Three years ago, every fourth- and fifth-grade class received copies of a bingo-like game called Take It Easy. Students played the game during instructional time and rainy day recesses, eagerly placing tiles marked with numbers on their boards. Then they computed their scores by multiplying the tiles by the lengths of the lines they created.
When the fifth-graders took the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) exams at the end of the 2001-02 year, 70 percent passed the math portion -- 41 percent more fifth-graders than passed the previous year.
Although Take It Easy cannot claim all the credit for the students' success, Principal Marcia Baldanza says board games have had a remarkable impact on the school.
While students at other elementary schools may occasionally pull out a childhood classic such as Candy Land, board games have become as much a part of Patrick Henry students' daily lives as No. 2 pencils. The students play games before the morning bell, enjoy them along with their tater tots at lunch, stick around after school for game clubs, and even compete against their parents at family game nights.
"When we play games, we're not just fooling around," said fourth-grader Saba Amiri, 8. "We're learning as we're having fun."
A board game beats a worksheet any day, said Patrick Henry teacher John Perlman, a first- and second-grade reading specialist.
"It gives children a chance to talk to each other," Perlman said. "They teach communication and sportsmanship," he said, not to mention computational skills, historical knowledge and strategic thinking. "Most teachers here try to incorporate games -- stuff that would knock your socks off."
The concept of instructing children through games is far from revolutionary, yet few -- if any -- schools have allowed teaching toys the level of visibility they get at Patrick Henry.
"It's an old idea," said Steven Seidel, an expert in how children learn at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "But people see playing as playing and learning as work."
Although many games are available for in-class use, including some designed specifically for the SOL tests, their approach to the material is often overtly didactic, educators said. Most schools, including Patrick Henry, use those games in lessons, but their application beyond academics is limited.
"There are games called things like 'Allowance,' " Baldanza said. "While there's some value to it, it's so obvious that it's trying to teach about money that it doesn't work. There's no kid who's going to pick up 'Contractions' and say, 'I want to play.' "
But that is exactly what Baldanza wants to encourage kids to do, so she created the after-school club, Wanna Play a Game. For a few hours every week, students can play a variety of board games designed to amuse as well as educate. The club's first meeting for this school year was scheduled for Tuesday.
When Tucker Jamieson, 7, heard about the club last year, he insisted that his mother, Theresa, sign him up. He's back this year, and some of his buddies have joined him.
"It's a great way to learn," Theresa Jamieson said. "I noticed a big difference with counting. He went around counting everything."
You won't find most of the games played at Patrick Henry in teacher supply catalogues, or on the shelves of Toys R Us.
Baldanza, a long-time board game enthusiast, discovered that the German designers who make the games she plays with her friends -- such as Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico -- also were creating engrossing games for kids. Take It Easy, for instance, was nominated for the German game of the year award in 1994.
To introduce parents to these German diversions as well as a few domestic ones, Baldanza began holding an annual family game night. In just three years -- calendars are already marked for Nov. 20 -- the event has become a school favorite.
Students take home a menu of nearly two dozen games and families decide between choices, such as Carcassonne, in which players settle the southern French city, and the memory-straining Zicke Zacke Huhnerkacke -- Chicken Cha Cha Cha for the non-German speakers. Or they can pick Apples to Apples, a word-based card game Baldanza often sets up in the front hall early in the morning before class. "Almost every kid in the school knows how to play," she said.
Sharon DeVault, who has accompanied her son Michael to game night the past two years, was surprised to see all 70 of the room's tables filled with players at last year's event.
"You think, 'Who's going to come play lots of board games?,' " she said. "But it's gotten us back into playing games. We had Scrabble and thought it might be too hard for him, but we tried and he did quite well."
Families who want to sample one of the German or other obscure game titles also can check them out from the Patrick Henry library. After repeated requests from students, about 75 games are available on loan for a night or two. Latonya Stewart, who plays a game almost every day with her 7-year-old daughter, Danielle, said the library vastly expands their options.
Games have even become a symbol of cool at the school.
"The chess club at schools is usually reserved for, well, you know, the sort of people in chess clubs," said Baldanza, who has managed to make games a hit with the "in" crowd: "You can learn a lot from games like this and not fit the stereotype."
Older students have been known to whip out board games in the school cafeteria while younger ones, like Tucker Jamieson, look on eagerly.
"Only the fourth- and fifth-graders play during lunch, because they play games that we don't know how to play," Tucker said.
Even some of the oldest members of the school community have taken to the playing the games -- at faculty meetings. "Teachers love them, too," said Vice Principal Howard Fierstein.See a list of Dr. Marcia Baldanza's personal picks of recommended games for schools.