Saturday, January 1, 2011

Teaching Games to Kids

How did they do that?
My 5 year old daughter loves to play board games and card games. She has a goal to play 100 different games this year, and I’m so excited to try that with her. She likes writing her own reviews of games and talking about her thoughts on them, and she CAN’T WAIT until she can read all the cards in the “toughest” grown up games like Magic: The Gathering. Part of that is her personality for sure, but I’ve had a few people ask me how to get into playing games with their kids or how I’ve been so successful at playing complex games with her when she is so young. I thought I’d try writing down my ideas on the subject, hopefully there’s some piece of advice in there somewhere that someone can use. I’m writing in an authoritarian voice, but I’m absolutely no expert. My opinions are based on my parental experiences with my two kids and 10 or so years working with kids in various settings. These are just some ideas and strategies we’ve used or thought about, and they are mostly focused on young children (pre-readers) because that’s what we’ve got.
As always, take what you like and leave the rest.
10 Easy Steps... Haha… Nothing Is Easy With Kids!

1.       Cardinal rule: Don’t worry about the rules. The point is to have fun with your kids. There is honestly lots and lots of time to learn “the right” way to play the games, but first the kids have to learn to love playing them and get excited to try new games. Play games in front of your kids, and let them sit in your lap, hold your cards, move your pieces, pick a color, roll the dice, whatever, even if it’s only  for 2 minutes as their marching band parades through the room. Show them that playing games together is a fun and valuable use of time.

2.       One way to build focus and attention for gaming is to let kids play with you with games in whatever way is most appropriate and interesting to them. Start by getting out all the pieces and taking some time to look them over. The point is to sit with your kids and explore them together, so don’t worry about losing pieces… you’ll be right there with them, right? If your kid destroys the pieces or puts things in their mouth, wait a while or invest in some of the high quality wooden games out there that have pieces that are too big to eat and too sturdy to destroy. We’ve got a destroyer in the house, so we’re careful about which card games we play with the little Jack. As you play, try saying things like “Wow, dice, what should we do with these?” or ask questions like “Which side of the card should we use?” or “How do we get these guys to stand up?” Let the kids be the problem solvers, even if their solutions aren’t what you would normally come up with. It’s ok if they use dice to build towers or are more interested in the backs of the cards than the front.  Just remember, if all you do is get a game box out, look at all the pieces with your kid, and put if back in the box, you haven’t failed! You’ve succeeded at starting them down a path of learning to love games. 
"Chicken! Egg!"

 3.       Appreciate the art, the novelty, and the fun of the game. Get excited about the characters and feel free to play with the game like a toy. Watch what your kid likes to do with the pieces and use that insight to find good fits for future games. For example, if you get out Candy Land and your child just wants to match colors, then have fun matching colors with them, and store away that knowledge so that next time you can pull out a matching game like Memory instead. For example, my daughter uses this beautiful deck of Animal Rummy cards to play a game she created that seems to resemble Magic the Gathering (not too surprising, since we play it all the time). The animals line up in a row, you use cards of the same color to activate them, and then they tap to attack each other. I try to appreciate her ingenuity, creativity, and love for gaming and introduce her to other cards games she might like instead of getting bummed that we won’t be playing Animal Rummy anytime soon. 

4.       Try taking turns. Whatever you are doing, try staggering it into your turn/my turn patterns. Make sure they aren’t having to wait very long to do something, because that’s not even fun for us grown-up patient gamers.

"...and we could use these as stop signs..."

5.       As you play and enjoy the game pieces, gradually introduce new concepts that will form the basis for the game rules. You can roll a die and say “oh look, I got 4 spots on this die roll, what if I move this guy 4 spaces on this path. One-two-three-four.”  Or,  “Oh look, I have 4 of these stone cards, and no wheat. Do you want to trade one of your wheat cards for one of my stone cards?” Don’t push your kids to do the same, just model the ideas. Start introducing the actions and parameters that define the game in a fun way. Try not to put emphasis on “right” and “wrong“  ways to play. It’s pretty natural to get excited when your child starts coming up with their own ways to play that are very similar to the “real rules”, but try not to get disappointed if all they want to do is play their own way.

6.       Break down more complicated games into stuff your child recognizes. Come up with some fun mini-games using the game components that highlight some of the interactions and rules. For example, if your child knows how to play Memory and you want to teach them Settlers of Catan, you can play a memory matching game with the pieces. Place all of the hex tiles face down in the shape of the island and take turns turning them over. Whenever you get a match, you collect a resource card of that type. You can use the resource cards to build roads, settlements, cities, and development cards (using the costs on the reference card from the game) and have a goal of being the first one to build one of each, or whatever else sounds fun. That way they are learning that the hex tiles correlate to resources, and that you get sets of resources to build stuff in the game. Then when you introduce the game, those basic concepts will form the foundation. You can go as far as you want with this, depending on your child’s age/skill/interest level/etc. Breaking the game down to its core mechanics will help your kids form a library of “game rules” that you can use when you are learning new games, and using those mechanics to help teach other games (like in my Memory>Settlers example) gives kids a chance to practice something they already know in a new context, while establishing new skills. Win-win!

