Smart Heart: the board game helping children express their emotions

Therapist Christine Kritzas and clinical psychologist Dr Saliha Afridi team up to create a game that focuses on emotional intelligence

Smart Heart, by Christine Kritzas, left, and Dr Saliha Afridi is a board game that seeks to develop emotional intelligence and strengthen the connection between parents and their children
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In 2011, when Christine Kritzas was a young therapist working in South Africa, she woke up in the middle of the night and started doodling the mock-up of a board game that she hoped could support her therapy work. A few months later, she had the game created and started using it in the play room of the centre where she worked. Before she knew it, the game had become popular among children.

“I was desperate to find fun and non-threatening ways to get children to open up about the challenges and issues they were facing in their day-to-day lives. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. And so I thought to create a board game that encompassed all of the elements I was seeking out as a therapist at the time, namely, a platform for children to express their feelings,” Kritzas tells The National.

More than a decade later, Kritzas, who now lives and works in Dubai, teamed up with clinical psychologist Saliha Afridi, managing director and founder The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing, to create an updated version of her game, Smart Heart, launched this month. What started as a tool for mental health professionals has become a game about emotional intelligence for parents who want to connect with their children.

Following a common start and finish board game concept, Smart Heart requires players to pick a card from one of three decks depending on where their dice lands: “talk-talk”, “pic-tales” and “I feel... when”. In order to win a coveted heart-shaped token, the player has to answer the question or talk about the card in their hand. The game allows children to distinguish the difference in emotions such as frustration and irritation; embarrassment and shyness; and being furious versus being upset.

Smart Heart

What is emotional intelligence?

The game is meant to allow children to open up about what is happening with them – be it in the playground, in the classroom or on play dates.

Dr Afridi says technology has created something of a disconnect between parents and children, as “babies are being handed iPads because mum's exhausted, or mums themselves are on a device. So that early mirroring and early connections and early learning are not happening.

“The number one issue kids were coming in with was anxiety, and that's one of the things that emotional intelligence can help with,” says Afridi. “If someone bothers you, and you don't [lash out at them], that impulse control is emotional intelligence. When you're upset about something and you can voice what you need, that's emotional intelligence. When you're super-stressed about a project or an assignment or a test, and you know how to cope with that and you know how to breathe it out, that's emotional intelligence.”

Smart Heart aims to help develop this skill. “What we did differently with version 2.0 is come up with the curious conversations booklet, which is a guide for parents to create a safe space for children to open up and speak about what's happening, to listen to those meaningful conversations, to engage in deep listening skills, and to set healthy boundaries with the child while playing the game,” says Kritzas.

Smart Heart

What's next for Smart Heart?

A game format creates the right setting for this kind of exercise because it brings parents and children to the same level, with the message that they're here to listen to each other. “This is what we love about board games. You're physically getting down to the child's level, making positive eye contact and engaging with each other,” says Kritzas.

The pair are next looking to work with parents and children further with the launch of a series of monthly workshops titled Smart Parenting Journeys, from January 30. These two-hour sessions are aimed at parents who wish to better understand emotional triggers and how to cultivate emotional intelligence in their children – all while using variations of Smart Heart.

The two are also avoiding going down the app route because that could defeat the purpose. “We know from research that younger brains learn concepts best when they are taught by human interaction and engagement,” says Afridi. “Studies using MRI scans of the brain have found that screen time changed the structure of the organ in young children. Higher screen use was linked to lower amounts of white matter, the fibrous tissue that connects different parts of the brain. These connections support the development of emerging abilities such as literacy and language skills.

“We also believe we need to be deliberate and intentional about building bonds and connections – facing each other rather than facing a screen, sharing stories, talking about positive as well as difficult emotions, and having those stories be heard and held by an attuned witness such as an adult for a child. All this builds and strengthens emotional bonds.”

Moving forward, Afridi and Kritzas are looking at creating booster packs that are scenario-specific, such as supporting children whose parents are going through a separation, or helping third culture kids with their emotions and anxieties. An Arabic translation of the game is also in the works.

More information on the parenting workshop is at www.lighthousearabia.com/events/smart-parenting-journey

Updated: January 18, 2022, 4:13 AM