I’ve been working with bilingual kids for many years now—as a parent and as a teacher—and one of my most important resources has been a large collection of games that encourage language learning in enjoyable and effective ways.
In a previous post, I noted some great cooperative games made by a low-key family business in Canada.
Today I’d like to spotlight a game that was also a family invention, but has grown to become a worldwide success and is now available in a variety of languages, including Spanish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Hebrew.
Bananagrams is a fun, fast-moving game that pits players against one another in creating a combination of words that resemble crossword puzzles. As designed, it’s a challenging and stimulating game for older children and adults. But for younger children, who can also be sensitive to the victory and defeat of competition, I rely on a simple, cooperative version that offers the same benefits and more.
One big crossword puzzle
The yellow Bananagrams pouch contains 144 letter tiles. To play my cooperative version of the game, I simply dump all the letters out on the table or floor and tell my kids, or a student I tutor, that our challenge involves working together as a team to combine all these letters—every last one—into a big crossword puzzle.
I know it sounds kind of crazy—and every child who watches me pour out all those letters for the first time doubts my sanity. But we set to work, building the grid of words freely and continuously (without taking turns) and this aim is always achieved in about 15 or 20 minutes.
The value of the activity? Here are some of the benefits…
- It elevates concentration.
The child is focused intently on the task of forming and spelling words, while working comfortably at her own level. Gentle coaching from the adult, through occasional hints, can serve to stretch the child’s awareness and ability.
- It exercises thinking.
Along with concentration, the activity promotes mental agility and flexibility. When certain letters are used up, the child may be unable to form a word she had in mind and must then explore new possibilities. (Though it’s perfectly fine to break apart already-formed words, if necessary—especially at the very end—in order to devise ways to include all the letters in the grid.)
- It encourages reading.
The child practices reading not only the words she herself makes, but also the words made by the adult. Some of the adult’s words may be unfamiliar, so the child also encounters new vocabulary and their meanings.
- It provides a fresh challenge.
The concept may be simple, but the activity is continually challenging and stimulating for both child and adult because the game unfolds differently each time, with endless combinations of letters and words.
- It offers real satisfaction.
When the last letter is put in place, and the challenge has been met, the child-adult team enjoys a strong sense of accomplishment. (My kids actually dance about in joy!)
- It feeds long-term interest.
The activity helps foster an early fondness for word games, and this interest, if fueled over time, can have a very positive impact on the child’s language ability.
Other language versions
Of course, you don’t really need Bananagrams for this activity—you just need a sufficient number of letter tiles from any source.
Bananagrams, though, is a well-made product and a handy tool for this purpose: both the amount and distribution of letters (how many of each letter) are suitable, I’ve found. Plus, as the child grows older, she may wish to play the intended, competitive version as well.
In addition to the original English version, Bananagrams is currently available in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Hebrew. These games can be purchased through amazon, or many other online retailers. Orders can also be made directly at the Bananagrams website. (The rest of the company’s products may be worth a look, too.)
For the interesting story behind Bananagrams and its breakout success—born from one family’s passion for games—take a peek at this video clip from CNBC.