"This card matches. 1000 points!"
7.       When you think your child is ready and receptive, ask them if they want to learn a new way to play with the game. You can hype this as much or as little as is appropriate for your child. Some kids can’t wait to learn the “grown-up” rules, while some might not care. Take your time with it, play with lots of different games, and encourage your kids to make up their own rules too. Don’t be surprised if their rules don’t make sense to you, your rules probably don’t make much sense to them either. Try to incorporate as many examples from your “play time” with the game as possible. “Remember when you thought it would be cool to use stone cards to build a castle? Well in this game there are these cool pieces called cities that are kinda like castles, and they cost some stone to make. Pretty cool hunh?” or “I really liked that rule you came up with about matching the colors on the cards to the colors on the board. In this game, you kinda do that too! But instead of putting your cards on the board, you move this little candy guy to the next space of that color, see how I’m doing it?” Kids learn and remember things better when they can connect it to prior experiences, and by activating those memories or ideas, you are helping them to build important connections as well as validating their own creativity.

8.       Take out any complicated or confusing rules that you don’t feel your child is ready for. It’s ok to play games however you want, really. The designers don’t know you or your kids, and if you think it would be more fun some other way, then go ahead! You can always add in the more advanced rules later, or change the way you play altogether. As a personal note, we somehow manage to play almost every game wrong the first few times; we misread the rules, miss an important part, or just forget something all together. Here’s the big secret: It always turns out ok. We relearn the rules the “right way” when we find out later, and your kids can too. It’s really no big deal. My one caveat is try not to write off a game entirely when you aren’t playing it the way it was intended, it might honestly be much more fun if you play it right. Shelf it or whatever, but be willing to give the “real” rules a chance when your family is ready. It might still not be the game for you, but at least you’ll have given it a fair shake.

"Ohh, maybe I can go THAT way..."

9.       Quit while you are still having fun. You don’t have to play to the end. If your child loses interest, pack it up and be sure to thank them for playing with you. If a tantrum or other behaviors make the game unpleasant, then feel free to stop for that too. You can always take a break and leave it out to come back to when the child has calmed down/taken a nap/had a snack/ran three laps around the yard. Putting away a game with a screaming kid will leave a sour taste on the experience for both of you. Try to have a fun transition planned, and keep the experience positive whenever possible.

10.   Praise ideas and creativity and problem solving more than luck and winning. It’s cool and fun when they roll a 6 or draw the card they needed, but it’s way cooler when they figure out how something works, play graciously, or come up with a clever move.

The Long Road…But It’s Worth Taking.
This might seem like a hard or time-consuming path to playing games with your kids. It helps if you are as obsessed with games as we are. Kids often want to do what their parents do more than anything else. If you love playing games and really can’t wait to play them with your kids; don’t think of these experiences as “less cool” because they aren’t  always the full game or whatever, just try to have fun and enjoy your time with your child. During those moments in which you feel like you are torturing yourself, remember the payout: bonding with your little ones, their future fond childhood memories of playing games as a family, increased critical thinking and problem solving skills, social development, and potentially a lifelong gaming buddy. It’s totally worth it.
Sound off
What has worked (or NOT worked) for you in playing games with kids? Agree or disagree with something I’ve said? Questions? Ideas? We’d love to hear from you, so please leave us a comment!


  1. Great article! Full of good ideas for giving kids a good start on playing and loving games.

  2. Okay this is a little off topic but it's a question I'm been wanting to post to your blog and it's about kids and games so I'll do it here.
    One question I've been struggling with as a new(ish) parent is kids and video games. My son has been using the computer since he was 18 months old and if I let him he'll spend many hours a day poking around with basic windows games, pbs kids, pinball, etc. He loves it and it gives me a little break (to change a diaper or breastfeed these days) but I do worry about him having too much screen time.
    I mean, he's still coming into the real world, how healthy is it for him to be spending hours a day immersed in the virtual world? There is a physical side to this (developing body clicking a mouse instead of running around playing) and a mental side too. I have tried to set time limits but so far that has been an epic struggle that he usually wins. On the plus side I can see how computer games allow him to self-directed and learn about what he's interested in (lately he's been exploring words and spelling.)
    I honestly don't know what I think about kids and computer games, it seems to have so many pros and cons. There are amazing online games for kids, but it makes me sad to hear how in many neighborhoods kids don't go outside to play anymore because they're all inside on the couch. I heard on the radio that the army had to redo boot camp because the new generation of recruits were so much weaker than previous generations. Do you guys have any thoughts on this? Sorry for the long post. :)

    BTW I loved this post and I actually wrote a more relevant comment about it a while back but it got lost while trying to validate my profile or something.

