I’ve always heard jokes about “creating your own gamers” with your children. The idea being that you need to play games with your kids and show them the joy of gaming and over time they become your best gaming buddies. I knew that my daughters, with the father they have, would develop into gamers magnificently. I’ve taken pragmatic steps throughout their youth to show them how much fun they can have gaming and I’ve seen the skills gained through gaming translate nicely into other aspects of their lives.
Keep in mind that I am only writing from my perspective, and am detailing what I am seeing in my own children. All kids are different and you may have different paths of connections with your children. Being a parent is weird, but gaming with my daughters has definitely been a fun part of it. Here is what I have done to help their love of boardgames along:
1.) Play games with them as early as possible.
With both of my girls, I started gaming with them when they were old enough to indicate some simple concepts back to me. I think that was right before they turned three. They could roll a dice and wait for the result, they could draw a card and see an icon or color on it, and then wait for something to happen on the board. They could sit and listen to me explain something quickly, and when it was their turn to do something, they would happily do it, waiting for the next thing to happen.
2.) Be patient.
Maybe I started them too early…… But ultimately it taught me to be patient. I wasn’t always able to finish games with them as they would get distracted by something else. As they grew I think I may have tried to introduce games to them that were either too difficult, long-winded or thematically uninteresting and they wouldn’t want to play a full game. It happens. I gained a steely resolve in wanting them to enjoy gaming with me so I never forced it and if they weren’t in the mood, then we did something else. Reading, playing, running. Whatever it was, gaming could wait. Gaming eventually just became one of the things that we did together. Both girls would see gaming time as one of the elements of a good day, something that had to be checked off their mental list of things to do before bedtime. To this day if we don’t play some kind of game before day’s end, I get in trouble and usually have to promise double gaming time for tomorrow.
This is my favorite talking point. I cheated against my daughters HARD when they were young. In their first few years it was pretty rare for one of our games to not have some aspect heavily manipulated. I’ll explain why with this example: We had Candyland. Early on I identified this game for the opportunity it has to teach grit – that thing that keeps people going no matter how hard they are knocked down. The version of Candyland we had had the deck of cards, and I would hold the deck in my left hand. I would lean forward over the gameboard staring right at my daughter and every time she looked down at the board I would sneak a peek at the next card in the deck. Then, depending on what I saw, I would either ‘sleight of hand’ that card to the bottom or place it as the second card, or take the bottom card and return it to the top again. The reason I did this was so I could manipulate their emotional involvement in the game. If they were really behind and I saw them physically losing interest, or being sad, I would bring them up closer to the goal. If they were ahead and being arrogant or celebrating early, I would bring my pawn onto the heels of her pawn. Towards the end I would always let go and let the game unfold to reveal a winner. But……what this did was give them a ‘stick to it’ attitude that I can see in them to this day in many of the challenges they face as they grow up. They know to keep going and never give up when losing and to not go into ‘coast mode’ when winning.
Obviously, don’t ever let them see you do this. By the time they know what cheating is, just stop doing it. By then, they will have started their path to true grit and start competing heavily with you for victory.
4.) Give up the idea of winning or losing.
Smile when you win, smile when you lose. Show them that no matter the outcome of the game, their mom/dad just loves playing with them. At the end of the game, immediately ask them if they had fun, and tell them you are thankful that they took the time to play a game with you. Emphasis the good time you had, not whether or not you won or lost. Yeah, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” is a real quote that I feel is important early on. Eventually that attitude turns into trying to personally achieve your best, regardless of your opponent or the situation, which to me seems the right path for my kids.
5.) Buy games that are appropriate for their age.
When my oldest daughter was about 6 (making my youngest 4) my gaming collection was in clear plastic totes in the basement. I kept all the games I played with them upstairs in a small shelf. Occasionally, they would say they wanted to play a game but look at the selection like it was brussel sprouts. They knew I had more games though, so we would go downstairs and look at all the games I had amassed over the years. The problem with this was that I had a ton of games that were more adult-themed. Games like Arkham Horror, World of Warcraft TCG, Blood Bowl, Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Last Night on Earth…… you get the picture. I had to accept that my collection was not very child-friendly and that it desperately needed an update. So I sold some of my older games, making money and room for newer games and purposefully filled my collection with great games that are targeted more towards their age group. In the last year, the most played games in my house are Colt Express, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Robo Rally, Carcassone, Love Letter and Ticket to Ride.
6.) Keep to your family’s standards with content.
