The Best Educational Board Games for Kids and Families
by Linda Rodgers
Experts say board games can boost a slew of skills that help kids do better in school. And playing them as a family just ups the benefits—and the fun factor.
Games are great for kids for different reasons at different ages. For preschoolers, they’re a fun way to learn how to “follow rules, focus, take turns and defer gratification, which helps with self-regulation, the basis of problem-solving and thinking creatively,” explains Peter J. Pizzolongo, the senior director of professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Board games also get bonus points for bringing families together (especially if family dinners are rare) and for luring kids away from addictive video games. And all kids get lessons in decision-making (“Should I buy Boardwalk or save my money?”), consequences (“Ooops—no more cash!”) and strategic thinking (“If I swap two railroads for Boardwalk, I can start buying houses”).” For ideas on what to play, read on for the games that get the highest marks from experts.
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The card game Uno is for two or more players and can be aged up (the original, with words, numbers and colors) or down (with Thomas the Tank Engine or Disney Princess characters), says Shannon Eis, a play and development expert and mom of two. It’s good for preschoolers to about age 8 or 9.How you play it: Shuffle the deck of 108 cards and deal seven to each player. Put the rest of the cards in a pile, and turn one over. The card that’s face up is the start of the discard pile; the larger one is the pile you draw cards from. Each person must put down a card that’s either the same number or color as the card on the discard pile. There are also wild cards and cards that cause a person to skip her turn, draw more cards and so on. The first player with no cards wins. What it teaches kids: Paying attention is a crucial skill in school—and that’s just what preschoolers pick up when they focus on the cards and remember to play the same color (or character). Besides reinforcing numbers and colors, Uno also sharpens pattern recognition: your child won’t take algebra until eighth grade, but patterns will help her understand the relationship between objects and numbers, which is the basis of algebra. Older kids get lessons in logic, reasoning and strategy by deciding which cards to throw down now and which to save for the next turn.
Bingo is another game that can be tailored to preschoolers who don’t yet know their letters or numbers, says Eis. You can buy versions that are just shapes, colors or everyday objects (Zingo), or you can just cut out photos of things that fascinate your little one (cars, say, or animals) from catalogs. Kindergarteners on up can play the classic version with letters and numbers.How to play: Each player gets a pile of tokens and a card divided into a 25-square grid with 24 numbers and a blank space in the middle and a row on top that spell out "BINGO." The caller picks out numbers from a basket, and calls it out: "B-5," for example, or "I-26." The first player to fill up a row with tokens — either diagonally, horizontally or vertically — shouts "Bingo!" and wins the game. What it teaches kids: No matter which version you’re playing, your cutie’s listening and memory skills will get a workout. Another benefit: She'll practice her ability to visualize shapes and objects (and later, letters and numbers) and then match them on her card, both of which are necessary for learning to read and do math.
Dominoes is another grade-school game that can be scaled down to the preschool level by buying tiles in colors, Disney characters or animals, instead of the classic tiles marked with dots (like dice) from 0 to 6, says Eis.How to play it: Put the 28 tiles face down on a table and shuffle them. Each player draw seven tiles, and the rest are left in what’s known as the “boneyard.” The person with the highest double tile goes first, placing the domino on the table. The next player must match one of the halves with a tile containing the same number or character. If a player can’t make a match, she has to draw a tile from the boneyard. The player who gets rid of all the dominoes wins. Older kids can play for points—the first one to reach 50 or 100 wins the game. What it teaches kids: Besides being a good way to get kids to recognize numbers or objects quickly, dominoes is also good at honing a kid’s ability to spot patterns, since that’s what you need to make a match. The game also sharpens critical thinking and strategy, since older kids must decide how to maximize the number of points.
Richard Scarry’s Busytown Eye Found It
This 6-foot-long board game gets kudos from Artemenko and scores of Amazon users, who’ve made this preschool-friendly game based on cooperation (and the brilliant Busytown books by Richard Scarry) a bestseller.
How to play it:
The object of Richard Scarry's Busytown Eye Found It is to get all the players onboard the ferry to Picnic Island to eat their lunch before the pigs gobble up the food. In order to do that, each player takes a turn at the spinner and follows the directions—move four spaces, for instance, or lose a piece of food. When the spinner points to Goldbug, someone flips over the sand timer and all the players band together to hunt for as many items of the object (shovels, say) listed on the Goldbug card before the sand runs out. Players get bonus moves depending on the number objects they’ve found on the board.
