Kindergarten Pop: Gaming With A 6-Year Old



Gamers with kids are always asking for recommendations on what to play with them.  It is arguably the most common type of question posted in the Gaming with Kids Forum at Board Game Geek.  Usually, it takes the form of something like, “My child is X-years old – what games do you suggest?”  Or maybe it’s in regards to specific titles.  I’ve asked variations of it myself.  I mean, we all want our progeny to grow in the hobby we adore so much!

Of course, such questions can prove problematic.  Everybody’s kid is different.  Some parents have the honor roll student on the bumper sticker.  Others have the child that beats that one up.  And then at all levels in between.  Recommendations understandably fail to account for personal preferences, situations, and family dynamics.  Not to mention, invariably there’s always some poster who must have the Mozart of gaming and suggests Puerto Rico for a 7-year old.  I always ignore that guy.

I’ve written about gaming with kids before, but thought I would take a slightly different tack this time.  My daughter just “graduated” Kindergarten and I enjoyed that year as she blossomed into a wider variety of games – even ones that surprised me.  Rather than list universal pointers and tips and bullet-points, I’d like instead to throw some anecdotal thoughts your way which may prove practical or enlightening.

First, by way of framing the remainder of my thoughts here, I cannot stress how much I advocate strongly for “the right game at the right age.”  When I first jumped back into gaming, my boys were 7-years old and in the first grade.  I started with a title completely familiar to me, basically out of nostalgia: Axis & Allies.  Yeah, I know.  All I can say for myself is that I was ignorant back then.  They slugged through it because it looks really cool and it’s fun to throw dice.  Sure, they learned how to play it – at least the mechanics.  But even four years later, the scope, depth, and nuance of the design’s strategy largely eludes them.  Now you know why I ignore the “My 7-year old plays Puerto Rico” guy.

That said, I think the greatest thing I learned this year is how much better young kids discover games through observation.  Their transition into the hobby can be eased tremendously by playing with you, rather than against you.  This was a new idea to me.  Back in the post-Axis & Allies days, I’d teach a game to my boys, line up on the other side of the board, and we just sort of stumbled through together.  After all, you learn from your mistakes, right?  Through some bumps, and plenty of trial and error, they struggled their way through most every title, eventually.  Today, they do very well learning new games, grasping all but the heaviest brain-burners with surprising ease.  However, there was often frustration along the way.  Plus, there are some mechanics, styles, themes, and elements that they shy away from – I think mainly because of unfavorable previous experience.

With my daughter, that all happened differently.  I’d like to say that I was brilliant and planned it all out like this.  The truth, though, is it just developed naturally.  Rather than lining up against her competitively (other than in a specific kids game, that is), she would play on my team.  Sometimes she even played with one of her older brothers.  As a father, let me tell you that warms the heart, because you know that you’ll be separating them a couple hours later for pestering each other non-stop!  Rarely did these partnerships involve game play decisions, but she was always excited to move pieces, count points, draw cards, and most of all…roll dice, of course!  All the while, we’d explain in quite basic terms what we were doing at the moment and oftentimes why.  She was an observer, for the most part.

The point is that I didn’t have to teach her the game in a traditional sense, but she was learning it nonetheless.  More significantly, this process exposes her to a variety of styles and mechanics.  No, she doesn’t grasp them in the same manner that we do, but she was still becoming acclimated to them.  It avoids frustration and confusion, reducing stress.  Finally, it builds off of her enthusiasm and curiosity because she could join on her terms – as well as come and go as she pleased.

I’ve also noticed that her interest in “dad’s games” increases when granted a bit of independence with them.  Namely, she likes to set them up for us to play.  Of course, this causes more than a bit of trepidation on dad’s part!  With small games and card games, it’s mostly straight forward.  Sleeping Queens or Hugs or Carcassonne requires laying out some cards or tiles.  However, I was floored the day I walked in the living room to see Steam Park’s many cards, stands, rides, boards, and tokens perfectly sorted, piled, stacked, and ready to play!  Now, this is only when those games are already upstairs.  I don’t let her take anything down from the shelves on her own and risk being crushed by an avalanche of boxes!  But she really enjoys the organization and seems to relish the sense of involvement.  At the same time, she becomes familiar not just with a particular game’s bits and pieces, but with general components universal to the hobby.

While my daughter showed more and more curiosity in my games this past year, she also routinely gravitated back toward “her” selections.  In other words, don’t forget about the kids’ games.  Whether you think they’re boring, overly-simplistic, or mind-numbing, they are designed for specific reasons: to teach kids basic gaming concepts.  That doesn’t mean play them a few times as an introductory learning tool and then discard them.  Don’t worry: frequent replays will not hinder your child’s development nor hold them back in any way.  In fact, just the opposite.  Kids this young learn through reinforcement and repetition.  It will also minimize frustration and stress levels since they aren’t constantly learning new rules and/or mechanics.

Modifying advanced games to make them simpler for kids is not always as positive as it sounds, either.  I know this is a common tactic for many gamer parents, and I’ve practiced it to some degree with my own.  It can be successful.  However, I recommend doing so sparingly.  When first getting my boys into gaming, we house-ruled and altered games quite liberally.  The problem is that they didn’t want to play by the real rules when they were perfectly able to grok them later.

With my daughter, there are several types of games that prove problematic to modify on her level.  Anything with a moderate amount of reading is difficult to work with, especially when information needs to be hidden.  GUBS is one such family-friendly example that nonetheless works poorly for a Kindergartner first learning to read.  Any game which requires a build up or a series of moves to accomplish some object is not terribly conducive to altering.  In the very simple Kingsburg, we tried nixing the normal end-of-year battle and playing so that advisers provide immediate buildings, rather than having to plan how to acquire resources over time.  But it dawned on me that changes like these are just making a kid’s game out of a strategy game, losing the original design’s identity and uniqueness – everything that defines it as a strategy game.  I might as well just stick with games already specifically designed for kids.  Those will conduct my daughter along the hobby path just as much as, or more than, my arbitrary changes to a complicated design not meant for her in the first place.