  3. Thanks Jess, I'm glad you enjoyed it! Wow. Video games are a biggie, and something I suppose each family has to make their own decisions on. I have a whole other personal conundrum about video games and that has to do with violence in games, but I think that might warrant its own post or comment. Something we’re still trying to figure out. However, since you asked, here's my take on kids playing video games in general… I think that video games are cool. They offer amazing opportunities for puzzle solving, coordination building, engagement, attention, and focus that I think are very appropriate for little kids. Games of all sorts provide kids with an environment in which trying and failing is ok and intrinsic rewards for doing complex tasks are inherently built in. For example, we were playing this game with Katie on my iPhone last night called Cut the Rope. It’s simple, there’s a piece of candy on a rope and you cut it with your finger and the candy drops down to the hungry monster below. But then the game adds in complexity of timing, moving parts, swinging ropes, obstacles, and more. So now it’s try to cut the rope when the candy is swinging at the right angle to have it fly into Om Nom’s mouth. Good stuff there. It’s physics and trajectories and she is able to experiment over and over in a way that would be impractical to do in “real life”. She’s learning patience and persistence and puzzle solving and coordination and timing and a whole handful of skills that are not even what the game is about. If you look at any well-made game you’ll see so much more than the surface educational value. In this case, in Cut the Rope Katie can try and try again, and when she is successful she is rewarded with the intrinsic reward of accomplishment for “figuring it out!”. Additionally the game provides additional feedback and rewards by giving a cute monster eating candy visual, and another fun new puzzle to solve. My point is that I think these are experiences are more than just “idle screen time”. If the question was should I let my kids play video games instead of watch TV then I would answer “absolutely yes- 100%- all of the time”. If we’re talking interactive gameplay versus passive viewing then hands down I think that’s a win. (to be continued...)

  4. (continued... who knew there was a character limit on comments!?)

    I’ve heard people talk about setting video game limits and not letting kids become couch potatoes playing games all day, but then let their kids watch 4 Disney movies in a row… or have the TV on chattering non-stop all day long in the background. And commercials… gah! I won’t even go there right now except to say I would rather my kids play video games all day than watch 15 minutes of kids commercials. A bunch of clever science-y researchers have come up with the recommendation to limit screen time for kids, I think it’s none for babies under 2, like 30 minutes a day for 2-3 or maybe 4 year olds, and maybe 2 hours total for bigger kids? Most in-the-know doctors and child specialists seem to agree with this idea, so it’s probably pretty solid advice. I certainly haven’t done any studies on it and don’t think I know what is best for the masses. I just know that Katie plays video games and she is a bright little girl who has “a billion” other interests as well. I think balance is important in all things, and I would not want my kids playing video games all day long to the exclusion of other activities. Katie loves to play games, but she also likes to do a whole slew of other things and she spends much much more of her total time engaged in other activities, so when she wants to veg out and play games for an hour or two (ok secretly between you and me and whoever else might read this I’ve even let her play for *GASP* more than two hours at a time…!) I don’t really see a problem. I would advise though that if you are going to set a limit to enforce it (i.e. either don’t have that power struggle at all, or make sure it was worth having by not letting it result in him getting what you didn’t want). We’ve used timers with good success; “You can play this game for 15 minutes, when this timer goes off you’ll need to stop and pick something else to do, ok?” and getting agreement beforehand that those are the conditions. That might be a good approach. Also, we often make video game time kind of a family thing. She watches what I play and asks questions, I watch her and ask questions, sometimes we play together and sometimes we take turns. Anyhow, the “Growing Up Gamers” view is YAY FOR GAMES! Let him play games, and come over for another game night soon and we can try out a family game all together. See? Balance!

  5. Thanks Angie! I agree with just about everything you said. I have a zero tolerance for commercials and that is one ideal I haven’t let slide. Pretty much we never watch TV. Movies are okay now and then, and I agree that playing games is something different all together, even if it too involves staring at a screen. I know Katie is amazing and also plays video games, so that is encouraging. I guess the reason I worry about Sam is because he becomes so obsessive about it. He asks to play all day and has a major meltdown when it’s time to get off. We tried the timer but it didn’t seem to help the transition. Sometimes I just let him play till he’s done and he gets off of his own accord (yes sometimes longer than two hours) but other times he’ll get frustrated and kinda strung out but seems unable to walk away. Just writing this (and reading what you wrote) makes me realize what he probably needs is more time where I am sitting down with him at the computer, helping him through it. And maybe we need to find some new better games for him. Thanks for the advice! And YES to family game night!!

  6. Great post, and good advice for us gamers, who can often be a little too concerned about components and rules.

  7. @ Jess

    I think it's really interesting that you've got a little tyke who is so quick to learn! The only line that gave me pause was:
    > I have tried to set time limits but so far that has been an epic struggle that he usually wins.
    You're the grownup, they're the child, and most importantly - screen time is not essential. It has to go off when you decide it! That's as easy as setting a screensaver password.

  8. I have to start playing more board games with the kids but it's so hard because of their age difference. My daughter is 7 and a good reader but her brother is 4 and just starting to read and he gets very frustrated.

  9. growing games are one of the best spot which has games for kids so i would like to appreciate you on this nice post so keepit up

  10. Great post! I appreciate the tips. We have found teaching in steps to work great for us. We'll strip some more complex things out of the rules and then add something new each time we play. Soon we are playing games using the full rules.

    Another thing that works for our non-readers is playing games with symbols or icons and are not language dependent. With repetition they can learn the symbols and what they represent.

  11. Very good and detailed tips. Useful text really!