Games My Kids Beg To Play

This is my kind of silliness. These family games are creative, simple, and spontaneous. They need almost no preparation and only minimal equipment, just household stuff. They are unplugged, screen-free, non-board games that un-bore children, and they are all about playing rather than producing something, or winning and losing. Best of all, they don’t cause mess-ups that disappoint everyone and make a parent like me look foolish because she didn’t inherit the ‘crafty’ gene.

Some of these games you’ll recognize. The more eccentric ones originated in this family. Honestly, a couple of these are so odd that I wonder why my kids enjoy them so much, but the giggles they generate and the repeated requests to play them cannot be denied!

Folding Game – (pictured twice above) For at least 2 players, better with 3, ages 4 to 104. (Need paper, crayons or markers.)

Take one piece of paper per player and fold it into horizontal thirds (or quarters, with 4 or more players). Each player draws a head and shoulders of some sort (person, animal, vegetable, mineral, monster, alien, whatever) in the top folded section.

Continue the shoulder lines very slightly into the next folded section to give guidance to the player who will continue on that page. Then fold the page back to hide what you have drawn and expose the rest of the paper (with just the little lines of guidance showing) to the person next to you.

Each player then draws a mid-section of any kind, including hands and arms (if your creation has any) in any position. Continue the lines of the hips and the tops of legs very slightly into the bottom folded section, fold back to expose only the bottom section to the player next to you and pass on.

Last round, everyone draws legs and feet.  Finally, unfold and enjoy your communal person/beast. Name him/her/it, if you like!

Sardines In A Can – 3 players or more (the more the squishier!), ages 2 To 102.

This is the classic game of hide ‘n seek turned inside out. One player hides, the others find him and snuggle in next to him in his hiding spot. The last player to find the hiding spot opens a can of very giggly sardines. (For safety, youngest players should team-up with someone, not go hiding on their own.)

Close Your Eyes And Open Your Mouth – Parent and 1 child or more, ages 2 to 102. (Need a kitchen and some food.)

Players take turns closing their eyes while mom, dad, or trusted older sibling brings tiny bites of various edible items. Players guess what they are tasting. As tempting as it is to take full advantage and pop in those highly nutritional foods our children always nix, I’ve found (for the sake of fun and trust!) it’s best to hold the cod liver oil and give samples they can at least tolerate.

Copy – 2 or more players, ages 3 to 103. (Need paper, crayons or markers.)

This one’s really simple, but my children have played it with me – and better yet — with each other for hours.

Each child has a piece of paper. One child draws a shape, dot, figure, or whatever, on his paper. The other child tries to copy it onto his paper, and then adds something more.

The first artist then copies the other child’s addition to the drawing on his paper and adds something more. This copying back and forth continues until the children decide they are done. They end up with two drawings that are similar, but surprisingly different.

Charades – At least 2 players, but the more the merrier, ages 3 to 103. (Need small scraps of paper, pen or pencil.)

This game is a personal favorite. Since I loved charades parties in my teens and twenties, I wanted to introduce the concept to my children as soon as they were old enough to understand it. Younger children can begin by recognizing an image and acting out what it represents.

There is a wonderful charades board game, Kids On Stage, which includes picture cards in three categories: animals, actions and objects. Children embrace the challenge of slithering like a snake or pretending to swing on a swing.  We soon memorized all the cards and with the slightest twitch we could shout out which one it was.

Charades has now become a favorite after dinner party game when we have family or friends over. The younger ones need a little help and encouragement at first, but soon everyone is willing to go out on a limb, behave foolishly in hope that the movie, book, or famous person they are acting out is recognized, and join in the (often hysterical) laughter.

Spice Girls – 1 adult, 1 child (girl or boy) or more, ages 2 to 102. (Need spices.)

This is a guessing game variation on “Close Your Eyes And Open Your Mouth” that my daughters and I invented.  One person closes her eyes while the other holds a spice jar under her nose, and she then has to distinguish the spice. Adults should try this one, too. It’s tough! And some of the most commonly used spices have a surprisingly unappealing smell.

