SOUTH SHORE McKell Middle School librarian Jenifer Webster was scrabbling around for ideas to enhance literacy among her students, and what she came up with would boggle the mind.

In fact, "Boggle" and "Scrabble" are among the big stack of board games and card games that until this week were gathering dust in the school library because COVID-19 precautions prevented her from allowing children to play with them.

To do so would require constant and virtually impossible sanitizing of boards and other game components touched by many hands.

But the games are literacy-based and are valuable tools in building vocabulary, spelling and grammar skills, so Webster devised a check-out program.

The board game check-out allows children to take the games home and play them with siblings and parents.

Each check-out comes with two bags of microwave popcorn, a good start for a family game night.

The games all are literacy based and build on reading curriculum in school. They are not specialized educational games but the same popular titles found in stores and family bookshelves everywhere.

When the games are returned, staffers can clean them carefully and, if needed, store them for a few days before checking them out again. That prevents spreading the COVID-19 virus.

The check-out program meets the criteria of a four-year literacy grant the district snagged in 2020. The grant requires implementation of fun and educational activities kids can do at home.

However, expenses for the check-out program are minimal, because Webster has paid for many of them out of her own pocket over the years and donors provided others.

Adding to the fun is a contest this month; kids who check out games keep them and play them for a week and then complete an online review. Then their names are placed in a drawing, the prize being a game-night basket.

The check-out program comes at an opportune time, when all students are at risk of falling behind after weeks, and for some months, of virtual-only lessons, according to principal Nathan Sutton.

The gameplay brings families together and siblings of the McKell students also will benefit, he said. Old-school style play also gets kids off the electronics, at least for a while, he said.

"Literacy is the linchpin of education," he said. "We can't replicate regular days with in-person days, but anytime we can combine fun with learning it's a good thing. They don't even realize they are learning while they are playing."

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