My family has a long-standing board game tradition. Some of my earliest memories involve counting up the dots on dice or sounding out letter tiles. When I was a teenager, the Scrabble board stayed on the kitchen table permanently; we’d play before dinner, after dinner and sometimes even during dinner.
But when I became a mom, I realized that board games aren’t always so fun for parents of young kids. While some of us seem to be naturally endowed with patience and a love of simple games with candy-colored squares, others of us find preschool-oriented board games rather boring. And trying to play a more grown-up game with a bunch of kids, especially kids in varying ages and stages, can really try the nerves. I mean, as much as I love a good game of Monopoly, when you’re playing with little kids it can go on and On and ON…
But board games can be a great way to unplug the family from electronic distractions and re-connect with each other, and with some creativity and forethought, they’re also a perfect way to use up that last 20 minutes while the roast is cooking or spend some post-dinner family time.
As a mom of five kids ranging in age from 3 – 15, I’ve spent the last decade and a half figuring out how to incorporate board games into our family life, and here are some of the strategies I’ve come up with:
1. Don’t underestimate your kids. Even if you have preschool-aged or young elementary kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re restricted to “preschool” games. Yes, Candy Land and Memory are perennial preschool favorites for a reason, but your four-year-old may be able to handle a game of Sorry! or Yahtzee, especially if you make some accommodations.
2. Create “house rules.” When I was a very early reader, my parents started letting me play Boggle but allowed me to break the rules and play two-letter words. That made a game that would have been off-limits to me a lot of fun, and it didn’t encroach on their play at all. Some complicated games have “Junior” editions that can make it much easier for kids to play independently, but I really believe that when playing together as a family, even very young kids can handle “big people” games as long as the big people are willing to modify the rules. Then everyone gets to enjoy a game at their own level.
3. Fake it. Okay, your toddler is probably not going to be able to figure out the point of Monopoly, unless she’s a genius. Our three-year-old, Clara, “plays” board games with us in that she gets to roll the dice, move a pawn, and arrange castoff cards. Of course she’s not really playing, but she gets to spend time with us as part of the group, and is free to get down and play if she gets restless.
4. Set a timer. Over the years I’ve realized that just because my kids are bugging me to PLAY a board game, that doesn’t necessarily mean they care if we FINISH it. So recently, when we have a limited amount of time, I’ve started setting a timer or putting some other kind of restriction on the game (for instance, while playing The Settlers of Catan – our current family obsession – we might only play to five points rather than ten) so that we can finish it faster. Knowing that I only have to invest a half-hour makes it much easier to fit a game into a busy evening, and chances are good that the youngest kids will have had enough by then, anyway.
5. Team up. With more complicated games, it’s often a good idea to have younger kids play “on teams” with an adult while they get a grasp on the game. When they first started playing tougher, strategic games like Monopoly and Catan (my son Owen got a fun new version of Monopoly called Farmopoly for Christmas, check it out!), my younger kids would team up with myself, my husband or an aunt or uncle. Acting as our helpers – or “minions” as we called them – gave the younger kids a good sense of how the game is played, and they can now hold their own.
6. Keep games in plain sight. It seems simplistic, but for me one of the biggest obstacles to playing board games is having to go dig them out of a far-off cabinet or under a stack of other board games. I realized that it didn’t make any sense to have two dozen board games if that necessitated storing them in a closet upstairs or made them hard to manage. So I pared down our collection, and now our much-smaller stack of games is located just a few steps from the dining-room table. If there’s a game we’re playing very often, we often just keep it on the table or the adjacent buffet.
7. Throw the game. When Owen and I started playing Monopoly together, he was five years old and somehow won every other game. Yep…I let him. This strategy not only gave him a little boost of confidence and encouraged him to keep playing, but it also made the games much shorter, which made me that much more willing to play. I’m not advocating always letting kids win; they need to learn how to lose gracefully, and I’m not above trouncing them when I’m in the mood (though lately, I’m finding they aren’t quite as easy to beat as they used to be!) But I do think a willingness to “throw the game” can be an effective strategy for making board-game playing more fun…and a bit more brief as well.
Are board games a regular part of your Kitchen Hour? How do you keep them fun for the whole family?
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