Friday, January 13, 2012

Swish: A Slam Dunk for Kids (and Grown-Ups Too)

A Dream Game for Spacial Thinkers (photo courtesy: ThinkFun)

WHAT: Swish
DOES: Fit dots into holes on transparent cards to make a match (swish); challenge is to do it all in your head first, players can choose to challenge themselves further by making 3 or 4 card swishes
INVEST: $12.99
TOOLS:  Express Yourself, Lose and Win Gracefully, Think Like a Scientist/Engineer

Toys are Tools often talks about buying toys to help kids develop important skills but while I have promised it, I have not done a great job of fulfilling the latter part of the mission: encouraging and enhancing a kid's natural talents.  I really apologize for that.  I know I've done it indirectly but today, I am going to do it for real.

Let's be clear: I bought Swish because I knew my son was going to be awesome at it.  I have to remember that we don't have to spend all our time trying to "improve" our children.  In fact, if you were to spend your entire day doing stuff you're not good at, wouldn't you be just miserable?  That sounds like hell to me.   Sometimes, I forget that I have to allow him more time to grow up using the skills that give him his sense of identity and self-confidence.  

Number 1 has many skills but his chief skill is by far visual-spatial intelligence.  He likes Legos, Zoobs, and K'nex.  Last year, when I talked to his art teacher, I asked her why he came home with so many 3D projects and she said that she never gave him any 3D assignments.  Basically, Number 1 would take her assignments and make it 3D and she let him.  Sometimes, you just really luck out and you get a teacher who lets you shine at being yourself.  Buying this game for him was my attempt to be like her.

Swish: How to Play

If you see this game, you'll see that they are just cards in a pouch. BUT, they aren't paper cards, they are plastic cards and they are see-through as well.  You lay out 16 of them.  Each card has a circle (looks like a looseleaf sticker) and a dot that fits the size of the circle.  The circles and dots are in different positions but if matched properly, you can make the pair and then keep the cards.  You keep making pairs and you add them to your final score.  But you can not match them physically at first.  You can only do it IN YOUR HEAD!  If you mess up, you lose a card unless you don't have any to start off with. You can even make 3-card or 4 card Swishes.  It's not easy but it can be done.  Still confused? I don't blame you.  You just have to see what I mean. Watch the video below.  (then you can pretty much skip the directions! Love that!) 

Visual-spatial skills are something that many of us try to encourage at home.  Who hasn't had at least one set of blocks in their toybox? However, as much as I love this game, I think I hadn't written a review about it because I still haven't quite connected how visual-spatial intelligence is used in the everyday real world because most of us do not go to work and stack blocks for a living. 

So I called David Wells again.  He would be the one.  Not only is he the Curriculum Developer at the New York Hall of Science but in terms of visual-spatial intelligence, I figure this was up his alley since he is also a multi-media artist and a designer.  

Challenges in All Different Ages

"It was definitely challenging," David said.  However, he also said, "the challenge didn't discourage me, it only made me want to try harder."  It's uncanny but I see that same trait in Number 1.  He wants it to be hard.

David and I both agreed that this game can be played with various ages.  The younger player may also be the best.  Age does not triumph automatically here.  Its been months since I bought this game and Number 1 still kicks my butt.  Latest score:  Mom got 13 and Number 1 got 36. I have a master's degree.  He is in 2nd grade.  It truly doesn't matter.

Practice Taking Risks in a Safe Space

Swish starts penalizing players for making incorrect Swishes only if they have made some Swishes already.  "If you are at zero, you don't go to negative which I think is a very good approach to learning," said David.  The fact that you only lose one card from your stash instead of two, I think, encourages the player to take some risks. After having spoken to David, I realized that the best time to try and do something more difficult was at the very beginning of the game when I had nothing to lose, basically when I was at Zero.

Behavior at zero is more important than one might think.  David explained that in whatever design field you are in (architecture, interior, etc.), a person will start the process of prototyping his design at zero.  This is when you want to take your risks because you are making something that was born from your mind.  "And if it fails, you're better off for that failure."   

Spatial Intelligence- What is it good for? 

I explained to David that I bought this game for Number 1 because I had a feeling he would be awesome with it.  Then David brought up one of my all-time favorite topics -  Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.  If your child is ever feeling like he is good at nothing, read about Howard Gardner's theory and you will be able to help name some of his intelligences. I believe we all have something that we are good at and we are all different.  Howard Gardner has identified nine intelligences that humans have and one of them is spatial intelligence - the skill that makes Number 1 feel really good about himself.

