Games for slightly bigger children

The only thing worse than playing Snakes and Ladders, in my opinion, is playing Snakes and Ladders with a four-year-old. I love to play board and card games, but any game that’s just roll, move, roll, move makes me want to weep with boredom. I admit to sometimes saying “I’m going to the toilet, can you have my next go for me?” and trying to work out how long I can stay away while the children play on my behalf. Add in the difficulty for a child of remembering which way you’re meant to be going, if you don’t quite know your two-digit numbers yet, and the occasional tantrums over the unfairness of landing on a snake when your sibling just landed on a ladder, and you’ll understand why I’ve got rid of all the many sets of Snakes and Ladders that had somehow come to live in our house. Actually, I kept the one from when I was little, whose snakes and ladders taught children the outcomes of various vices and virtues, with the help of a little key in the lid (a ladder showing that Diligence Leads To Reward, a snake to show that Slovenliness Leads To Despair, and so on); also a cool 3D one, though most of the pieces of that are lost because my youngest child just catapults them across the room, but my point stands.

It’s been a huge pleasure, as my children have got older, to start playing games with them that we all really enjoy; no longer doing things with them to entertain them, but doing things that I would really choose to do. Also, I hadn’t anticipated this, but one of the things that brings me most joy as a parent is to see the relationships my children have with each other without involving me: when I walk into a room and find two or three of them happily chatting, or engrossed in a card game together, my heart leaps. At the very least, I’m working on the principle that however terrible I am as a parent, at least they’ll have each other to commiserate with, so they’d better keep nurturing those sibling relationships.

These are some of our favourite games for children aged four and up. My criteria are that they have to be fun for everyone – not an adult scaffolding a child to have a good time; they don’t give a gigantic advantage to older, faster children; they take minimal set-up, space and clean-up; and it’s possible to play them without triggering a gigantic “it’s not fair” meltdown.

  • Uno is such a simple card game, and children can play as soon as they can recognise numbers, but it’s fun for all ages. By the time my youngest was 3, all the children could play this together; quite often now, the older two will play a few rounds of it while I get the others ready for bed.
  • Dobble There is a junior version, which has clearer pictures, though my four-year-old manages ok with the regular one. There are lots of ways to play the game, some quite complicated and competitive. Little children can join in with the simplest versions of the game, though may need some kind of hints or taking turns if they can’t spot the matching pictures as fast as everyone else. One of my children plays this as a solo game, which is also fun.
  • Quirkle at its simplest is a pattern matching game, though if you play for points it can be a really complex game of strategy. With the children, we never keep score, and focus on getting complete sets and intersecting lines.
  • Jenga can be fun as soon as your child is old enough to remove a block without knocking the whole tower over. Until then, there’s…
  • Toppletree: a balancing game, building single and double branches gradually into a tree until the whole thing tumbles.
  • Pit is a very noisy game for three or more people – it’s basically just a lot of people yelling at each other, but that happens in our house anyway so it’s just that, but with cards. Children need to be able to recognise letters well enough to tell whether the cards have the same or different words on, though they don’t need to be able to read as such.
  • And finally, an honourable mention for Exploding Kittens. This is too difficult for very small children, but playable from six or seven, and the illustrations really entertain small children with a taste for toilet humour (if that’s not your kind of thing you almost certainly won’t like this). It took us a while to get the hang of this, not because the rules are complicated but because it’s deceptively simple. After playing a few times we started to include all the Special Combos and discovered some sneaky tricks, and it’s a much better game than we initially thought it was. The only problem is that the original set has enough cards for five players, so we’d better get an expansion pack (more and different cards) before the youngest is able to read well enough to join in.

For more ideas of fun things to do with children, and lots more, take a look at my book, available now in ebook and paperback.

