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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Battery farming

This is one of those petty things that makes my life function better, disproportionate to the apparent tininess of the thing. I guess it’s a hack, though it seems too small to call it that. Anyway, it came to mind because of the usual festive arrival of thousands of electronic toys, all requiring batteries of different kinds. We used to have a drawer full of batteries in various states, rechargeable and disposable, new and old, and they all got muddled up and we could never tell which was which except by putting them into a toy and seeing whether they worked.

Last year I got a battery tester for a couple of pounds on the internet – a simple little meter. You press a battery into it, and a needle swings round to “good” or “low”, or doesn’t move at all if the battery is out of power. Then I collected a few shallow boxes to line the drawer – you could use anything, but cardboard is good because you can write on it. I’ve found that I can have the best organisational system in the world, but if it isn’t clearly labelled then nobody else will use it (and I admit I might also forget the system…). You could use egg box lids, or children’s shoe boxes, whatever fits nearly in the drawer. Then I spent a quiet fifteen minutes testing all the batteries and sorting them out into different types: new disposable, rechargeables ready to use, rechargeables needing to be charged, disposables finished with and ready to go in the recycling next time we go somewhere with a box for old batteries. Having sorted them all out, I then showed the older children how to test and change batteries, and put the old ones for charging or recycling.

Like I say, it seems like such a small thing, and such a simple idea. But it really has made it easier to find what I need instead of scrabbling around for the right batteries (and occasionally taking them out of the TV remote because I can’t find new ones), and has also helped the children take over a task that I was previously doing for them, which is always a good thing.

I can’t leave the topic without passing on a festive tip I was given a few years back. On a safety training day at work, a fireman was encouraging us all to change the batteries in any battery-operated smoke alarms at least once a year. His tip for how to remember to do this: just before Christmas, remove the old batteries and replace with brand new ones, then use the old ones in any noisy electronic toys your children get for Christmas. You get an annual prompt to change the smoke alarm batteries, and the objectionable toys run out of go much sooner (thogh if you’ve accidentally taught your children to change the batteries themselves, this is a less cunning plan).

And never give a child a gift with “batteries not included”, please – for the sake of the parents. At the very least, find out what it needs and sellotape the appropriate batteries to the packaging. Or reconsider the gift and swap it for something that doesn’t need batteries…