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As a homeschooling parent, I am always looking for engaging ways to teach my kids without worksheets and lectures. It was a natural progression from watching my kids get excited about games to actively incorporating certain concepts into our school-life routine. This list of games comes directly from our game cabinet and the mouths of my own kids.
For the six and under crowd, I can’t push cooperative games enough, for two main reasons:
The first reason being that children of this age group hate to lose and very often don’t handle it very well leading to frustration for both adult and child. Letting them win feels dishonest to me and while I have done that in a particularly cut-throat game of Candyland here and there, it doesn’t make me feel good. Eventually, when the child learns that you are letting them win (they will figure it out) it doesn’t make them feel good either.
The second reason being that cooperation is pretty much the most important skill ever. Even in very competitive sports, cooperation is crucial to winning. These types of games are the building blocks to developing good sportsmanship and becoming a principled competitor.
As kids grow and mature they’ll naturally learn to lose gracefully and you can work your way into friendly competitions. Although I’ve included the recommended ages here, I want to clarify that I’ve played even the younger aged group games with kids up to 11 years old with great success and joy.
Max the Cat (Family Pastimes) Buy it on Amazon
For Ages 4-7
Learn: Simple counting and dividing, Strategy, Science, Ethics
This adorable game features Max the cat along with a bird, chipmunk, and mouse, all trying to get back to the tree where their babies are waiting. A roll of the dice shows a combination of either green or black circles. Green moves the critters (prey) and black moves the cat. Two green circles allows you to move either 2 critters one space, or 1 critter two spaces. There are also treats for the cat, calling him back to his rug, to be used sparingly and strategically to buy time for the critters trying to make it home.
In our experience playing this game, it has opened up conversations about the ethics of cats roaming outside, the realities of the food chain, and strategic planning for what we might do differently next time to save the critters…or feed the cat.
Richard Scarry’s Busytown (Wonder Forge) Buy it on Amazon
For Ages 3 and up
Learn: Counting, cooperation, Strategy, Simple reading, Memory
This one is my personal favorite.
You will need a nice big table or a clear floor space to set up this board, which fits together like a large puzzle. The scene is a very “busy” town filled with activity. The goal is to get all players on the ferry to picnic town to eat before the pigs steal all of the food.
Players move across the board as a team by using the little magnifying glasses to find the items pictured on the card. A great game for pre-readers since the word is written on the card along with the picture.
The great thing about this game is that the board is incredibly busy and there are enough items that you can play over and over again without remembering where everything is. The I-spy feature of this board games makes it enjoyable for all ages. In the spirit of friendship, the ferry doesn’t leave until everyone gets on!
Outfoxed! A Cooperative Whodunit Game Buy it on Amazon (Gamewright)
For Ages 5 and up
Learn: Process of elimination, Cooperation, Memory, Strategy
The fox has stolen a pie! The chickens (aka, the detectives) are collecting clues to eliminate suspects until the mystery is solved. Outside the fact that this game has a DECODER, because that word alone incites joy into the hearts of children everywhere, it is genuinely challenging and exciting for all ages. I genuinely enjoy playing this game. You must pay close attention to details and commit the clues to memory but luckily it is a collaboration so we can really help each other out and almost always successfully nab that sly, pie-stealing fox.
Throughout the game, players will have a chance to uncover clues and then eliminate suspects based on the clues you have revealed and committed to memory. You must find the thief before the fox makes it to the end of the board and jumps into his fox-hole.
Too Many Monkeys Buy it on Amazon
For Ages 6 and up (We played at age 4)
Learn: Number recognition, Number sequence, Strategy
This one is not a cooperative game but a huge hit around here nonetheless. It is a quick game which is excellent for the short attention spans of young children.
Six cards are laid out face down in front of each player. The object is to be the first to have all cards exposed in sequential order (one through six). So as you pick from the center pile, you place the number cards in their correct space (three card goes in the third spot and so on). There are also some special cards that come into play, adding a little strategy to the game. I love how this card play allows the child to visualize the sequential order of small numbers. You could easily play this game with a normal deck of cards by removing the higher numbers.
Shut the Box Buy it on Amazon
Learn: Simple Addition
This game is usually a wooden tray with a row of numbers 1-9 on each end that can be flipped up. Two dice are also required. The goal is to flip up as many numbers as possible so that the numbers left at the end of your turn, when added together, equal less than your opponent’s.
I think there are a few variations to this game but I will describe the way we play.
Each roll a die to see who goes first. Player one rolls, adds the two dice and then flips one or more of the numbers on the board to add up to the sum of the dice. For example, if player rolls a nine, they can flip either the nine block or any variation of numbers that add up to nine. Keep rolling until you cannot flip numbers to match your dice roll. Add the total of numbers left and pass the dice to your opponent. Simple but fun and effective. All three of my kids learned simple addition playing this game and it’s one that sits out in our living room and gets played regularly to this day.