I feel that if you want gaming to be a part of your children’s life, game time should match your family’s values. What I am saying here is that you should do your research. Board games don’t really have ratings (at least nothing that is regulated), and that age on the side of box is more influenced by international customs laws than anything else. So make sure you are not unraveling your family’s views by bringing the wrong game into the house. You don’t want to be in a spot where you feel forced to play a game because you spent real money on it thereby throwing away your values because of that buyer’s remorse. For me, I stay away from anything that has women in degrading roles or merely shown as eye-candy for “I have two daughters” reasons. I also tend to stay away from anything too violent. Of course, Clue is one of our favorites and it essentially starts with a murder, but my standard here is blood spatter (I know, weird). But that is me, you are probably different. Make targeted purchases that back up what you feel is the best path for your kids’ mental growth.
7.) Tell your friends of your plan and have them game with you.
It is rare that I don’t see my gamer friends in any given week, and normally we are gaming. And some of those times I host the games at my place. Only one of these guys has kids of his own. If you are in a similar situation, tell your friends of your plan. Get them to help you by showing their best when around your kids. When my girls come around the gaming table, they will often want to participate, or sit in my lap and roll the dice for me, or hold my hand of cards. I’m fortunate that my friends don’t have any issue with this ‘delay of game’ and frankly I doubt they would be my friends if they saw their presence as a nuisance. My daughters see me have a great time with my friends around the gaming table, and I’m sure they will have great memories of the times we include them in our weekly games.
8.) Organize your games by “slots” and fill those slots.
While updating my game collection, I recognized that there are so many games available that I clearly needed a purchasing plan. Most games can be categorized by theme and game mechanics and I wanted to make sure to get a good variety of the later. I bought at least two of each type of game that had aspects I wanted to show my girls; Mechanics such as Co-op, Strategy, Deck Builders, Hidden Agendas, Head-to-Head, etc. With many different types of games, there are many more ways they can learn new things. When I first played Clue with them they both had a hard time keeping their hand secret from me. Eventually they figured out to not tip their hand of cards forward while they played. Additionally they learned that I was picking up on their other social clues to deduce what they had. Now when we play Love Letter or Sheriff of Nottingham it is rare that I can tell what they are up to, it’s great.
But get a good variety and make sure to switch the games around, for your sake and theirs. Twenty games back-to-back of Viva Topo is going to make you crazy and if your kids are like my girls, they will end a game by immediately asking to play another round of the same game. What I did was set up a section on my boardgame shelf that is for their games, and I always place the ones we recently played aside for a few rotations.
9.) Try to always find a way to say ‘Yes’ when asked to play with them.
In a normal night at our house we play one or two games. But sometimes we just get too busy and aren’t able to sneak a game in before bedtime. When the girls ask to play a game and stay up late, I like to negotiate and promise that we will play a game immediately after school the next day. Essentially I said No, but I did it in a way that guarantees a future game which makes them look forward even more to the next day. Or maybe you need to say No because there is something that needs to be done instead, like cleaning up around the house. Sometimes look at the mound of papers and crayons and legos on the gaming table and say, “Yeah, we can play a game, when that whole table is cleared and everything from it is put away where it is supposed to go.” That table gets cleared REAL fast, but I get time to do a round of dishes or clean a different room…. or just think.
10.) Celebrate smart plays.
This goes a bit with what I was saying before, but at the end of every game, control the conversation and steer it towards something that happened that was interesting in the game. You will play tons of games, and everyone will have their fair share of wins and losses. But unexpected plays are awesome and a great source of learning. I like to end a game by pointing out some move that was executed that I thought could have gone another way, or congratulating one of my girls on a specific move she made, and we talk about how it translated into an advantage in-game. These conversations help them to think about their own strategies and find new ones. In the games that we have that are directly competitive I find great joy when one of my daughters blindsides me with some move that I wouldn’t even think of myself. Even when I do see it coming I love that they think about their options so intensely that they come up with something out of the ordinary. I’m sure this kind of problem solving and quick thinking will help them immensely as they grow.
11.) Play ‘open-handed’ as much as possible.
As a strategy for teaching new players, veterans will often suggest playing a round or two open handed. Then the veteran player can walk everyone through all the ways that each card is played and what can be done. When playing with your children, try to play open-handed as much as possible, but your hand only….. and for your head. For example, when playing a competitive strategy game, there are multiple points in the game where you need to rely on a bit of deception to get some advantage. When you hear those words in your head, “….If she does that I can do X which will let me do Y and it’s over…” just blurt out what you are thinking. Doing this will likely make you lose many games. But in the future, you can ‘take off the training wheels’ occasionally and see how they fare against you. When we got Jaipur, I used this ‘open-handed’ tactic for the first 3-5 games. We played many more games and currently I am on a five-game losing streak with my oldest daughter….
