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Introducing Games to Kids

Our friends at I Can Do That Games!, creators of several Parents' Choice Award-Winning games for children ages 3 & up, answer some frequently asked questions about introducing children to game play. They cover the tough issues like selecting age-appropriate products, hating to lose and hating to cleanup, but in the end, of course, it all comes down to good old-fashioned fun and games.

Are games really good learning experiences?
Keep it fun! Fun is the single most important objective.
The single most important thing when playing games is to have fun. Beyond that, games have a world to offer: they can teach how to be cooperative, strategic, competitive, confident, bold, risky, respectful, and a thousand other critical life lessons. But all of it will be lost on children if they don't enjoy the experience and want to play again and again.
Games help kids develop in different ways.
When preschoolers play a game, they are in top form. Games ask us to focus attention, absorb lots of new information, make decisions, and perform a multitude of actions in sequential order. In addition to putting all the mind muscles to work, games also get us to exercise our social sensibilities: patience, empathy, and compassion are all part of the skill-set that kids use when playing games.

A well-stocked game closet is an educational institution in your house. Well-made, well-designed games can be an endless source of learning and fun for you and your family. The more we, as parents, know about games, and especially how our particular child plays games, the richer our family's game experiences will be.

Is my child old enough?
Allow younger kids to repurpose a game and play in "toy mode."
Generally, young children start playing structured games, with rules and turn-taking, between 3½ and 5 years of age. Most kids younger than 4 don't yet have the ability to sit and wait (essentially doing nothing) while another player takes a turn.

Many younger kids will "repurpose" a game, playing with the components in a different way. They might build a stack of checkers, for example, alternate the colors, or roll them across the floor. This unstructured play is a healthy part of a younger child's development. In his mind he may be "playing the game," and it's important to encourage and support this interaction.

Too often a parent may introduce a game only to quickly decide that "my preschooler is not ready for this game" simply because they were not playing according to the rules. With younger children, be open to using the game "in toy mode" if your child is enjoying it and it is safe (consider choking hazards). Ask him how he plays. What has he discovered? Is there something important he can tell you about how to do that activity? For young children who may repurpose games, look for games that are colorful, have nice tactile components, moving parts, or physical full-body activities.

In time, your younger child will be able to sit for longer periods of time and allow turn-taking to happen. Focus, observation, patience, and sharing are all important life skills that your preschooler is learning during this time in her life. Games can help her practice these skills, as long as the overall play experience is enjoyable.

Why do I have to play the same game over and over again?
Kids need to play the same game many times to graduate to the next level.
Repeat play is key to the learning experience. Often a proverbial light bulb turns on and a new insight is discovered after the fourth, fifth, or twentieth time a game is played. Children develop mastery and confidence through repeat play. With each repeat play of a favorite game, a child feels more comfortable with the different dynamics at work, so repeat play affords your child an opportunity to relax more deeply during play. A relaxed and open mind creates the greatest bandwidth for new learning.

Many parents complain that if they have to play one more game of memory, Candyland, or Chutes and Ladders, they'll go bonkers. The best remedy for this is simply to add more games to your collection, so a bigger variety of play experiences is available. Don't make disparaging remarks about any game your child enjoys, he may be learning through play in ways that are beyond the simple rules of the game, or he may just enjoy spending time with you in a relaxing, familiar activity.

My child hates to lose. What should I do?
Unhappiness with losing is the single biggest concern we hear from parents.
There are many things in games that can make kids uncomfortable. Some kids don't like memory-based games, others might not like counting or being competitive. Having emotional stress from losing a game is the single biggest problem we hear parents complain about.

For many young children, it can be hard to lose a game. Self-esteem and self-confidence are just developing and it can be difficult to separate the idea of "I just lost this game" from "I'm not very good at things." Sometimes this can be too much for a child to bear, and tears, anger, or yelling are triggered. Some parents tell us that they simply avoid playing games altogether because it is just "too traumatic."

There are many things you can do with kids who have a hard time losing.
For a child who is sensitive about losing a game, try some of the following:
  • With younger children, let them win most of the time.
    Play games where you can fix the outcome so they win. At this stage of their development, it's more important that they enjoy playing and keep playing games. There is time to learn "how to lose well" down the road.

  • You can play competitive games cooperatively.
    Play collaboratively sometimes. There are collaborative games you can buy where everybody plays on the same team (The Grinch Sing Your Heart Out game, for example). You can also take a traditional competitive game and play with your child in a collaborative manner. Tell your child that you want to do "team play" this time. Then choose a token on the board that will be your team's token. Play against other tokens on the board and make them one or more imaginary opponents. Move the other tokens to the appropriate spot on their turn. You can even decide who these tokens belong to: Grandma, Aunt Sarah, a stuffed animal, and so on. If you and your child lose the game together, it is emotionally safer when you're on the same team.

  • Use an adult handicap.
    Change the rules of the game. Either take out the part of the game that may be unappealing to your child, or ask her if she wants to you to play with a handicap. Since you're the grown-up, you can play checkers with four fewer pieces than your child or let him start on space 20 of the Chutes and Ladders board. Another great variation with your kids is to let them switch positions with you and take over your position (space on the board, hand of cards, scoring pile, etc.) at any time during the game.

