Playing games with kids: 5 tips to make games work for your family

Are you sick of Candyland? Ready to flip the Monopoly Jr. board? Wondering whether you’ll ever be able to play the games you love with your kids? Donate that copy of Chutes and Ladders, and pull out your favorite game instead. Here are five proven strategies for playing games with kids. 

Use the pieces, modify the rules.

When my son was 3, he pointed at the Terra Mystica box and asked to play. A logical person would have said, “Well, the box says it’s for ages 13 and up, so let’s play Memory instead.” Instead, my husband pulled out the box and started explaining the game. They did not play with all of the rules, and they didn’t play more than a turn or two. But, they did figure out a game that worked. Over many months they built up to the full rule set.

We tried to teach him chess way too early, also around age 3 or 4. He didn’t like it if his pieces got captured. (To be honest, I want to cry when my pieces get captured, too.) So, we changed the rules to be, “Try to move your pieces to move all of them from the back two rows to the next two rows.” This got him thinking about how the pieces move, without the threat of capture. Our local library has a chess club that has been great for learning more and playing with other kids. 

Give them 2 choices per turn

I have to credit the rules from Uwe Rosenberg’s All Creatures Big and Small for this gem. When teaching a new game with a very complex rule set (as many strategy games are), just jump right in. Give the new player two acceptable choices (“Do you want to build a room, or do you want to gather some stone?”) instead of all the possible options.

Adjust the number of cards or resources

Blink is a game of speed. You match cards by shape, number, or color, kind of like Uno, but faster. Each player is supposed to start with 30 cards in their pile, playing them as fast as they can. To make it fair, just change the number of cards so you have 40 and the new player has 20. Or 50 and 10. Or whatever works. If you win, take a few extra cards the next time. If they win, give them a couple extra until you have a nice balance. Remember, it’s good for them to win.

Super secret parenting tip: That Monopoly Jr. game you wanted to flip? Speed it up by adjusting the cash at the beginning of the game. If you start with 12 dollars instead of 18, you will probably lose, and the game will be over much faster.

Play a cooperative game.

Introduce strategic thinking with a cooperative game, where the goal is for the players to work together to meet a common objective. Everyone wins or loses together, and you get to talk through what you’re doing and why on your turn. My favorite co-op game is Pandemic. There are also cooperative Haba games, like My First Orchard, suitable for ages 2+.

Work backwards from your goal

Ok, if your favorite game is Twilight Struggle, it may be a while before your kid can adequately appreciate the Cold War. And plenty of games require reading, some mathematical fluency, or the ability to predict what other people will do. Those skills take time to develop. The good news, though, is that there are a lot of awesome games that will help to develop them. In future posts I’ll make those connections explicit.

My ultimate goal is for our family to have fun together, to build each other up, and to be able to win or lose with grace. And that’s something we can work on at any age.

How have you modified your favorite games to make them work for kids?

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