Throughout the entire placement of an animal, she made a silly little nervous squealing noise. Once it was down, a “yes!” of relief. Sometimes a hand clap.  In any event, it was fairly obvious she understood the point of the game and wanted to win it.

IMG_7289No sooner had I finished packing up Tier auf Tier did Aby ask me if we could play Ka-Boom. She was so excited, I assumed she had played it before. I asked if she had, and she said, “No, it just looks like a lot of fun!” How am I supposed to turn that down? Schedule be damned!

Ka-Boom, designed by Roberto and Florence Fraga, is another dexterity game where one player is the master builder and has one minute (it might be 30 seconds) to build towers on the tiles on the table. Meanwhile, all the other players are shooting dice at the tower(s) hoping to knock them over preventing the master builder from scoring.

I explained the rules, and Aby understood them no problem. The one rule we did change for her was the building with one hand thing. Fine motor skills have always been difficult for her, and it’s not like it drastically changed the game. This might not even be a real rule, but it’s how we play it. Anyway. We also let her shoot more than three dice at a time because the fun she had while doing it was worth letting her shoot an infinite amount of dice. Spatial reasoning was her biggest issue with this game. She had difficulty placing some of the pieces. For example, she might place it on its side instead of straight up and down. A simple cue, and she fixed it. It wasn’t a huge barrier. I was delightfully surprised at how well she handled not being able to finish a tower or when one of hers got knocked over. She shrugged it off if she didn’t finish and laughed when it fell. It was great to see.

I could tell my stepmom was getting antsy at this point, so I decided to switch over to Tajemnicze Domostwo better known as us non-Polish speakers as Mysterium. Aby had played Dixit before, and IMG_7292she commented on how the art was similar to Dixit, which is how I found out she had played it before. Color me ecstatic.

Mysterium is a deduction game designed by Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko. It’s basically a cross between Dixit and Clue in that players are trying to solve the how, where, and who aspects of a  murder. One player is the ghost and gives clues to each player using illustrated cards.

Aby picked up the rules easily. My stepmom volunteered to be the ghost and we began trying to solve the mystery. Aby never ceases to amaze me, and this game was no different. She was very active and vocal in the discussion of the clue cards. She explained her logic in a constructive and mature way. She wanted to solve the puzzle and worked hard to do so. There were even a few times when Flo and I didn’t think she was right, but it turns out she was. If only we had listened! We ended up solving the murder, and Aby wanted to play again immediately as the ghost. My stepmom convinced her to try another game since Mysterium was their game (like a good daughter, I bought it for them for Christmas – they’re welcome).

That brought us to 6 nimmt! I had originally planned on having her be on my team while we IMG_7298played, but we had her play with her hand face up, so everyone could help her understand how to play.

6 nimmt! is a card game by Wolfgang Kramer. Players try to play their cards down to the center tableau without having to take cards with bullheads. Bullheads are points, and once someone has a given amount, they lose, and the game ends (by the real rules). We played the two-round variant where the player with the lowest score at the end wins.

This game was probably the hardest for Aby to understand. Choosing from 10 cards might have been a bit overwhelming. As I mentioned previously, we had her play with all her cards up, so we could help her choose which card to play. We always started with her choosing the card she thought would be best. We then talked her through why it was a good decision or not. Again, she openly participated in these discussions without incident. She really wanted to understand the game. She really wanted to win but wasn’t a poor sport unless of course one of the rest of us had to take a row with a lot of bullheads. Then, she laughed and laughed. It was the best losing at 6 nimmt! I’ve ever done.

As the night wound down, Flo and my stepmom went to got talk in the kitchen. With little IMG_7315effort, I convinced Aby to play Rhino Hero with me.

Rhino Hero was the third dexterity game of the night for us and is designed by Scott Frisco and Steven Strumpf. Players are trying to build a tower with cards. Cards have variable powers one of which is moving the superhero rhino up the tower.

The only power cards I played with was the rhino card because it was easiest. I wanted her to be able to fully enjoy her last game of the night and worry about anything other than being silly and having fun. We easily built six towers, and boy, did she love it. It was the most she had giggled all night. When she finished building a floor, she laughed and cheered for herself. She held her breath when placing cards, so she wouldn’t knock the tower over. She laughed the hardest when the tower fell. It was the perfect game to end the night.

Aby has always been a happy person, but there was something extremely fulfilling in watching her play and enjoy the games. It was beyond tolerance for she truly wanted to play them. It was beyond complacency because she was fully engaging in all aspects of the game – strategy, conversation, you name it, she was participating. She was thriving.

Contrary to popular belief, people with disabilities are not all that different than people without disabilities. Their basic needs are similar: food, water, lead a life full of happiness. Sure, their specific needs might be different. Maybe they have Down syndrome or are in a wheelchair or have dyslexia. Obviously those come with varying levels of acceptance and accommodation, but here’s the thing: it’s not all that hard to accept and accommodate. Even crazier, they might not even need accommodations, just your acceptance. While Aby has gone further than doctors originally projected, she still has a lot special needs. Despite her perceived setbacks, she did a remarkable job. She has memory and comprehension problems, yet she understood five new sets of rules in one night. She has never been good at losing, yet she laughed and even sassed some (love!) when bad things happened in a game.

What did it take on my part? What did I need to do to provide a few hours of laughter and happy memories for Aby, a woman with Down syndrome? I needed to make the time and show her the patience. That’s all it took: a little time and patience on my part. In return? Well, I can’t say for certain, but the hug she gave me while saying “Thanks Rannin for being so fun and playing games with me” leads me to believe that what she got from that night goes far beyond anything I could write about here.