The Uncommons' co-owner Greg May (left) and Jon Freeman at Hex & Co.'s Play Fair display area
Like the other vendors at the recent Play Fair toy and pop culture event at New York’s Javits Center, Hex & Co. had plenty of merchandise on display for parents and kids to buy.
But not only did the New York store’s proprietor Jon Freeman not characterize his goods as “toys,” he said that his stock of “board and card games with a focus on strategy” was not geared for sale so much as to “engage kids at an intellectual level to socialize and develop cognitive skills.”
If such talk was a bit brainy for Play Fair, it was all in keeping with Freeman (job-titled “the good doctor” on his Hex & Co. business card), who brought his training in clinical psychology with a background in neuroscience research and neuropsychological assessment to his unusual position in games retail.
A couple months old, Hex & Co. (Hex is a mathematical strategy board game) is an expansion of the concept of Freeman’s seven-year-old Brooklyn store The Brooklyn Strategist (a community-based, interactive board and card game center, café and social club) by teaming with similar store The Uncommons (situated at the former home of the historic Village Chess Shop in Greenwich Village’s “Chess Row”) in jointly opening a third location on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
According to Freeman, Hex & Co. has a “library” of over 1,000 games (including many that are out-of-print) to play on-site, many of them for sale and breaking down by genre into ancient and modern strategy, adventure, family/parlor/party, military/historical, mystery, sports, word, card, and role playing and miniature games--and no computer or digital games of any kind. And besides locally-roasted coffee and plenty of food options, the store offers educational after-school programs (its After School Enrichment program is an extension of the one started at The Brooklyn Strategist) and camps.
The impetus for conceiving Freeman’s games stores came from his then seven-year-old daughter, who was stuck “in a world of digital isolation with little to do after school,” he said. “She was intelligent, funny, smart and engaging, and I thought there has to be a better way.”
Freeman surmised that the interaction from playing board and card games face-to-face with his daughter furthered her neural development and associated beneficial changes in brain development.
“A lot of games share similar mechanics with neuropsychological tests,” said Freeman. “I created a program of sequential game play focusing on specific brain areas, starting with games requiring perceptual organization and working up in terms of difficulty.”
At Play Fair, Freeman played quick games of Quoridor, an abstract strategy board game, with children visiting Hex & Co.’s display area.
“Quoridor requires navigation through a grid pattern,” said Freeman. “From there you can go to Go or Chess.”
Such games, besides perceptual organization, stimulate focal areas of brain function including pattern recognition, language, and executive functioning such as planning ahead and thinking strategically.
Realizing that other parents shared his concerns regarding digital media and their kids, Freeman designed his after-school programs, as well as camps and weekend classes, to augment his stores’ walk-in play, the basis being the slogan, “Making connections: Cells that fire together, wire together”--in a learning environment conducive to solving problems while mediating social interaction.
Freeman says there are now 40-50 kids in The Brooklyn Strategist’s After School Enrichment program, and that he now has 28 employees who bring the program to schools directly.
“Parents of kids with dyslexia or writing problems come to me with tears in their eyes and tell me that their kids are staying up all night writing about their adventures with Dungeons and Dragons,” said Freeman. “They say, ‘Whatever you’re doing, bottle it!’”