Four “Rules” for Playing Games with Your Children

Board games are a common playtime staple in most households. However, many parents often overlook the hidden difficulties in productively playing a game with a young child. After many years of “chuting and laddering” my way around a game board with my own children and helping countless kindergarten children learn to play games peacefully among themselves, I settled on four “rules” for successfully playing games with young children.

Playing Candyland with Dad

4 Essential Rules

  1. Assess your child’s abilities and, if necessary, modify the instructions to make the game age-appropriate. For example, consider allowing everyone to start playing Candy Land at a midway point along the path (such as Gum Drop Castle or the Gingerbread Man’s House) so the game takes 15 minutes to play rather than 30 minutes, which is more in-line with a young child’s attention span. Or, allow each player to pick two cards each turn, instead of just one card, so all players move more quickly around the winding path to the finish line. However you modify the rules, modify them for everyone. Children and parents should begin at the same point and play by the same rules. Also, explain to your child that you are changing the rules slightly so the game does not take as long, for example. That way he will understand both what the traditional rules are and what modifications can be made to change the game.

    Playing Candyland

  2. Play fairly with your child. This means that sometimes your child will win and sometimes he will lose. And for parents with more than one child at home, a reality of life in your household is that at least one of your children will lose each time your family plays a game together. Allowing your child to win each time (or engineering it so that your children take turns winning), can lead to numerous problems:

    Your child will not enjoy playing games with his peers, since they likely will not alter the game to ensure he wins.

    If your child knows he is going to win each time he plays, games will quickly stop being exciting. The true fun of winning is the excitement involved. And if your child knows that victory is a foregone conclusion, he will quickly lose interest in the activity.

    If your child never loses, he cannot learn the essential life skill of learning how to manage feelings of disappointment. The privacy of your home is an ideal environment for your child to learn how to graciously accept defeat and manage feelings of disappointment.

    The most important thing parents can do to affect the balance of who wins and who loses is to choose age-appropriate games where all players, regardless of age, have a nearly equal chance of winning. Games like Chutes and Ladders, Hi Ho Cherry O, and Candy Land are, for example, perfect for 3-5 year olds since they are 100% games of luck and everyone has an equal chance of picking a card or landing on a number that advances them more rapidly through the game. For children ages 5-7, consider games such as Sorry or Trouble, where only basic strategy is required and most children will still have an equal opportunity to win.

  3. Take time throughout the game to talk about how some players fall behind and some take a lead. Consider comments such as, “I’m trying to catch you, but I keep landing on the chutes!  Maybe next time I’ll get to climb more ladders!” Or, “That was such a lucky card to pick - I get to jump all the way to the Gum Drop Castle. Do you remember how last time we played you picked the Gum Drop Castle card?”  Through these comments, you will reinforce the idea that playing games is fun, regardless of whether you’re winning or losing. You’ll also remind your child that sometimes one person gets lucky and the next week it might be a different person’s turn to win.

  4. Celebrate the end of the game with a very brief “Awards Ceremony.”  Give all players the opportunity to congratulate the winning player and for the winner to celebrate his victory in an appropriate way. Particularly for young children, it is difficult to be a gracious loser or a humble winner. By giving your child the opportunity to practice accepting defeat gracefully and celebrating victory quietly, your child will gain crucial social skills that will help him peacefully plays games with friends.

Try this at home

Start a Family Game Night tradition in your home. Whether you are able to play twice a week, once a week, or once a month, find a time when all members of your family will be available to devote 30 minutes to a board game. Help get your family excited for the big event by involving your children in creating fliers or invitations announcing the game. Depending on your children’s ages, you can give them the date and time and let them create the entire invitation or you can print the basic information for your children and let them illustrate or address the invitations to each member of the family. You can also allow your children to pick the game that will be played or the snack that will be served during or afterwards.

Then, when the time to play arrives, encourage your children to set up the game and alert everyone that it is time to play. By involving your children in planning the activity, your children will feel as though they are hosting it and will likely be even more eager to participate.

Candyland hi-five

Also, during the game, be sure to express your own excitement or disappointment at how you are performing. By calmly expressing your joy at being in the lead, for example, you will model for your child how to be a gracious winner. When in last place, you can model for your child your excitement each time you pick a card and your hope that you’ll have “better luck next time.” Children often mimic the emotions and actions of their parents, and this is a great time to demonstrate positive winning and losing behaviors.

What can you share with other parents?

What games do you and your children enjoy playing together?  Have you modified any traditional games to better suit your family or your children’s specific preferences?  If you have children more that two years apart in age, how do you find a game that all family members can play, be engaged by, but still have an equal chance of winning?

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Images used under Creative Commons from Gracie and Viv, amboo who?, and NathanReed.