12.) Don’t forget physical games too.
We play a lot of games outside too. We are fortunate to live near a disc golf course but unfortunate enough to live near Seattle, so it’s basically mud out there 3/4 of the year. But we play in other ways outside, such as the old basic “throwing the ball with dad.” Both my girls can throw nearly perfect spirals because of all of our time together and they often show up most kids in their age range which of course I absolutely love. When the girls were young I was often asked if my wife and I were going to keep trying until we get a boy and I always responded by saying, “Nope, I’ll just teach these two how to throw a football and throw a punch and we’ll be good to go.” Well…. throwing a punch has the same fundamentals (it starts with your feet and you pivot your whole body for maximum power) as throwing a football, so I can’t wait for that lesson.
We also run a lot…..man do we run. Once getting out of the car at the grocery store, an older customer commented that my girls dash out of the car like they are storming the place because the car parks and then we are all in the store in under 5 seconds. It’s quite funny as they both compete to be the first one in the store, the first one to the cookie counter, the first one to touch the car on our return. I’m glad they are growing physically and learning to run and play and have fun with each other.
13.) Bend the rules.
On some of our more long-winded games that have huge rulebooks it’s often hard for my kids to remember every detail and aspect of what resources are available to them. And sometimes I just plain forget as well. I’ve tried to play games with them in a more loose fashion than I do with my adult gaming buddies. When in the middle of a game, I try not to pause the action to go read the rulebook. It’s incredibly boring and my adult friends can barely handle it, I don’t know how I can expect my daughters to handle my rules lawyering. Back when I had my game store, a popular game series had a general rule that if you are in the middle of a game and get into a rules argument that you should roll a d6 to determine what is the correct action, and then look up the rules after the game. I’ve pretty much adopted this for a lack of knowledge with the rules too, and often we just go with what seems right for the context of the game. In between games I make sure to read up on the rules so we play everything correctly, but it’s hard to keep it all in order.
14.) Tell a story and let them tell one.
Many of the new games that have been released in the last few years are heavily steeped in theme. In addition to what I said about managing content, it is great to play into the theme of a good game and let your child’s imagination fly. After seeing the Star Wars movies it’s hard to keep my girls away from Star Wars games, they love the universe that’s been created. In my game collection I’ve made sure to get a bunch of different themes, from pirates to cowboys to science fiction to fantasy and giant monsters. I read the flavor text and theorize with them how the people of the world we are playing in may actually live. It’s great fun and often makes the games take longer, but that’s the best part.
The ability to tell a story and keep an audience is something that my daughters have developed quickly and they come up with the funniest things to say. One of my favorite interactions was when my youngest daughter asked, “If lightsabers can only be stopped by other lightsabers, why don’t they make armor out of their lightsabers?” Good point baby girl, I don’t have an answer for that one…..
As an example, I wrote about playing DungeonQuest when my oldest daughter was four. It was less gaming and more storytelling, you can read about it…HERE
15.) Look for opportunities to teach something.
Gaming teaches so much and I’m sure you may have seen it in your own children. They learn to solve problems, think quickly and differently and set short-term and long-term goals and achieve them. Not to mention all the reading and math that is required for gaming. And I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of teaching buzzwords….I’m just a dad. There is so much to learn that gaming can help with, and its fun to find those ways to learn. For example, early on I would never add the dice together when I rolled two or more dice. I would just ask them to tell me what I rolled or what they rolled, every time. For example, I wrote about a quick math game I made up for one of my daughters in another blog entry…HERE
Numerous times a game has sparked a larger conversation that turns into a round of Googling some subject, often on something where I get to learn things as well. Did you know bees have a range of temperatures that they operate in, and that not all bees have the same temperature range? Well, I know that now and so do my daughters. Looking back on it, I’m not really sure how that came up…..but it did through gaming somehow.
I’ve been gaming since I was 9 and I look forward to being a large part of my children’s gaming career. At the beginning I had to trudge through multiple games of Sorry, Operation, Uno, and Candyland but the payoff has been huge. They both are so smart and they think so critically about the world around them. I can’t attribute it all to gaming, but I know it has had a lot of influence. And man….it’s just fun to set up games with each other, play a round or two, and then put it all back away onto the gaming shelf before bedtime.
Thank you for reading, let me know if you have found anything that works for you and your family. And definitely let me know if you’ve found games that you love playing with your kids, I still have room on my shelf for more. =)
David Gerrard – @dagerr