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Games for toddlers (that bigger children can enjoy too)

There’s over 8 years between my oldest and youngest child, which means that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to balance the needs of different age groups. A lot of time this means asking the older child or children to be patient while the younger one does whatever they want. Lots of games and toys that are endlessly fun for toddlers are unbearably tedious for older siblings – and, let’s be honest, for parents too. It’s such a delight to find a game that’s actually fun for both little ones and older children,

Busytown is a great game as soon as children are old enough to count and move the pieces along the board. It’s for four players, who are all trying to get to the picnic at the end of the board before the pigs eat it all. When you spin the spinner, you may get a number of steps to move, or the pigs may eat a piece of your picnic, or you may get a Goldbug Challenge, where all the players collaborate to find things in the huge picture on the board. However many wheelbarrows, letterboxes, kites etc you all find, everyone can move that many steps forward. All players race along the board like a normal game until they reach a boat at the end of the board, which can’t move until all players are on board, so however far ahead you are, you all arrive at the end at the same moment. It’s a collaborative game that still allows everyone to do their own thing, and everyone can contribute at their own level, for example to finding the pictures or operating the sand timer. When I went to look for the link, I noticed it’s really expensive in the UK right now, but keep an eye out for it as we got it a couple of years ago for a reasonable price.

There are lots of versions of Balancing Moon, and various similar balancing games, which are as much fun when you succeed in balancing things as they are when you knock the whole lot over. With older children you can complicate the game by using a dice to determine which colour each player must use next, or making up rules about not touching another piece of the same colour, but the basic balancing task is simple enough for a small child (and good practice for fine motor skills).

Shopping List is one of the first real games that my children played and enjoyed together, and it’s one that I now often give as a gift because so many children enjoy it. Each player has a shopping list, and a trolley to put the things in, and all the playing pieces are face down on the table. If you get something from your list, add it to the trolley; if it isn’t yours, put it back, and whoever it belongs to should remember where it went. This is pretty easy with two players, particularly if the older players make a big deal out of putting the smaller player’s pieces down in obvious places, and gets harder with more people playing (or all the pieces from the unused lists also laid out). You can buy extension packs with more lists and playing pieces, if more than four people want to play; there are spare blank cards to replace the bits you inevitably lose. The best bit, as far as I’m concerned, is finishing the game by getting the children to ‘blip’ their bits of shopping through an imaginary checkout into the box, so it all gets put away without a fuss.

The only difficulty with Shopping List is that very little children want to place their playing pieces on top of the matching pictures on their lists, instead of in the empty trolley, and there isn’t really space. If your child finds it easier to match a picture on top of another picture, there are many versions of Picture lotto which could work well. If you’re feeling energetic you could make your own, either with readymade boards like these or using family photos (print on paper and stick it to card or laminate it for a simpler version.

Tummy Ache is a similar game: you have to pick up pieces to fill your plate with a balanced meal, avoiding the Tummy Ache pieces which are foods with bugs or insects of various kinds crawling over them. You can tell which pieces you need by the shape of the plate/cutlery in the picture, but it can be harder for younger children to work out which pieces they need. Also, they may just insist that they want or don’t want certain pieces because they do or don’t like the food on them; or, like one small visitor to our house, they may insist on keeping the glass of squash with a frog in it because they love the frog. If other children are happy to be flexible about younger players following the rules, I’ve found that older children and adults quite enjoy collecting and swapping pieces to get a meal they would like to eat. We play slightly differently from the instructions, laying all the pieces face down rather than always taking the next one from the pack, as we found you can get stuck with the last few pieces and nobody getting the piece they need. This also makes it more of a memory game for older players, or you can make it easier by putting the Tummy Ache pieces away in the box as each player manages to bump them off their plate.

Colour or picture dominoes can be great for toddlers, and if they find it difficult you can get them to play with all their pieces visible so you can try to set them up with a move when it’s your turn.

