Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Girl Scouts' "Puzzlers" Badge

This afternoon it was my daughter's turn to lead the Girl Scout meeting, so we decided to work on their "Puzzlers" badge. It gave her a chance to show her fellow Girl Scouts some puzzles and optical illusions, and it gave me a chance to bring in some games and talk a bit about their history.

After working with the superb Boy Scouts of America for years, the Girl Scouts of America doesn't really impress me that much as an organization. Everything they put out is mired in the worst kind of political correctness, and there doesn't seem be the kind of rigor and discipline found in the BSA. Each troop can be quite good, and ours is blessed with a dedicated leader who puts in a lot of time and does a good job. My daughter enjoys it, she gets to do good things with friends, learns a bit, and has fun. The organization itself has minimal impact on the way troops work, which is probably for the best.

Like many of the badge requirements for the GSA, the "Puzzlers" badge is a mish-mash of lame activities and political correctness. In all the rich panoply of gaming and puzzling, the one game they want the girls to learn is ... Picaria, an obscure Morris/3-in-a-row variant played "by the Zuni people of the southwestern part of the United States." Picaria only makes an appearance when someone needs a "Native American board game" for some kind of lesson, and it's the worst kind of PC nonsense. 

Indians didn't really do the whole board game thing. Their games tended more towards racing, throwing, catching, kicking, and other sport, with some tribes possibly doing guessing games or even riddles. Almost all of the games described in the Macfarlans' Handbook of American Indian Games are actually sport. The evidence of what various tribes actually did for fun is fairly sketchy, because by the time people started making disciplined anthropological observations of the natives of the New World, they had already been in contact with Europeans for some time. However, I seriously doubt the Zuni played anything remotely like Picaria prior to encountering the Spanish.

The other game suggested by the GSA is Nim, which makes for a fine mathematical exercise, but isn't a particularly interesting activity for 16 giggling ten-year-old girls. I mentioned Picaria to the girls, and then went straight into Nine Men's Morris, which they all played and enjoyed. We spent about 5 minutes on Nim in order to meet the badge requirements, but it failed to grip.

I mixed things up by doing a thumbnail history of gaming and puzzles, from Senet up to Eurogames. I was able to touch on backgammon, dicing, chess, Morris, Wari, cards (including foreign suits), mahjong, and Chinese chess, Catan, and three-dimensional puzzles. We split the girls into three stations: my daughter worked on optical illusions (which were very popular), while I guided the girls through some older Binary Arts (ThinkFun) puzzles, and my wife worked on mazes and tangrams. They left with a sheet describing more interesting versions of four official badge "requirements." If they finish two of them, they'll have earned their badge. The leader said she'd never seen them so well behaved. Perhaps they just found me fascinating, but more likely they just didn't quite know how to react to a 6'5" tall beaded man throwing Senet sticks all over the room. 

I'm posting a link to my little "lesson plan" in case anyone else has to tackle the Puzzlers Badge for Girl Scouts. Please remember that I was trying to work within the requirements outlined in the Badgebook, while also attempting to make it a bit more interesting.


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