Every more or less crazy (when it comes to board games of course) parent dreams of finding a gaming partner in their kid as soon as possible. In theory it’s rather easy. Every kiddo will be obviously delighted if the parents want to play with him. Well, it turns out not to be always as easy as one could imagine. I’m a dad myself and quite often I have an opportunity to watch other parents with their kids at conventions or gaming meetings and I can clearly see mine and theirs both great ideas and disastrous mistakes. I’m not trying to convince anyone here that I’m the master boardgamer dad, but I hope I can give you several tips that, according to my experience, will help you enjoy your time playing board games with a pre-school child.
Tip 1. Don’t push it.
If your four years old son wants to play LEGO even though you’ve offered him a board game instead, then I hate to bring it to you, but: you’re playing LEGO. If your five year old daughter instead of playing Spot It! would rather draw, you better get some crayons. Even the best game will make no one happy if you have to squeeze the board down your kid’s throat.
Of course, we can try and negotiate: we’ll draw some pictures if you play a game with me afterwards. In the end, everyone should have some fun, right? Although, if the answer is a straight out „no” – tough luck, you’re not playing games today.
If you want to play with a four year old and you’re putting TTA on the table, there is a slight chance it might not work out. Every kid grows in more or less similar phases when it comes to the ability of long-term focus, association skills, counting, logic thinking. Choose a game that matches your kid’s age, maybe just setting the bar a bit higher. When my daughter was four we played Celestia a lot – we would just take the special cards out and keep our point cards face up so that I could have counted them for both of us. If you push them slightly towards their own limitations, we make the kids develop their skills, not to mention how satisfied we get to be as parents. Unfortunately, Castles of Burgundy still have to wait when it comes to my daughter, but hey! Let’s not lose hope!
Tip 3: Appreciate your kid.
You have the smartest kid in the world. And the best. And the –est in general. And it needs to hear it from you. Every single day. When at a gaming meeting I put some kids game on the table and hear a parent saying “oh no, you won’t handle this one kids, let’s play something simpler” I really feel like banging them with this damn box on their heads. Appreciate your kid, believe in it, respect it. Not setting impossible tasks for it does not mean taking it for a dummy. If you keep doing that, the kid will finally believe it is actually dumb.
Tip 4: Teach them how to lose.
Playing a board game – in most cases – ends up with a loss. It’s simply the matter of a situation when four people sit at a table. For one person to win, three have to lose. Our kids learn best by imitation – that’s why our reaction to losing is so important. If we get annoyed by “getting our ass kicked by a kiddo” or, God forbid, we simply take offence and refuse to play another game because we lost, the results of such an example will come quickly back to us. If you lose to your kid it’s a reason for proper joy! A real opponent for Agricola, War of the Ring or Twilight Struggle is raising in the room next door! Congratulate them on winning, hug them, show your pride and respect. Seriously, I can’t underline hard enough how much it is important and reassuring, do not forget about it.
Tip 5: Give them a chance. Sometimes.
Let me get it straight: I’m not telling you to simply let them win. My friend taught me once that the only sure way to make it impossible for someone to win is to lose intentionally. It’s not them who win in such a case – it’s you losing. Yuck. But sometimes we can simply not exercise the already learnt winning strategy and not stomp the kid into the battleground with like 100 VP advantage. Try new tactics in Ribbit, make a random, out-of-ordinary move in Stone Age Junior. In games that allow it, play the harder level than your kid. Joy of winning will flush your kid’s brains with endorphins – and believe, their mind will remember it well and connect the feeling with board games. You want it. You want it badly 🙂
I’m really not a big fan of co-ops. I can’t find the emotions in them, I have no one to win against and they usually bore me (with a few exceptions). But for my daughter Magic Maze is one of the best games ever. We’re competing together against this damn sand timer. Kids really have fun when they’re doing something together with their parents and in cooperative games we fight the battle together and in the end you will always see their eyes shining and hear the loud sigh of relief when you finally beat the game. Last but not least, such games create a strong child-parent bond. You simply love each other more.
Tip 7: Stir the emotions.
Pre-school kid’s attention span is like a tiny, wild pony. You lose it from sight for a second and here it went! You have to keep the heat up! “I’m curious if we can beat the maze this time?”, „Hey, you turtle, where are you running?!” or “Oh my, can we make it? Grab my hand, cause I’m a bit scared!”. These are of course only examples that you need to adjust to your child’s sensitivity, but any form of stimulation during the game will – again – add some more of these magic endorphins, which in turn will convert to positive associations with board games.
Tip 8: Never refuse a game.
OK, so if you are already imprinting the love for games to your child, don’t be surprised when it asks you to play something together from time to time. I’m not saying you need to run and play at 4 AM, but if it’s time to do something together and you’re being asked to play a game, you simply can’t refuse. Let the child choose the game, and if it can’t do it yet, you offer a title and then play it. This way you will teach your kid that board games are something really cool, something that you can both always do and have fun. They will know that if they want to spend some time with you, all they need to do is offer a game and they have your time “guaranteed”.
Tip 9: Educate.
Even if you’re playing Carcassonne Kids for the fifteenth time, a six year old is fully entitled to forget a rule or two. Don’t get mad, but patiently remind them of the relevant rule and teach to obey the rules in general – every game consists of components and rules and only if you put them together you can have fun – if you don’t play by the rules it will make no sense. It’s a very important lesson that will impact your child’s future life – both in school and in their relationships with peers. It is as important as teaching respect towards game components. Even putting it all back to the box can become yet another part of the game – teaching them tidiness at the same time.
Hey, it’s a little kid. In spite of all the tips and rules, they can get bored or distracted and it’s not their fault – it’s their feature. If in the middle of the game your child will suddenly insist on changing a rule or even more – use the components for some sort of made-up game, simply let them. In the end of the day it’s all about doing stuff together. Of course, it would be much cooler to finish the game first – and according to the rules (as stated in Tip 9), but you can always play again later or some other day. The most important thing is to leave the table together and with smiles on your faces. It really doesn’t matter what did actually cause the smiles, does it?