  • When you change the rules - name the new game.
    When you change the rules of a game or invent a new variation of the game, name that new game variation with your child. Maybe you call that new game "Mama Half Checker" or "Chutes and Ladders Boost 20" or "Battleship Switcherroo." Naming the game variation allows children to aspire to the regular version of the game as they grow older, and it teaches them that other people in the world (teachers, friends, Grandpa, etc.) play this game too, but in a slightly different way.

  • Talk BEFORE you play the game.
    As your child gets older and can better process and discuss his feelings, talk to him about wining and losing just before you start playing. You might say, "So, would it be okay if I were to win this game?" Then stop and don't say anything. Let him think about it and imagine what that would feel like. It's likely that he knows whether or not it would be okay. If he says it is not okay, don't try to convince him otherwise. Work out a way with him that he can avoid losing and then simply ask him the question again the next time you play. Eventually, it will be okay with him because ultimately he has a desire to play games the same way you play them.
What's the best way to learn a new game?
Parents fall into two groups when reading the rules.
Taking a new game out of the box usually means reading the rules. In our playtests with families, we find that parents fall into two groups when it comes to reading rules. The first group are parents who read the rules to themselves before it's time to play, and once they think they understand the game they try to explain it to their kids. The second group are parents who pick up the rules and begin reading aloud to everybody playing. Our advice is to be aware of what kind of rule-reader you are. Here's why:

Reading the rules to yourself before sitting down to play with your child can sometimes be more efficient, especially for a young child who may be confused by the "rulesy" language or a child who is very anxious to just start playing.

As your child gets older, try reading the rules aloud and learning the game together.
But reading the rules aloud has some distinct advantages. When you read aloud and your child learns the game with you, you are also modeling the behavior of learning and figuring something out. Your child experiences this with you and learns that new things often take patience, attention, and repeat study before they are understood. Reading the rules out loud also promotes auditory-based learning for both of you. If you read the rules aloud with every new game purchase, you'll be amazed at how adept your child becomes at auditory comprehension. By the time she is 8 or 9 years old, you'll finish reading the rules to a game, then very probably find out that your child understands and remembers all the rules better than you do.

Should I help my child during a game? If so, how much?

There are millions of people in the world who can't stand playing bridge, chess, some other game, or even playing piano because their "parents tried to teach them how to play." As parents, we want to help our kids and we want to give them the benefit of our experience. In a game, advice is often a mixed blessing, especially when it comes from a parent. For a child, advice can be a reminder of dependence and a reminder that the parent is better at the game.

When it comes to giving advice, we recommend two approaches:

  • Rather than give advice, talk about how you play the game when it's your turn.
    First, resist the temptation to give advice to the other player on his turn and instead role model that advice, while you speak to it, on your turn. For instance, when playing chess you might move your king's pawn while you say, "I like to advance the pawns in front of my queen and king as soon as I can because it gives me a lot of possibilities to move my stronger figures out."

  • Second, limit yourself to only giving one or two strategy tips per game (in the above method). Again, it's more important to have fun and ensure your child wants to play again. You can depart all your jewels of wisdom if you spread them out over a year of playing the game.
Which games should I give my child?
Buy games that give kids choice.
Many popular games for young children, like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders, consist solely of executable actions. In these games, a player spins a spinner, draws a card, moves a mover, and the overall luckiest player wins the game. While these games may help young children count, match colors, and take turns, they do not offer other educational or experiential opportunities.

As soon as kids master these skills, they are ready for games that ask each player to make choices during game play. There are many great games for young kids that involve making choices. All of the games in the I CAN DO THAT! product portfolio are designed to accomplish this in an age-appropriate way.

Look for quality-made games that can last for many years.
Look for quality-made games that can last for many years. Setting up a game or putting it away should be an enjoyable experience for your child. Even a well made box is important for the overall enjoyment of the game.

How can I get my child to clean up the game afterwards?
Getting kids to clean up their games takes patience and consistency on your part.
Getting kids to clean up games or anything else takes patience and consistency. When you play games with your child, put the game away together. If your child doesn't want to put it away, let him know your expectation that the players should always put the game away together.

If your child plays with games by herself or with friends, direct them to put a finished game away before the next toy or game is pulled out. If you come across games that are left out, rather than demand that they are put away immediately, which can be an interruption and a negative experience for children, tell them that the game needs to be put away as soon as they're finished with their current activity. Sometimes it works to insist that the game is put away before your child watches TV, gets on the computer, goes outside, or engages in the next fun activity. We recommend keeping the consequence of money and/or food (including dessert) out of the equation altogether.


I Can Do That Games!Reprinted with permission from I Can Do That! Games

I Can Do That! Games™ foster self-confidence by giving kids a chance to discover what they can do. Favorite Dr. Seuss, Curious George, and Richard Scarry characters come to life—challenging kids to run, slide, hide, seek, sort, explore—and more! By engaging kids physically, socially, and creatively, I Can Do That! Games™ provide endless hours of fun for the whole family. Click here for a list of I Can Do That! Parents' Choice Award-Winning games. Visit their website to learn more.


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