Can you see the spatial relations?
Spatial intelligence is the ability to represent the spatial world internally in your mind. "Right there, that's a a skill," David affirmed, "and that is completely flexed and exercised in this game because you're not allowed to touch the cards.  You have to flip them and move them in your mind to understand how they would fit."

Spatial intelligence is generally said to be used more in the arts and sciences but David thinks that it definitely becomes apparent in creative design work including things like choreography.  "It's also understanding the relation between positive space and negative space."

WHAT? As in - I'm in a happy place or sad place? 

David used the hand as an example and said that if you look at it, people are trained to see just the hand and fingers but people with great spatial intelligence see the space between the fingers (negative space).   Then David was able to explain how a kid with great spatial intelligence actually sees the relationship between the two spaces.  Thus, an interior designer is able to see a blank space but then figure out where things can go and the relationship it will have with each other. 

Can you see them now?
And so that is what we are practicing here.  Number 1 can practice manipulating positive and negative space in his mind and who knows where these skills can take him in the future. I always thought that he'd work in science someday but now I am thinking about his lego creations and the amount of attention he pays to not only structures but also to the design details (he's very symmetrical).  He really does care about how they look.  I honestly never thought that this could be something for him to do in the future but now it makes so much sense.  Additionally, when David speaks of design, he doesn't just mean "designer,"   Spatial intelligence is valued everywhere, from building buildings to creating a strategy to win a football game and even driving a car.  

Speaking of Design....

"It's a good place where form and function meet," said David when describing the design of Swish. We both agree that the design is something that invites people to challenge themselves.  It's so simple that it doesn't look too intimidating, even if it can be challenging. 

Not to alienate the boys but I think these dots and circles are pretty!  Then David mentioned that it is usually around ages 8-12 (Swish is recommended for kids 8+), when girls start losing interest in spatial relation concepts.** PAUSE- Doesn't that bug you even if you don't have a daughter?  Well thankfully the colors of Swish, while not necessarily screaming "GIRL," it is definitely not screaming "BOY" either.  In fact, if I had to pick, I would say that the design is quite inviting to girls.   

What a plus!  I love that and I love this game.  And as you have read, David does too.  In fact, when I told him that Swish is up for Educational Toy of the Year Award (TOTY), after we finished talking, he went onto the TOTY website and voted for it (voting ends 1/15/2012).  Now that is one serious vote of confidence for this game. 

For me, I am just happy that Number 1 kicks butt in a game that he loves.  I'm realizing more today how much I need to honor that and provide more opportunities for his natural talents to shine.  These talents will be the tools he uses to help him get over the bad days.  They will also be same tools he uses to create his very best days.  With Swish, he'll just make those skills stronger.  As a mom of a very visual-spatial thinker, what else can I say about a game that strengthens his best asset?  I'm sold.

Add Swish to your Toolbox Today

Disclosure: Toys are Tools has not been compensated in any fashion by the manufacturer or retailer of any of the mentioned products in exchange for the publication of this post.  While I had purchased my own Swish game, Number 1 lost it at school.  (He plays with one of his teachers)  ThinkFun was kind enough to send us another copy as well as one for David Wells to view.  Toys are Tools obtained permission to use the 1st photo and video for this post. See FAQ regarding links.

* * A quick shout-out to Iridescent Learning, the name of an organization that came up often during this conversation.  I first fell in love with this group during a workshop where they talked about using birds to inspire little would-be engineers to design their own plane!   See this video: here.  David Wells refers to this as biomimicryThis group does an amazing job of bringing science and engineering to underserved communities including girls.  Their program Technovation Challenge is especially remarkable as it supports girls by giving them the tools they need to build skills and confidence to be successful in computer science and entrepreneurship.  These girls are given the opportunity to create Android app prototypes with female techie mentors.  What could be cooler? 


  1. Another one added into my amazon cart. This looks like fun!

    Good reminder that toys do not always have to push our kids, we can let them play their strengths too.

    Have you seen snap circuits junior? Wondering if my almost 5 year old is ready?


  2. We love Swish!

    First of all, kiddo LOVES the cards themselves. He just loves holding them and stacking them.. I love that he hasn't broken/folded them, they are very sturdy. I assume we'll be making houses of cards later...

    Since he is not yet five, I showed him how to make a simple 2 card swish. Then, we played as if we were playing memory (a grid of cards, once you touch a card, you've committed to it) and in your mind find the swish/match.

    He LOVES this (and he is just as good if not better than me, which is great for him).

    Excellent find!