Recently, my family gathered at the park to watch my 11-year-old son’s return to flag football. Most of us were delighted by the celebratory quality of the day — gathered in a social and safe way outdoors, feeling a sense of neighborly community — but not my fourth-grader. She was “bored.” I know because she announced it loudly and repeatedly. This was not a new habit of hers, especially over the course of the pandemic, during which she became more and more dependent on screens for entertainment. At the park, she asked for my phone. I refused. I felt my jaw clenching. The idyllic afternoon began to feel threatened.
Fortunately, my adult niece was also at the park with us. Being the lifesaver that she is, she invited my daughter to play a game she called “Contact.” This game conveniently needed nothing more than the players’ minds. They each thought of a random word and said it aloud at the count of three. Next, they each thought of the word that, to them, would be the halfway point, the commonality between the two words they had just said. They kept doing this until, on the count of three, they both said the same word. This game not only held my daughter’s interest, but also had the whole family crowing with laughter when we heard their reasoning for each word that was said.
The truth is that the last couple of years have left us all a little rusty. Rusty at socializing, entertaining others and ourselves, and at responding to the stimuli and the tedium of the world. And with the holidays approaching, many of us will finally be spending time with loved ones that we haven’t seen in far too long. As was the case with my family’s day at the park, a valuable tool to help shake out the kinks of reconnecting can be found in playing games.
Games build communication bridges
“Research shows that people feel better about people they’ve played games with,” says AJ Webster, an instructor at California State University, Northridge’s Tseng College. It doesn’t even matter if you win or if you lose. Just having played with someone gives you a better experience of them. It gives you pro-social feelings.”
Dr. Erin Rossello, co-founder of Acorn Family Guidance Center, agrees. “When families put away their technology to play games together, it allows everyone to be engaged in the present moment, which increases positive feelings and reduces anxiety and depressive symptoms,” Rossello says.
Games can easily grease the wheels of conversation. When extended family comes together, talk is sometimes strained initially because there is not the ease of discourse that comes with conversing every day. Maybe your children have only met their great-aunt Shelby once or twice before. She might not be tapped in to their interests yet, and the kids may feel a bit tentative about spending time together. In this situation, a game will get the chatting flowing. “My mom loves playing War and Uno with the kids because it puts them face to face and interacting. It’s not passive and they can actually have a conversation,” says Megan Bycel, an L.A. mom of two.
Integrating games into the family culture
It’s not just distant relatives and strangers who grapple with how to get the conversation ball rolling. Even the closest-knit families benefit from a little extra help. Mom Amanda O’Brien says, “We always play Two Truths and a Lie at dinner because it inspires you to talk about your day. Each person goes around and says two true things that happened to them that day and one lie, and then everyone else has to guess which one is the lie. It gets kids to talk about their day in a fun way.”
This icebreaker quality of games can be especially helpful during the holidays, says Rossello, and making certain games a tradition multiplies their benefit. “Setting up a special holiday game that families play every year gives kids a sense of stability and helps ease anxiety over big family gatherings. It’s also a great opportunity to point out growth from year to year — how a game might have once been challenging but now they are a pro!”
Even losing is winning
Although game-playing positives are easy to enumerate, seasoned parents may still hesitate because they are anticipating the potential pitfalls. What if a child is easily frustrated or can’t tolerate losing? What if the competition devolves into a meltdown? What if the house rings with that dreaded lament that is like kryptonite for parents: “IT’S NOT FAIR!!”
Perhaps surprisingly, this discomfort might not actually be so bad. According to Rossello, “Learning to win and lose are important skills for kids to master.” Ultimately, the more practice children have with playing games, the better able they will be to tolerate losing and to regulate their own emotions. That emotional regulation skill then has the potential to bleed into other parts of their lives as well.
Nonetheless, Rossello has tips for increasing the chances of a harmonious experience. “Tell your kids that you will be keeping track of how many times players show good sportsmanship, and if they are all able to get five good sport points by the end of the game, then everyone gets a special treat,” says Rossello. “Also, setting up a winner-cleans-up rule can help take away some of the sting of losing.”