Family games for the older crowd
My best advice for these games, which are loaded with opportunities for learning, is do not turn it into a school lesson. It is a game and should be pure fun. If kids needs help, help them. If they want to use a calculator, let them. (See Farkle) The worst thing an adult can do to suck the fun out of playing a game is to make the child feel like it is a test. The true value of sitting down to play a board game with your child is simple connection. The rest is just an added bonus.
Farkle (8 and up, officially) Buy it on Amazon
Learn: Math, Strategy
I started playing this game with my son when he was six years old. The way that Farkle works is that the player rolls six dice and proceeds to make the combinations that will earn them the most points. There are quite a few combinations to collect points and the game includes a handy sheet that lays out the scoring. Players keep collecting points for as long as they choose but beware because if you don’t roll a one or a five then you FARKLED and lose all points for that round.
This fast paced diced game takes not only adding and counting skills but also a bit of strategy because you will likely have more than one option for scoring when you throw the dice. You have to decide which ones to count and then decide if you want to keep rolling and risk losing your points, or pass to the next player. The first player to 10,000 wins the game.
You can find variations of the game Farkle that involves using any old six dice you have. Here is one example of many: http://howdoyouplayit.com/farkle-dice-game-rules/
Pro tip: When we started this game, I gave my son the calculator. It’s important to me that he understands there is not any pressure for him to perform his math skills. The scoring is by the 50’s, 100’s, and 1000’s, which are big numbers, and I knew it would be intimidating for him. Using a calculator is a great skill and also most kids find it enjoyable. When we first started playing, he painstakingly punched in each equation but by the time we’d played a few times he was adding simple numbers in his head (100+50= punching 150 in the calculator) and then adding it to the whole of his score.
This game opened up for us a conversation about place value as he would punch 1000+400+50 into his calculator, and then write down 1450 on the dry erase board. Eventually he said, “Oh, I see. So when they say ‘one thousand, four hundred AND fifty’, they are actually saying 1000+400+50!”
Yes! Love those moments.
FITS (Ravensburger) Buy it on Amazon
For ages 8 and up
Learn: Addition, Subtraction, Adding negatives, Logic, Strategy
We call this game the “Tetris” game at our house. The game starts with a standard board and varying shapes that you try to arrange leaving as little blank space as possible. In the first round, each full row earns a point and each space subtracts a point. The game becomes more challenging each level as the boards have spaces that contain points, negative points, and certain symbols that you must either cover to complete a row or plan ahead and leave two matching symbols showing for bonus points.
Depending on your child’s math level, it’s a good idea to have a dry erase board, calculator, or scratch paper handy. Scoring becomes increasingly challenging when negative numbers get involved. With four rounds, it is just long enough to hold the attention of antsy children without getting boring. After playing a few times, kids will really get the hang of the strategic placement of shapes and planning for the shapes to come.
Labyrinth (Ravensburger) Buy it on Amazon
For Ages 7 and up
Learn: Logic, Planning, Cause and Effect
This is another genuinely fun game for adults. The board itself has eight immovable tile pieces on the board. The other 34 pieces you add in no particular order to form a maze filled with treasures, twist and turns, stops and starts. Each player has their own pile of treasures in front of them which are looked at one at a time. When it is your turn, taking the one leftover maze tile, you push an entire row either forward or backward to create paths that will eventually lead you to your treasure. It takes a lot of planning and imagining how you can arrange the tiles in your favor, sometimes having to plan ahead for two or three turns.
It took us playing this game a couple of times before we really got the hang of it. At first the kids felt like it was “too hard” but now it is one that gets played regularly around here. It can be modified for the younger child by allowing them to look at all their “treasures” at once so they can get to the easier ones first.
The Dangerous Book for Boys Game (Hasbro) Buy it on Amazon
Ages 8 and up
Learn: Reading, Writing, Survival Skills, Mental Agility, Problem Solving, Science
At our house, the word “Boys” has been vigorously crossed out and replaced with “Everyone” because we don’t play that gender stereotype malarkey around here.
This game is action packed and full of variety and movement. Some of the skills that children (and adults) have the opportunity to practice while playing are: Knot tying, Roman Numerals, Word Searches, Science Knowledge, Tracking Signs, and Anagram Challenges.
Here is an example of one of the challenges: With one hand, placing one token at a time, stack as many tokens as you can on top of the sand timer before time is up. Take turns. The player to stack the most tokens within 30 seconds wins a raft piece.
As players complete challenges, they win pieces to their raft which, when complete, will get them off the island and sail to victory! My kids actually want to try to build a raft this summer — inspired by this game!
Match’Em (JAX ltd) Buy it on Amazon
For Ages 7 and up
A card game that is pure math paired with competition. Each player is dealt seven cards and to win the round, players must be the first to get rid of their cards. Play involves matching the sum of the number played before you by using as many cards as possible. For example if the previous player plays a 12, you must lay down either a 12 or any combination of cards that add up to 12. The more, the better! If you can’t make the number, you must draw two cards from the deck and start a new number. Best of three rounds wins the games. This is a wonderful fast paced game and excellent for adding practice. I l like to keep an abacus close by for beginners.
Now go play!
Featured image by Parzuchowski via Unsplash under CC license.