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Teacher's Game Is a Learning Experience

November 17, 1989|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | Phil Sniederman is a Southern California-based free-lance writer. This is his first article for Orange County Life

Eva Schmidler, a Mission Viejo elementary school teacher, was looking for a board game that parents could use to improve their child's communication skills. Finding none in the stores, she did the next best thing--she invented one.

Over the past year, Schmidler has taken the board game Fast Progress well beyond the bounds of her own classroom. She has supervised its manufacturing and mass marketing.

Schmidler is not likely to frighten Milton-Bradley. Nevertheless, she has single-handedly placed the game in more than a dozen stores and two national educational supply catalogues. She has become a mini-mogul in children's games while maintaining her full-time teaching schedule.

The project has yet to turn a profit, but Schmidler said she'll be happy just to break even. Her primary goal is to help children express themselves while marching their pawns around a colorful game board.

"Before I (went) into manufacturing a production, I wanted to make sure there was nothing like it" in stores, she said. "I didn't want to reinvent the wheel, and I'm not in the business of games. I'm in the business of teaching."

The Laguna Hills resident has been a teacher for almost 30 years, specializing in speech pathology. At Lomarena Elementary School in Mission Viejo, she instructs children in kindergarten through third grade who have learning disabilities in language.

Schmidler was searching for a game that parents and teachers could use to stimulate conversation and build language skills. "I look through the catalogues every year," she said. "They have picture cards to teach prepositions. They have picture cards to teach pronouns. But there was nothing in a game format."

To remedy this, about two years ago Schmidler came up with a rough game board and a stack of cards. The cards, aimed at ages 4 through 7, were designed to teach concepts, such as rhyming words, and to expand the child's vocabulary.

Some are simple commands such as, "Turn your head toward your right shoulder." Some test the child's knowledge of classifications, such as "Name five fruits." Others are open-ended, such as, "Name something you do in the morning."

After answering, the child can roll the die and move a pawn along a twisting row of colored squares that bear the names of the days of the week. A one-minute egg timer can be used keep the game's pace moving, and the cards include a few penalty and reward cues that cause the player lose a turn or move extra steps ahead.

Though it has no high-tech lights or sounds effects, Schmidler said her game promotes conversation between children and their parents, grandparents or baby-sitters. "They talk about interacting with computers," she said. "Well, what about interacting with a few humans?"

Schmidler used an early version of Fast Progress with her own pupils. In the fall of 1987, a parent became enchanted with the game during a visit to her school and asked a professional illustrator to make a more polished version of the board.

Buoyed by the positive response, Schmidler looked into producing the game commercially. A store in Costa Mesa that sells game pieces put her in touch with a wholesale supplier. She contacted box makers and printers to learn how to get the game boards, cards and packaging made.

She attended a meeting of game manufacturers in Anaheim, then a national convention in Las Vegas. At the latter event, she learned that the major game makers were unlikely to snap up Fast Progress.

"Most of them want a product that is selling well before they would even be interested," she said. "That's when my husband and I decided to go ahead and do it ourselves."

Schmidler tested her 180 game cards by reading them to children at a day-care center. "If some of the questions were much too easy (or) too difficult, then I eliminated them or changed them," she said.

When she was satisfied, Schmidler took her prototype to several stores specializing in educational games and materials. "I was batting 100%," she said. "Everyone I took it to placed an order."

Schmidler arranged for handicapped workers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Southern California in Orange to package Fast Progress. The game is priced at $24.95.

The teacher estimates that she and her husband, Richard, have invested $20,000 in Fast Progress. Since it went on the market last summer, she has sold more than 300 of the games to 16 stores, mostly in Southern California.

"It's a wonderful game," said Mark Miyawaki, who sells Fast Progress at his Mission Viejo store, Chad's Rainbow. "The best thing is to watch the kids play it."

Kids' Place Annex in Irvine quickly sold its first dozen games and ordered more. Co-owner Marge Cass said she enjoys playing Fast Progress with her children.

"It really develops thinking skills," she said. "Because the questions are so open-ended, they really leave room for a lot of creative thought."

Cass said Schmidler promotes her game aggressively and volunteers to demonstrate it to parents and educators at the store.

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