In addition, it helps to use your expertise regarding your own children, according to Shana Lutsky, a family therapist and mother of three. “If you know your child has some attention issues or gets upset when he is losing, best to set a time limit on the game play and end on a high note,” she advises, even if that means tabling a game and finishing it over multiple sessions.
Choosing the right game for the right occasion
The type of game you play can also be tailored to your family’s needs. “We are in the golden age of board games, and there are so many more types of games,” says Christy Durham, co-founder and director at the Sycamore School, which focuses on game-based education. “For example, there are a lot of cooperative games, where all the players are working as a team.” In these games, players work toward a common cause, such as getting all the game pieces across the finish line before time runs out. This kind of “players vs. game” structure makes play much more palatable for preschool-age children who might not be able to tolerate losing to another player but can practice the experience of defeat safely by occasionally losing with their family to the game. Durham recommends Forbidden Island. Other games with a cooperative goal include Race to the Treasure, Eye Found It and Hoot Owl Hoot.
There are also games that focus more on the process of playing than the end goal of winning or losing. Webster suggests Tellestration, which is like playing a game of telephone, except instead of whispering something, players draw pictures of a clue and pass it to the next person to interpret. The misinterpretations, like in telephone, result in a good bit of silliness.
While good sportsmanship and emotional regulation are logical outcomes of playing games, there are other advantages that are not as readily apparent. “Whenever you’re playing a game, you’re engaging not just in cooperation or collaboration, but also in things like systems thinking, critical literacy and mathematical thinking,” says Webster. “So you’re getting a lot more kinds of development. A lot of games, for example, require the player to think about optimization. Optimization is one of the key ways we use math in real life to consider, ‘What’s the best deal?’ and ‘How do I maximize my profits?’” Webster recommends games such as King of Tokyo and Settlers of Catan to practice optimization.
Aside from the experience of the children, families sometimes hit a roadblock of gameplay in the form of reluctance among the adults. Maybe parents are envisioning the mind-numbing qualities of a Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders-type game, one that relies entirely on luck and thus fails to capture all the players’ attention and interest. In this case, it’s relevant to return to Durham’s “golden age of games” observation.
“There are so many more games now that are legitimately fun for both kids and adults,” says Durham. She recommends games such as Codenames, Battle Sheep, Sleeping Queens and Anomia. And to maximize the possibility that several generations are truly engaged in the play, many games have developed separate decks or versions for different age groups, including Trivial Pursuit, Ticket to Ride, Apples to Apples and even Boggle.
If your family is embarking on a long-postponed trip to the opposite coast for the holidays, packing some of these larger board games into your carryon might not be tenable. Bycel likes card games for their convenience and portability factor. “Card games are so easy to have available,” she says. “You can just throw them in your purse or your backpack and they’re always at the ready.” O’Brien also values on-the-go games. She recommends Last Mouse Lost because it is totally self-contained, devoid of pieces that can be lost and weighs just a few ounces. Plus, it has the same satisfying effect as a pop-it toy. “Especially because my kids both have ADHD, I think it gives them something that we can do together in those situations where they need to focus in order to control some of their impulsivity. It totally focuses them and captures their attention,” she says.
O’Brien’s family also relies on Top Trumps when they have to wait somewhere, which is a game structured like war but with different categories of facts, so you’re learning something while you’re playing. “With the Top Trumps cards especially, we’ve learned so much about state capitals, predators, all sorts of things.”
There are high-minded reasons to play family games, such as fostering emotional and cognitive development, and there are pragmatic reasons such as keeping (bored) kids occupied during a long wait. But what shouldn’t be lost in this list is the essential reason that games exist: to have fun, whether through silliness and laughter or through tactics and strategy. We certainly deserve a little fun after what we’ve all been through. And as my seven-year-old daughter puts it, “If we can’t have fun, what’s the point of life?”
Kate Korsh is a local mom, writer and overly competitive charades player.