'Tis the season to bring out the board games for a fun family time that does not involve looking at a screen.
Angel Liang of Pleasanton, an educational psychologist, is a big believer in board games.
"So much technology these days wipes away human interaction," she said.
Board games benefit brains of all ages, she points out, boosting language skills and sharpening focus. They help little children learn to identify colors, count spaces and improve their dexterity, and they also teach patience as children learn to wait their turn and follow the rules. And young players can learn to be good losers.
To help children learn another important life skill -- empathy -- Liang and her friend Tina Wong of Dublin have spent the last three years developing a board game called Empower Empathy in which the players work together.
"It's a game that is collaborative," explained Wong, a designer with a management background. "The goal is to get a set of superheroes across the city."
"Kids love superheroes, superpowers and villains," she added with a laugh. "We incorporated a lot of techniques that make kids want to play the game."
The two women were friends in high school and college in Texas, then didn't see each other for 15 years although they continued to share social media. When Wong posted a photo of herself at an outdoor concert, Liang recognized Lions Wayside Park.
"Where are you?!" she queried. They discovered they lived only three miles apart and had much in common. Soon they'd resumed their close friendship.
"We were talking about child rearing and about what is really important in our society," Liang recalled. "We talked about what we can instill -- character development, socialization skills and mental health awareness instead of just IQ or academic pursuits."
Eventually they hit upon the idea of an interactive board game.
"There's so much discord in this society right now -- as parents we can't help but worry," Liang said. "I wanted to bring evidence-based strategies from my clinical and research settings into a practical way for families to teach the kids emotional awareness, socialization skills and the power of empathy."
"She had non-traditional ways of teaching children to think rather than giving them the answers," Wong said. "There is a lot of information about how to teach kids with issues -- why not teach kids how to handle things before they have problems?"
Empathy is a skill that "you use or you lose," she added, and children need to develop their empathy muscle over time.
The game teaches four principles that teachers have used for years, Wong pointed out.
First, it has players step into the shoes of another.
Second, cards ask players to name three things for which they are thankful, and helps them personalize an emotion.
Third, the game uses facial mimicry to internalize the emotion.
Fourth, players take the lessons out to the real world with activities from the accompanying guidebook.
Empower Empathy has been critically acclaimed, winning four major children's game awards, including Tillywig Brain Child and Creative Child Magazine's Game of the Year Award, as well as Family Choice and Hot Diggity Awards.
Liang and Wong launched Empower Empathy last month with a Kickstarter campaign that runs through Dec. 15 for a minimum of $59, which will include the game. It can also be purchased from their website, www.mytinysprouts.com, as well as on Amazon, and they are hoping for deliveries in March.
Traditional therapy games start at about $200, they noted, and parents readily pay $400 for a season of soccer so they think it is priced right. They are donating 10% of proceeds to build schools around the world.
They spent a long time testing the game, including on their own children. Liang, who is married to an engineer, Stephen Jang, has three sons: Maxwell Jang, 6, at Valley View Elementary; Gabriel Jang, 13, at Harvest Park Middle School; and Austin Jang at Amador Valley High. Wong is married to a physician, Taiyo Shimizu, and has two sons: Takumi Shimizu, 3; and Kanata Shimizu, 9, at Kolb Elementary in Dublin.
"They love sifting through the different scenarios," Liang said. "It is heartwarming to see them using prompts in games to talk about what they were feeling inside."