I grew up in a family that loved (and still loves) to play table games. Card games, board games, trivia games, you name it. So, when my husband and I had our first son, we knew we wanted to teach him to play games, too. But, we weren’t really sure how soon he’d be able to grasp the rules, take turns, and keep focused on the gameplay. One day, we just decided to give it a try, and, to our surprise, our (very young) two year old did really well. Of course we didn’t start out with anything too complicated, but there are plenty of easy games for kids out there that are fun for adults, too.
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Kids learn naturally through play.
Have you ever watched your child learn by playing? If you leave kids to their own devices, they will play, and if you really pay attention, you’ll notice that, even during “free” play, they add their own structure. Kids will make up rules (and enforce them), and follow different protocols within the games they make up. Even very young children are capable and willing to learn and follow rules of gameplay! It’s easy to see that kids learn by playing, and there’s a lot of evidence to back up that observation. (Source)
Why play games with kids?
The simple answer is that kids love games and they love playing with you. Put the two together and you’ve got a fantastic bonding experience. But there are many reasons why playing games with children is beneficial. Here are just a few:
Games are great for teaching facts and skills.
Do you want your kids to learn how to identify letters, numbers, animals, shapes, etc?
Are you wondering how much your kids know about a topic, or do you want to teach them more?
Need to practice counting, reading, fine motor, or even critical thinking skills?
If you’ve answered yes, yes, and yes, break out the games! Playing games with your preschooler can help with all of these. (source)
Finding games to play with toddlers is a great way to connect with them.
A huge part of discipleship parenting is forming and maintaining a strong bond with our kids. They long for us to play with them, and, let’s face it: sometimes we adults don’t engage well in imaginary play. Playing easy table games with our children helps to bridge the gap between what’s fun for kids and what’s fun for us as parents.
Playing with my kids is what I consider a foundational family discipleship activity. It’s not overtly discipleship like, say, family worship or community service, but if we don’t take the time to connect with our kids to just have fun, they aren’t going to be as receptive to anything else we have to teach them. So, we need to speak their language (play). Sit down at the table (or on the floor!), and spend some quality time having fun as a family.
This is Christian fellowship, guys. We can feel good about it!
Games help build character.
When we play games with our kids they learn how to take turns, which is a great lesson in patience (and an awesome way to teach toddlers to share). The earlier you start, the earlier they’ll learn!
In many games it’s easy to see cause and effect, so children learn how their actions affect other people. Developing empathy takes work with toddlers, and playing games is a good place to practice consideration of others.
Gameplay also provides great opportunities for kids to see their parents model good sportsmanship and courteous actions, and immediately apply what they learn to their own behavior.
Note: Be a good sport! If you’re a sore loser (or you quit when it looks like things aren’t going your way), fix that before you start playing with your kids: this is not the sort of thing you’ll want to pass on. What we show them is what they’ll imitate, so keep it together, people. It’s just a game!
Cooperation vs. competition: an important note
Especially with toddlers, there should be no emphasis on competition. Introducing competition between a child and his or her parents isn’t the best way to go at this early age, and toddlers often just don’t get it. Also, it’s tough for preschoolers to focus on multiple aspects of a game, and competition (thinking both defensively and offensively in strategy games, or benefiting from another player’s ‘failure’ in trivia games, etc.) can be very distracting and distressing to young children.
Is it okay for someone to win? Yep. But it doesn’t need to be a big deal for the winner OR the other players. We’re laying the foundation for our kids to be humble winners and gracious “losers” here, so introducing the concept of losing as quite inconsequential is healthy. The real focus of playing games with toddlers should be on players making a persistent effort and having a great time playing.
As preschoolers, kids are not too focused on winning yet, but as they get older, they will be. As a Christian parent, I want to do what I can to help my kids practice winning and losing and using both experiences to build character and confidence.
Playing table games is a great alternative to screen time! Find out why Disciple Mama’s kids are screen-free, and why you might want to try it, too!
Easy games for kids
Memory and basic trivia games are great for exercising your brain and learning facts, but there are plenty of other educational and character building game choices out there. Keep in mind that some games are more customizable to varying ability levels than others, so think about whether or not all members of the family will be able to successfully (and happily) participate in whatever games you choose.
Roll and Move Games
The table games for kids that you probably think of first are games like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. These games are wonderful, but if you’ve played Candyland lately, you’ve probably noticed that it just doesn’t appeal to you like it did when you were a kid. But, even if you aren’t excited by them, there is educational value to be found in playing these very simple games for toddlers.
Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Sorry!, Trouble, and even Life are all considered “roll and move” games. Of course, some of them involve more strategy than others, but for the most part, success is based largely on chance, which, though not particularly challenging, does offer kids the opportunity to win more often than many types of games.
