Heather Swain is a former third-grade teacher, mother of two, writing instructor, magazine fact-checker, freelance magazine writer, and an award-winning author. Her articles and personal essays about parenting have appeared in American Baby Magazine, Time Out New York Kids, and on Salon.com. Her fiction books include Me, My Elf and I (Puffin/Speak, 2009) and two adult novels (published by Downtown Press/Pocket Books) Eliot’s Banana and Luscious Lemon. She lives, works, and plays in a crooked house in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and their two children.
I wrote Play These Games as a follow-up to my first craft book Make These Toys because I believe that all kids are natural-born game players. Ask them to pick up their socks, and they’ll whine and cry and act like you demanded them to move boulders. But turn it into a game (who can do it the fastest), and you’ll see socks in drawers in no time.
Playing games is the perfect antidote for boredom. We all do it. Whether it’s logging on to computer Solitaire instead of working or folding a paper football during a droning lecture or mounting a family board game on a rainy Saturday, games are part of our lives and probably have been since the first cave kid threw a rock and her brother tried to throw one farther. Not all games need to be competitive, though. The cooperative kind can be just as fun (not to mention edifying).
Though you’ll find aisles and aisles of games at toy stores—from card games and board games to computer games on handheld gadgets, computers, and home entertainment systems—you can get all the benefits of a good game with everyday objects hanging around your house. If you involve kids in making the games or set them loose and let them try it themselves, they’ll be more invested in playing and just might have more fun.
A good game is one that is easy to learn but hard to master. In Play these games you’ll find some games that are competitive, others that are cooperative. There are games for large groups, duos, and a few that can be played alone. Some of these games are reinterpretations of old favorites (such as Friends and Family Go Fish or a felt version of Tic-Tac-Toe), while others are mini versions of arcade super stars (like Shuffle Button, Micro Golf, and the pinball machine). Some I might have even made up (like Hoop Jousting and the Progressive Photo Scavenger Hunt), but that’s not to say someone else hasn’t made up something similar somewhere along the line.
What I find most wonderful about making and playing games at home with my kids are the hidden benefits.
1. Brain Development :: When you look closely at games you’ll start to see that most of them involve solving a problem—whether it’s how to get that tiny ball into a hole 30 feet away or guessing a book title from your sister’s crazy arm flapping—your brain is engaged in some heavy-duty thinking. And with active games, your body is working as well. Great educators have realized that games are an excellent way to engage children in learning, but don’t tell the kids. Just present them with games and let them figure that out on their own.
2. Socialization :: Any game that involves more than one person involves socializing, whether it’s cooperating during a scavenger hunt or competing to see who can get the most balls in a basket. Playing games with kids teaches team work, the consequences of cheating, and how to be good sports whether they win or lose. It’s not hard to see how those skills make it into the daily lives of kids in the classroom, on play dates, and later in life in the workplace. But like all things we hope to teach our children, learning to cooperate or to compete without being a jerk takes practice. Humans aren’t naturally good at losing, so there will be tears, yelling, and cheating, and maybe somebody will even knock over the board, but that’s okay. The point is, playing games within the family allows kids a safe place to practice getting along, following rules, and learning how to be graceful in defeat. So when your kids deserve a technical foul for the fits they’re pitching over a game, call it quits for then, but definitely come back to more games later. If you do that enough you’ll start to see more mature players coming to the table.
3. Saving Money :: Ask most kids to name a game and they’ll talk about something on a screen. I have no problem with video games. In fact I like them. But like most things that kids love, I figure some boundaries are in order, such as making sure computer games are age appropriate — and setting time limits. However, video games and the systems we play them on are expensive! Making games out of paper cups and Ping Pong balls is cheap . . . and I’ll be the first to admit that I like saving a buck. Even more, I like engaging my kids in new and different experiences. So maybe we’ll play computer games one day, but the next, we’ll make a homemade pinball machine out of a box we found on the street corner.
4. Fun! Fun! Fun! :: And finally, let’s not forget the biggest, most important reason for playing games with kids: It’s a rocking good time! I think of my own childhood playing neighbourhood games of Cops and Robbers or Freeze Tag in our backyard with the fireflies or cozy winter nights around board games with my parents or bonding with my grandmother when she taught us to play Hearts. Gaming defines an important part of childhood and the memories of those times will last. So, turn off the TV, unplug the Wii, and start gathering supplies because it’s time to play!