A change that has worked well for us without significantly altering game play is one that we made in Steam Park.  Normally, players roll their action dice together as fast as they can, keeping what they want and re-rolling others as often as they wish.  The first one satisfied with his/her selection locks them and nabs the best bonus token available, leaving the less valuable bonuses (and penalty) to the slower rollers.  It’s chaotic and frantic, but in a fun way.  For adults.  But for kids, it’s just so much stress.  So instead, we roll simultaneously in rounds, still allowing the player who stops first to grab the choicest bonus token.  It’s a minor variation which takes almost nothing away from the design, making an already family-friendly title accessible to young kids, as well.

Besides Steam Park, there are other non-children’s titles approachable to little kids.  Carcassonne is an excellent example, and one my daughter hasn’t had any issues with playing as is.  She can also handle the basic pick-up and deliver title Cinque Terre.  In that vein, I’m fairly confident she’d be able to play something on the level of Ticket to Ride, though we don’t own that one.  Those are accessible to non-reading players.  A title which does require a little reading which she enjoys is the little known Villagers and Villains.  A number of the cards have special abilities or powers described by text.  However, you play with these exposed, so we can easily help her.  And they’re not so many of them that she’s memorized a lot, anyway.

So there are simple, adult titles, which young kids can learn the rules to and play.  However, that doesn’t mean they’ll grasp the nuance and subtleties of fundamental strategy.  Nonetheless, you can see the gears start to turn as they take in games above their genre.  Still, if you pull these out for your 5-7 year old, keep such “complex” games very basic.

Kindergarten seems to be a prime stage of development in which children begin to move beyond merely mocking a game’s rules/moves.  My daughter may not yet fully conceptualize everything, but she is starting to.  Kids’ games certainly plant the seed at ages 3 to 5 (and maybe still a bit older).  Kindergarten is when you can fertilize that with hardier nutrients.  Just don’t pour it on too much, lest you drown them out.  Emphasize playing with them, instead of against them.  Don’t be too quick to toss out those kiddie games.  And give them a sense of ownership in your collection.  As long as you’re not throwing designs at them before they’re ready, baby steps will go a long way into growing your little gamer.

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion8 Comments

  1. Great post.

    I started my nephew on Carcassonne when he was about 5. We played often on teams but the tile-laying was simple enough that he soon was able to play by himself. He picked up on a good strategy that actually works well without long-term strategizing: always try to share what other people are building. You gotta watch out for that guy. (We also did not play with Farms, but we have recently added them in).

    I introduced him to Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures when he was 6 or 7, because he had recently watched the movies and fallen in love with them. And I don’t have enough X-Wing opponents.

    We did have to dumb down the game for him to play. Fortunately X-Wing has basic game rules that I simplified even further by using squadrons that only had generic pilots – no special abilities to read or worry about. We also ignored actions – basically move, then roll dice to attack. Made for kind of a stupid game, but it could be played quickly and he loved the ships.

    He also observed how I moved my ships and has already started to learn a little bit about keeping ships in formation. Over time we have added in rules one at a time – first Actions, then Stress tokens, adding more ships to control, and most recently I gave him a single pilot with a special ability. The progression has been going well, allowing him to ease into a complex (for his age) game while having a simple enough system to worry about how to play, not just what the rules are. He has even started learning to try and move his ships based on where he thinks mine will be next, not where they are at the start of the turn.

    While this goes against your “don’t reduce complex games for kids” rule I don’t regret doing it, because it’s gone swimmingly and allowed me to slowly introduce more complex gaming mechanisms that lead to other games. I can also help motivate him to learn more rules, because I withhold cool things until he reaches more rules. He always wants to play with bigger squadrons and the big ships, but I won’t pull those out until more rules are mastered, so there is motivation to keep learning.

    • Jason Meyers

      That’s awesome! Yeah, the “don’t reduce complex games just so that you can play them with your kid” rule is not necessarily set in granite – just use sparingly. 😉 Really, all kids are different. That’s why I went with this more anecdotal approach. Like your note about your nephew learning from watching you. That’s exactly what I noticed with my daughter this year.

  2. I recently played Dominion (the base game) with a step-nephew about a week ago, whom is about 7 or 8. He didn’t win, but I’m pretty sure he looked the unique aspects of the game.

    Helps that I was giving him pointes and showing him what he could go and what would happen if he did.

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  4. We started with my oldest daughter when she was 5 or 6, joining in with the parents (or other adults) when we played. She understood the basics and would just play along as she was able, often with some hints from mom or dad. Eventually she was able to make her own decisions with confidence and she can just start playing most games now. Of course, we didn’t go too hard on her and we were very clear that being a good winner or loser was important, as was respect for those playing. She didn’t have great strategies most times, but still did fairly well. Most recently she has managed to pull off some wins in Viva Java: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game – often by close to 10 points.

    Thank you for sharing the details of your kids playing. We try not to leave out her favorites, though that gets difficult when you really don’t want to play YYY “Jr” or Balloon Lagoon again. 🙂 We did manage to get through many games of Guess Who, though. I look forward to seeing how the youngest one adapts.

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  6. Thanks for a great article. I have a 7-year-old daughter and have been gaming with here for a few years, and blogging about it since she was 4, though we haven’t got to playing Puerto Rico yet! While some of the games we play are fairly “grown-up”, I very much agree with your point about not throwing out the kids’ games and, in particular, in the playing *with* rather than against the young’uns. Mind you, I think that last bit is often good advice for playing with adults too…

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