One of the best types of games to play with preschoolers is matching, or memory, games. There are bajillions of these available in stores or online, and you can even make your own personalized memory games with index cards (or flashcards that comes in pairs). You can also use a simple puzzle set like this one: Melissa & Doug Alphabet Wooden Puzzles*. We gave this to E for his second birthday and he LOVES it. Fun fact: Ours came with two Ms and no X, but I called customer service and received the X in the mail about 2 days later, no questions asked. It turns out Melissa & Doug have fantastic customer service!
Here’s how we use our favorite matching-style game:
You can find any number of memory games in stores and online, but our favorite (and the first matching game we ever played with E) is a vintage flashcard-type game called “Teach Me About Birds” from the 1960s. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a link to buy it (we bought ours at a yard sale), but all you need is a set of flashcards in which there are two of each card. We basically just play it like Go Fish (but with the cards laid out on the floor/table instead of hidden in our hands). Each player asks (politely!) for another person’s card (if it matches one of ours), and collect sets. If there aren’t any matches, we deal another card to each player.
My son has learned to identify a large number of birds by playing this game, and he has fun doing it. This game can easily be adapted to work with any flashcards, as long as they come in sets of at least 2. Or, you could place the cards face down in a grid and play it like Memory, turning over two cards at a time, searching for matching sets.
When you think of easy games to play with preschoolers, trivia games are probably not the first ones that pop into your brain. But, at our house we actually LOVE to play trivia games with our toddler. The secret, obviously, is finding a game with questions that your child knows/can learn the answers to. For us, that means Bible games! With our emphasis on discipleship parenting, we’ve been intentional about teaching E his Bible stories since he was born, and, it turns out, he’s learned quite a bit. We also have a decent collection of Bible games, and we’ve been playing some of them with our boy for months now (and he’s not even 3 yet)!
Our favorite is, once again, a vintage game that we found in a thrift store. It’s called Egypt to Canaan, and the current version is available here, along with the Life of Christ and Life of Paul board games that we also own and enjoy (though we find the Life of Paul game questions to be much more difficult for our toddler). My husband and I both played Egypt to Canaan when we were kids, and it’s pretty fun to pull it out and play it as a family now! Of course, there are plenty of questions in the game that E can’t answer, but we have gone through all of the question cards and pulled out the ones that he should know. We simply keep them separate from the other cards with a rubber band, and we keep adding more questions to his pile as he becomes familiar with more Bible stories.
Card games generally require a bit more strategy than the other types of games I’ve covered. In fact, I’ve been too intimidated by card games to try any with E (he’s almost 3 now), but there are some easy card games for young children out there. In fact, this morning, because I felt like I couldn’t write about card games with toddlers until I’d actually tried playing one with my kid, we played UNO for the first time.
You guys, it was great! He managed quite nicely because he knows his colors, knows his letters, and knows most of his numbers. He got his 4s and 5s mixed up a couple of times, but other than that, it was a smashing success.
And also, he won, fair and square. We congratulated him and he thanked us for playing with him.
Important note: cards can be difficult for tiny hands to hold, so we put E’s cards in card holders like these. That made it easy for him to hold the cards (and he could put them down and pick them back up without any trouble, also).
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Tips for playing games with young kids
- Put age-appropriate rules in place, and gently, but firmly, enforce the rules for all players.
- Make accommodations for kids of different ages and abilities–You don’t need to lay out the whole deck of matching cards for very young kids, and it’s okay to only ask children questions they have a fighting chance of answering correctly.
- Don’t let anyone win, and congratulate whomever does. It’s important for everyone to learn to lose gracefully, and that skill will not come naturally to kids if they always win without earning the victory. If you’re implementing tip #2 above, your kids will have a fair chance to win.
- Know your kids’ limits. Help them learn and practice game etiquette, but if they’re just too antsy to finish the game, call it and try again another time. There’s nothing fun about a game if the players don’t want to be playing it.
- Set an example of the kind of sportsmanship you want your child to demonstrate. Character building is the most important goal of gameplay. Be courteous, play fair, and put more focus on effort and personal improvement than on winning.
Give it a try!
Playing games with a toddler may sound daunting, but it’s a great learning experience, and if you implement the 5 tips I’ve given you, it can be a lot of fun! Turn off the tv, put down your phones, table the tablets, and get some good old-fashioned quality time in as a family. Try a few different types of games, and it won’t take long to figure out what adjustments you need to make (or what skills you need to practice) to start learning and building character all while having a great time!
If you try it, I’d love to hear about your favorite easy games for kids! Leave a comment below with your best toddler-friendly game suggestions!