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08 Aug, Monday
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Montreal Families

Board games can be a barrel of fun

Most families have a repertoire of favourite activities they enjoy doing together. In our house, my three daughters and I spend many hours baking cookies, muffins and cakes, or cutting up magazines and boxes for various craft and art activities. But when it comes to board games, I’ve always been a reluctant participant. My eyes glaze over at the thought of an endless game of Candy Land or Monopoly Jr. Although my kids enjoy board games, it’s only after exhausting other possibilities that my husband or I will willingly open up the game boxes.

I have to confess: I feel a bit guilty about this. Family game nights stir up Hallmark-like images of children snuggled into mom or dad’s lap on the living room floor, a fire blazing and steaming mugs of cocoa in hand. And if such lovely vignettes don’t always match reality (the cocoa is sure to be spilled on the living room rug and someone is likely to cry about losing), child development experts suggest that playing games with your kids has many positive benefits.

A family game night teaches cooperation and teamwork, reinforces social skills and helps kids learn how to be good sports whether they win or lose. With mom or dad on hand, kids are encouraged to play fair, wait for their turns and persevere even if they are losing. Kids also learn to put games away properly or else be disappointed to find pieces missing next time the game is played.

Games can also reinforce language and math skills. Word games like Scrabble or Word Thief teach vocabulary and spelling, Monopoly and The Game of Life teach money skills, problem solving, negotiation and compromise, while Sorry! and Yahtzee teach counting.

Yet despite all these well-researched benefits, I still haven’t been a board game enthusiast. But when given the challenge to review board games for Montreal Families, I decided to put my reluctance aside and explore some of the newer and less well-known games as well as a couple of classics.

Sitting down with our 8-year-old twins, Sophie and Alex, and 4-year-old daughter, Maya, we were pleasantly surprised to discover games that kept all of us engaged, despite the odd sibling squabble (and we figured that’s part of what we have to learn to handle, anyway)!

Many of our favourites came from a company called Cranium, whose games have won many awards. Our favourite was Cadoo (ages 7 & up), in which players perform various silly activities, using drawing, acting or even sculpting (clay is included). Our girls loved making objects with the Cranium Clay and the charades and funny drawings led to some hilarious moments. The fact that everyone must work within a set time added an element of excitement, and the quick pace of the game meant no one was bored.

Other Cranium games we’ve come to enjoy include Whoonu? (ages 8 & up), which challenges players to guess each others favourite things, and Zooreka (8 & up) in which players build their own animal habitats in a zoo. These games are attractive and inviting, and designed to maintain interest for a variety of ages.

We also rediscovered a couple of classic games, which appealed to our interests and demonstrated their enduring appeal. Although we have played Scrabble Jr. over the years, we decided to try the adult version of Scrabble with our 8-year-olds. They played on teams with mom and dad, and, with frequent trips to the dictionary to verify the more creative word choices, discovered this was something they enjoyed.

Battleship, a game in which opponents try to sink each other’s ships, brought back some happy childhood memories for my husband, who loved this game as a boy. He and the girls literally dove into the game, taking perverse joy in sinking each other’s battleship.

Pictionary, in which you have to draw words while other players try to guess what your mean, had all of us in stitches, particularly since Maya’s drawing repertoire seems to cover only girls, cats, flowers, rainbows and hearts, which she drew no matter what word she picked.

After a few evenings of play, we were pleased to discover a new activity to keep the family engaged on cold winter evenings that didn’t involve the television. We aren’t quite ready to give up on baking or crafts but at least we’ve expanded our options.

Plan a successful family game night

Include everyone: One of the big challenges is figuring out how to make a game work with kids of different ages. When we tackled a game that required more sophisticated reading or counting skills, we would pair Maya, our 4-year-old, with one of her sisters or mom and dad. She was also given important jobs like throwing the dice, moving the playing pieces, or choosing a card. With a little creativity, many games can be adapted to different skill levels, so take the “suggested age range” with a grain of salt.

Make sure everyone is well fed and rested: If kids are young, it’s helpful to have an early dinner together so everyone is well fed before you play. Of course, snacks will still be required! If you are playing in the evening, remember that fatigue can lead to young players becoming whiney and poor losers.

Explain the rules: Besides outlining the rules of a particular game, it’s a good idea to remind kids about the importance of playing fair, waiting for their turn, not boasting about winning and not sulking about losing.

Modify if needed: It’s your game night, so change the rules to suit your family’s needs. Some families might need a time limit, with the winner decided by whomever has the most points when the timer rings. In other games you can simplify the rules to suit younger kids.

Gauge attention levels: Depending on your kids’ attention spans, you might want to keep it short and sweet. Teens might be up for a three-hour Monopoly marathon, but younger kids will need to move onto something else after 20 or 30 minutes. If necessary, an unfinished game may be carefully stored in an out-of-the-way place until play can be resumed.

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