What it teaches kids:
Teamwork pays off, and that’s a great lesson for a preschooler or kindergartner who’s learning how to work with classmates. The game also reinforces your child’s ability to recognize objects and match them on the board, hones her powers of observation and gives her practice in associating categories with people and actions—for example, learning you’ll find shovels and hammers at a construction site.
Connect Four and Connect 4 Launchers (an updated version of the classic) provide the right type of challenge for your grade-schooler, who’s developmentally ready to become a better strategist, Eis explains. Yes, she’s still a sore loser (especially when she plays with you), but she’s also learning what she’ll need to do to win the game next time around.How to play it: Connect Four is like a combo of tic-tac-toe and checkers for two players. Each player picks a color, gets their pile of 21 checkers and then takes turn sliding a checker into a plastic grid. The player who gets four in a row—either horizontally, vertically or diagonally—wins. Connect 4 Launchers lets players launch their checkers onto a two-tiered platform, adding a new element of challenge: Now your child has to send her checker flying in such a way that it hits the right spot on the grid. What it teaches kids: To win the game, your child has to plan out her moves, so both versions sharpen her abilities to think critically and logically. Plus, she not only has to focus on what she’s doing, but on what her opponent is too—a skill known as divided attention.
Animal Mastermind Towers
Making and breaking codes appeal to your grade-schooler’s more advanced thinking skills, says Eis. Animal Mastermind Towers is a little-kid-friendlier version of the classic for children 5 to 7.
How to play it:
In Animal Mastermind Towers, each player gets four animal tiles and a tower. Players stack the tiles so their opponent can’t see; then each takes turns asking yes or no questions (“Is the penguin above the hippo?”) to guess the order of the tiles. The object is to break your opponent’s code in the fewest number of turns. Older kids will love the classic Mastermind, which involves pegs of different colors.
What it teaches kids:
Because your child must remember her opponent’s answers, Animal Mastermind Towers helps boost memory as well as deductive skills (“If the penguin isn’t below the hippo but above the giraffe, maybe the order is giraffe, penguin, hippo, lion!”). Making up a code teaches strategy, a useful skill for helping your child decide how to tackle any situation, in the classroom or on the playground.
By the time your child is in third grade, she’s mastered the basics, so what she needs now are games that teach her patience, persistence and flexibility, according to Eis.
How to play it:
Players scoot along the board, buying up property, building houses and amassing as much play-money cash as possible. The object is to become the richest player by bankrupting your opponents. Along the way are chance cards that can change a player’s luck. Monopoly Junior is a scaled-back version for kids 5 to 8, with amusement park rides and ticket booths instead of properties and houses.
What it teaches kids:
Besides giving kids practice in making change, Monopoly is a fun way to teach such grown-up concepts as saving, budgeting and financial planning. Plus the random element (“Go directly to jail!”) teaches your child how to adapt to sudden changes.
Rory’s Story Cubes
Sometimes it’s good to play open-ended games that don’t involve winning. Rory's Story Cubes has the added benefit of getting your child ready to write more complex stories, says Artemenko. It’s recommended for kids 8 and up, but younger ones can play too.How to play it: The game comes with nine six-sided cubes, all of which have a sketch—aliens, eyes, keys, chat balloons, wands, flashlights and more — on each side. Roll the cubes and make up a story based on the sketches that appear face up. What it teaches kids: The sketches are abstract enough that your child can interpret them any way she wants, which is great for spurring her imagination. She’ll also learn to create stories with beginning, middles and endings, turn something abstract into something more concrete and how to spin an entertaining story.
This game, unlike any other, helps a child visualize a grid as she figures out how to sink her opponent’s ships, explains Eis. You can even play the game with pencil, paper and graph paper. A two-person game, Battleship is best for kids 8 and older.How to play it: Each player gets a board with two grids—one for keeping track of her opponent and the other for hiding ships—five ships of different lengths, and two different colored pegs. Players take turns firing of their shots: You call out a number and letter on the grid. Your opponent must say if you’ve scored a hit or missed; you mark each miss with a white peg and each hit with a red one. The player who sinks all her opponent’s ships first, wins. What it teaches kids: It takes a certain amount of cunning to hide all five ships in such a way that make them difficult to find, so logic, planning and reasoning all come into play here, as do deductive powers, problem-solving and memory.