The apogee of three

My son, who is three and a half, was having one of his favourite conversations with me: “Mummy, what ‘bread’ means? What ‘Goldilocks’ means? What ‘toothbrush’ means?”. And so on, with the three-year-old’s relentless pursuit of meaning, to a degree that would have had Plato snapping “sometimes things just DON’T MEAN ANYTHING, OK?”. It’s not that he doesn’t know any of these things – he likes asking for the meaning of a familiar or unfamiliar word, or one he’s just invented. He just likes the process. And I was, as patiently as I could manage, answering his questions: bread means a type of food, Goldilocks means that girl in the story with the bears, toothbrush means what you clean your teeth with, etc etc etc. And then he asked me the second most three-year-old question ever: “Mummy, what does ‘means’ mean?”.

It delighted me to answer him that “‘Means’ means ‘means'”, and I took a little moment to enjoy the grammatical beauty of that sentence and, if I’m honest, the thirty seconds of silence from my son. But he trumped it with the very most three-year-old sentence possible: “But Mummy, WHY ‘means’ means ‘means’?”.

That must be Peak Three, right? And that means we’re past the worst of it, and it will be a steady stroll from here to a reasonable, sleep-all-night, “OK Mummy if you say so”, four-year-old. Please?

Leave my clocks alone!

Here in the UK the clocks went forward an hour, late Saturday night/early Sunday morning. Before I had children I barely even noticed the clocks changing, and just got an early night on Saturday or enjoyed a bit of extra sleep on Sunday morning as appropriate. Now, it’s not only the disruption to the children’s sleep patterns that bothers me, but being tied (by them) to more consistent sleep and wake times means that changing the clocks really messes with me, too. For the last 48 hours I’ve felt exactly like west-to-east jetlag: I’ve been nauseous and had a terrible headache, I’ve felt exhausted but have woken up both nights at 4am and struggled to get back to sleep, only managing it just in time to be unwakeably deeply asleep by 6.30am when I need to get up. My oldest daughter has been waking in the night too (so she tells me; I’m sorry for her, but delighted that she’s past the age of coming immediately to tell me if she wakes in the night!). My nine-year-old has been struggling to get to sleep, even after the extra hour has passed, so has gone to sleep at 10 or 11pm two nights running and then found it almost impossible to get up in the morning. My youngest daughter was bursting helplessly into tears while trying to get to bed tonight, she said nothing in particular was wrong but kept going from fine to sobbing (“it’s happening again, Mummy!”). And my son, aged three, seems to have taken the change of clocks as his cue to give up sleeping entirely: despite some really busy and active days, I’ve had to wrestle him into bed, he hasn’t gone to sleep until hours later than usual, he’s also waking up in the night and staying awake, then he’s up at his usual time and not napping to make up for what he’s missed. I’m only hoping we can keep this disastrous show on the road for another day and a half until school breaks up for Easter, then we can switch off all the alarm clocks and let everyone get back on track in their own time. And once we’re back to fighting strength, let’s March on Parliament to demand that they stop messing about with our clocks twice a year: who’s with me?

The trouble with fruit

I just had another one of those moments – they seem to happen every few weeks. You’d think I wouldn’t get fooled by now, but it seems like every time I forget and it happens all over again.

I was emptying the potty after my toddler had used it, and noticed with horror some kind of little shiny black things in it, like tiny beetles. Fleas? Ticks? Intestinal parasites? I was heading for a consultation with Doctor Google when I remembered that he had just been on one of those crazy toddler binges. Given totally free rein, he would exist on sausages, cream cheese and chocolate, but he occasionally goes nuts for something odd, and this week it’s been kiwis. You know the ones, with the little shiny black seeds that are apparently perfectly indigestible, and come glittering out the other end unchanged from how they went in.

So, no digestive infestation after all. It seems to press some mothering panic button that puts me straight into focused diagnostic mode, in which I fail to remember the exact same thing happening a few weeks ago with a large quantity of blueberries. Or the time with the raisins, or the beetroot, or the red kidney beans…

Lions and tigers and bears: brushing toddler teeth

Twenty years ago, as a teenager needing to earn some money, I started babysitting for local families after school and at weekends. I found I really loved it: I loved being around children, and after I’d put them to bed I would do my homework in front of the TV and get paid for it. Families recommended me to other friends who needed a babysitter, and soon I had quite a business empire, and was having to pass on some families to my friends.

