In the summer 2019 Professor Daniela O’Neill and graduate students from her developmental psychology course hosted a series of family board game events at Kitchener Public Library (KPL). Their goal was to introduce families to the many board games available to young children as a fun way to foster language, thinking and social skills.

The events were a great success, and families were asking the library for a permanent collection of the games. That sparked a wonderful collaboration between O’Neill and KPL resulting in the library’s new Board Game Collection.

Now, with more than enough time to fill with learning and play at home, kids and parents can access more than 100 board games through KPL’s multiple branches. In fact, within a week of the formal launch of the collection, many of the games have 10 or more reserves on them – parents and children are virtually lining up to play. “It’s been great to see this fantastic reception and see some of the parents posting on social media with pictures of children playing the games,” O’Neill says.

Donating both her expertise and funds to curate and purchase games for the collection, O’Neill’s motivation to contribute is also personal: she has dedicated the collection to the memory of her mother Maria O’Neill, who was an ESL teacher in Toronto and a lifelong reader and supporter of libraries, and a keen player of board and card games.

Grad student with husband and child playing game

Siobhan Sutherland, PhD candidate in clinical psychology, with her partner and child at KPL in 2019.

Daniela O'Neill and her late mother Maria O'Neill

Professor Daniela O'Neill with her mother Maria O'Neill.


Play with important developmental benefits

As a developmental psychologist, O’Neill knows the importance of play for fostering language and other vital developmental steps. She has published studies that demonstrate the value of giving children simple toys and wordless picture books, for instance, both of which promote language development through playful conversation. “Conversation and oral language are so important in the early years as a foundation for many other types of learning, such as literacy.”

The KPL collection includes both co-operative and competitive games with a range of engaging themes (titles include, Cupcake Spinner, Hoot Owl Hoot!, and Dinosaur Escape). While intended mainly for children from age two to eight years old, O’Neill says many of the games are also fun and engaging for older children, especially if they are newcomers to Canada who may still be developing their English language skills. When she was selecting games to include, O’Neill also wanted to also ensure that the game themes complemented the library’s book collection, so that children’s game play could be enhanced with picture books and stories.

“Board games promote skills in many domains, and this goes beyond learning numbers and includes language, problem-solving, and social and emotional development."

O'Neill emphasizes that there are many high quality, fun and engaging games available to today. “And you don’t need lots of time to play — all of the games in the collection can be played in less than 20 minutes, have simple rules so that siblings can play together, and some have beautiful pieces that children could use to engage in pretend-play on their own, such as food items that could become part of a grocery store game.”

Rich learning opportunities to be studied

O’Neill is the founder and director of UWaterloo’s Children’s Communication Lab based in the Department of Psychology, which has a focus on community outreach and applied applications of its research, such as O’Neill’s widely used Language Use Inventory, a standardized assessment of early language development. While she was developing the KPL Board Game Collection, and when Covid-19 forced the closure of KPL, O’Neill and graduate student Paige Holmes pivoted to undertake a large review of existing research on board games and children’s learning, producing an article that is now under review with a journal. They found evidence showing how board games foster a range of formal and informal (in school or at home) types of learning in young children supporting cognition, communication, social and socio-emotional understanding, yet O’Neill adds that “the rich learning opportunities via board games remains surprisingly understudied in children.”

Echoing the findings, KPL’s CEO Mary Chevreau said of the new collection, “Beyond being fun, these games also reinforce literacy concepts like letter recognition, reading comprehension and storytelling mechanics. We are so grateful for Daniela’s partnership and generous donation which made this collection possible."

O’Neill looks forward further collaboration with KPL “to expand the collection over time and, when we are all able to gather at the library again, to help host, together with my students, more events for families and children around board games.”