Game on!

Family game night is something we’ve tried to do on a regular basis.

It is a great way to unplug from technology and  connect to one another. When our two oldest were little game nights were easy. Not only are they are close in age, but we had a one-parent to one-child ratio.

Fast forward a few years.

We had four kids, and the age gap between numbers two and three was four years. Game nights became less fun and more torture for this mama. I’d try to balance an infant and grabby toddler while engaging with the older two. It was exhausting!

Hungry Hippos

We decided we had to divide and conquer. My husband played with the big kids and I wrangled the littles, playing simpler games with them until they were ready for Sorry or Clue. For the toddler and preschooler, Family Game Night was more like Family Game 15-Minutes, but they soon got the routine and I’m glad they did.

A lot of cognitive and social development happens when kids play games. They hone their social skills by taking turns and practicing sportsmanship. Children stretch their memories and learn sequencing steps, like rolling dice or spinning a spinner before moving a game-piece or taking some other action. They practice matching, counting, and color and shape recognition. Games also help introduce new language concepts, including prepositions and novel action words – you may not be a native Spanish speaker, but I bet you’ve shouted “Uno!” at least once. Best of all, these things happen in a natural and fun environment.

Finding board games simple enough for two and three year-olds can be challenging. Most games  target children from preschool age up, but there’s good news! I’ve put together a list of games you can use with kids around age three, games I’ve used with kids in this age-range successfully. Some of these require modification for a younger players, but I’ll give you my tips for making those modifications.

If you’re interested any of the games I’ve included, clicking the picture, or the link will take you to the related Amazon page. When you click through one of our links to Amazon and make a purchase, We play. I learn. earns a small percentage on the sale. So, we really appreciate those click throughs and purchases.

Roll and Play®

This is a perfect first game for toddlers. The die is a large plush cube that players take turns rolling. After rolling the die, they’ll match the color to a card and perform the activity on the card. The activities range from “find something blue” to “moo like a cow” (perfect for receptive language skills).

While you can allow the little one to make every roll and perform every action, I really encourage you to take turns. The cognitive and speech skills are fantastic, but don’t forget the social skills your child can develop through this activity. It’s a golden opportunity for you to model patience and encouragement, as they take their turn, then coach them as you take yours. This is great preparation for future play with other children where turn taking and encouragement are so very important.

Crocodile Dentist®

This is a simple turn taking game. You and your child take turns pushing the croc’s teeth one-by-one until…SNAP! The croc’s mouth shuts, “biting” the player’s finger.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt. Still, some kids will be scared of this game. In my family, most of my kids loved the surprise, but one of them wanted nothing to do with this game. You know your child. If he or she’s wary of unpredictable toys, like a jack-in-the-box, this is a game you  may want to skip.  Some kids, on the other hand, find it hilarious.

I love Crocodile Dentist® because it’s fast paced. Little ones don’t have to wait very long until it’s their turn, and this makes it perfect for teaching turn-taking to kids who have trouble waiting. I make it a point to say, “Your turn” and “My turn” as we go back-and-forth to help them get the rhythm of taking turns and to understand the concept.

Pop up Pirate®

Like Crocodile Dentist®, Pop up Pirate® incorporates the element of surprise. In this game, players take turns placing swords into a barrel until one of the swords makes the pirate pop out.  In addition to teaching turn-taking, this game also incorporates a few other developmental skills. Fine motor growth is incorporated as the child works to fit each sword into a hole. Because kids have to use two hands – one for holding the barrel and one to place the sword – bilateral coordination comes into play. Also, the swords come in different colors so you can work on color identification.

Barnyard Bingo®
This is one of my favorites and it’s been around a long time. It’s a simple turn-taking and matching – animals and colors – game.

Barnyard Bingo consists of four different colored “fences”. Each fence has three animal pictures and a set of corresponding coins (a.k.a. bingo chips), which are kept inside the barn. When the barn door is opened, one coin comes out (and the door makes a fun noise). Players take turns opening the door, getting a coin, and matching it to the right spot. Each coin must match both an animal and color, so it’s a bit more challenging than simply matching one or the other. For example,  if a child gets a coin that doesn’t belong on their fence, the coin goes back in the barn. This can be a little confusing for younger children so I make some modifications.

My modification for younger children is that I set out all four fences and just take turns getting coins and placing them wherever they goes. When all the fences are full we cheer ourselves for finding all the matches.

With older children, each player has his or her own color fence. Each player’s goal is to fill that player’s fence and call out: Bingo!

Lucky Ducks®

I’m going to warn you, this game is loud and it quacks! We handled this by playing it sparingly and storing it out of reach! Still (or maybe because of the quacking), kids love it.

Lucky Ducks® is a simple color matching game. The ducks go round-and-round on a lazy river (don’t fear, there’s no water; it’s a blue plastic treadmill). Players take turns picking a duck from the river and looking under it to see if the circle on the duck’s underside matches the colored circles on the player’s lily pad. If the colors match, the player places the duck on his or her pad; if not, the duck goes back in the “pond”. The first one to fill his or her pad wins.

You can play this one as intended or, if your little one’s just starting to enjoy board games consider this modification: skip the lazy river and, instead, set out all the ducks and lily pads. Then, just focus on turn taking and matching colors. Instead of a winner, we all work together to fill up the lily pads.

As kids get older, reintroduce the lazy river and continue the cooperative effort. Then, when your little one is ready, give each player his or her own lily pad and have each player search for the matching duck.

Sneaky Snacky Squirrels®
This is a super cute game, but it is a bit more complicated than some of the others on this list. So, I recommend introducing it when your child is closer to three.

One thing that sets Sneaky Snacky Squirrels® apart from most of the other games on this list is its focus on fine motor integration. It incorporates a spinner, but it also comes with a set of (adorable) squirrel shaped tongs players use to pick acorns off the tree.

Spinners are also great because they require sequencing several steps each turn: spinning, waiting for the spinner to stop, checking the number or color, internalizing what that means, and then acting on the information. Finally, this game requires that children be able to match colors.

On a player’s turn they’ll spin the spinner. The spinner will stop on a number, a color, or squirrel. Depending on which, a player will have to pick up acorns with the tongs or put some back on the tree. The first person to get one acorn of each color wins the game.  Because of its design, there will be rounds where a child spins but cannot do anything (he or she may be waiting on one last colored acorn). This requires some patience and good sportsmanship.

If your child is able to handle all the skills needed to play this game, I can assure you it’ll be a hit. I have children asking to play this one over and over.

Hi Ho Cherry-O®
This is another classic, so you may have played this one as a child. It’s a lot like Sneaky Snacky Squirrels® – it uses a spinner and players gather and replace things on trees – but, it’s more focused counting and math skills. The game begins by putting all the cherries on the trees, then progresses by “picking” or replacing cherries from the trees. On each spin, the spinner will indicate if, and how many, cherries the player can remove or if the player need to replace the cherries.

By the time a child is three years-old he or she should be able to identify one or two items in a group. This game is a perfect way to work on that skill. The first person to empty their tree is the winner.

As for my family, I’m happy we got creative and persisted. Not only did my kids learn some things along the way, but we started a great family tradition and now that they’re all older, we can all play together.

Do you have a Family Game Night? If so, what games do you pay? If not, tell me what’s keeping you from it; I’d love to help you work through anything that’s standing in the way of such a fruitful family experience!

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