Some of the things I do with my children now were habits or ideas that I picked up back then, either from the different families’ ways of doing things or my own inventions. One of my favourite was a solution to the problem of brushing toddlers’ teeth: they won’t open their mouths wide enough or keep them open for long enough. My answer was to tell them, first of all, to growl like a bear. GRRRR! With their teeth firmly shut but bared, so I could brush the outsides. As long as they kept growling, I could reach their teeth. Then roar like a lion. RAARGH! Mouth wide open, teeth exposed, so I could brush the tops and sides. Excellent! I continued doing this with all of my own children and it worked brilliantly.

Except that each of my children has found ways to do things differently from the one before, to demonstrate to me that I don’t know everything. So my youngest son, like every two-year-old I have known, started pulling funny faces, like this:

How to brush two-year-old's teeth

I don’t know where this face comes from, because it’s not something adults or older children really do, but it has emerged from all my children at two years old as if it were some innate survival instinct. Anyway, next time I asked him to roar so I could brush his teeth, he said “No, brush my funny face”. And you know what? It’s even better than my lions and bears. I think I’ve just been outparented by my toddler.

Bedtime stories

Some of our books are due for a little holiday.

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I really don’t have anything against any of these – in fact I really like The Troll, and I enjoy how Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book comes full circle, and the details in the illustrations. But my two-year-old has been on a Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler binge for a fortnight now, and I have to call time. He loves Pip and Posy – really, really loves. To a toddler, it seems there’s nothing quite so compelling as an exaggerated drawing of a sad face, and on that front Pip and Posy deliver every time. So I read the books again, and again, because I can put up with a bit of boredom in exchange for my son’s pleasure in telling me, with his mouth turned down at the corners, “Pip sad. Pip SAAAD. Pip cry, cry, cry!”.

But there comes a point where, even to indulge this slightly disturbing delight in other people’s suffering (totally developmentally normal, honest), I just can’t do it again. So all of these are sneaking out of the pile of bedtime books – just back onto the ordinary bookshelf where they’re a bit less conspicuous – and in their place will go some books that don’t make my heart sink. How is it that some books I find it tedious to repeat, and others I have honestly never felt bored with? Some of these books I’ve been reading for ten years now and I still enjoy them even though I am word-perfect without looking at the pages. The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig can make me laugh out loud even the hundredth time around.

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(There Are Cats In This Book by Viviane Schwarz, Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, Kipper’s Birthday by Mick Inkpen, Clip-Clop by Nicola Smee, Olivia by Ian Falconer, The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr).

These are my old friends: some of them I discovered as a parent, some were stories I listened to as a child, though most of my own books have fallen to bits and been replaced (because they were “very old and broken like Mummy”, as I try not to say too often).

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(Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards, Full Full Full of Love by Trish Cooke, Mog the Forgetful Cat and Mog and the Baby by Judith Kerr, Duck in the Truck by Jez Alborough, Penguin by Polly Dunbar, I’m Not Cute by Jonathan Allen, Please Baby Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee).

I’m always looking for new books to read, and despite having more books than we really have space for, we borrow half a dozen from the library every week. Very occasionally, one of them will hit that magic spot where I know I could read it again and again without getting tired of it – I can’t put my finger on what it is about these books, but to get me through the “More! Again! MORE!” toddler months, I cling to them.

Other options to deal with tedious repetition: my daughter wanted Rapunzel read to her every night for what felt like a decade; I found as many different versions of the story as I could get hold of in libraries and second hand book shops and in fairytale collections that we already owned, so there was at least a little variety in our nightly reading. And when another daughter went through a Gruffalo phase, I was happy to read it as long as she’d let me do different accents for each character; I was entertained by the terribleness of my voices and had to concentrate enough to keep track of which voice was whose, and she got her story, so we were both happy. Usually. If she was tired or grumpy she would demand that I “read it in Eng-er-lish”.

See more book ideas here.

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