Scavenger Hunt – At least 1 child, the more the merrier, ages 3 to 103.

Scavenger hunts take some preparatory work for the parent, but the joy of sending children out to explore and discover nature is well worth the trouble. There were summers when my children wanted to do this almost every day, and I happily obliged. (This could certainly be done indoors as well, perhaps focusing the hunt on one particular room.)

We are blessed to live in a semi-rural area and have a large un-manicured yard. I would wander about, noting the colors, shapes and designs of leaves, small rocks, flowers, etc., and make a list, which might include: something purple, something that smells good; something that smells bad; something sharp; something soft, etc. When the children were pre-readers, I drew little pictures.

The search gets more complex as the children get older and might include items like “a piece of eucalyptus bark the length of your humerus”, or “a live isopod crustacean” (roly-poly bug). The hunt always ends up being creative, educational and fun (for me, too).

I hope these play ideas come in handy, or inspire spin-offs of your own. I admit to often groaning inaudibly when my children ask me to play, but I have never regretted saying yes.  Playing together bonds us, creates memories, rituals, family lore, and carves time out of our busy lives to focus on each other. In fact I’ve made a pact with my kids for this summer: Wednesday night is game night. So, please forgive me if I don’t answer the phone (or post). I’ll be getting back to you Thursday morning!


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Roseann Murphy says:

    What glorious fun! Thanks for sharing such wonderful games…think I am going to try the scavenger hunt today…will let you know how it goes.

  2. thanks for this blog and all the great game ideas, janet! i naturally never enjoyed board games and games where there are winners and losers. in fact, i thought there was something wrong with me’cause most people i know love these sorts of games and i never did. your article reminded me to look a little more closely at the types of games i actually do enjoy and why it\’s important for me to chose wisely the games i bring into my family. to have fun without the pressures of performance and competition fosters true learning and relaxed aliveness.

    many thanks, lilly

    1. Lori Jacobs says:

      I’ve always been the same way! Growing up one of my brothers had a closetful of board games. I owned 2! My grown kids say it was never fun to play board games at home w/their parents lol. At least after they got to games for “ages 8-adult”. I could handle a short kiddie game, but when games last an hour or more I get completely bored. I have to be reminded it’s my turn. If a game eliminates players (like Monopoly if you run out of money), I’d work TOWARDS being eliminated. My ex, on the other hand, played days-long bridge games in college, but was extremely competitive and inclined to gloating when ahead and complaining when behind. Wrong family for game playing!

  3. A friend of mine plays a game with her boys called comic strip: everybody starts with a piece of paper and draws three or four 2″ boxes on their paper (like a comic strip). Players draw a picture in the first box on their paper. Papers are then rotated among players and each player draws a picture in the second box which continues the story created in the first, and so on until all the boxes are filled. Then read all the comic strips together!

  4. These are awesome. I must admit I played alot of these with my friends when were teenagers and stayed at their houses… I had no idea about the possible fun, or terror! Our family never did together stuff like that, it was board games or read. Unfortunately, I have no idea why, I still hate any “performance games” like charades, quizzes ect – i buckle under the pressure. Feeling that I look silly and come up with nothing decent to contribute. I WILL conquer this for my kids so we can play this stuff and hopefully set them up for life! I would hate for them to feel that way..

    1. I think it’s perfectly ok to be you! Nobody likes everything, and that’s perfectly normal. Explaining that to your kids- without giving excuses or going in to why you think it’s the case- can be an example for them, too, to share their preferences and dislikes. I’m not saying you should never play those games with them, but you don’t have to love it. “It’s not really my thing but I’ll play because I love YOU.” There are always things we aren’t into but our kids are; encouraging them to participate in those things doesn’t mean you have to change you.

  5. Some fantastic ideas! Thank you. My kids (4 and nearly 3) are currently loving scavenger hunts with their dog! They go and hide dog treats and he comes and finds them, a great way to get them outside as they usually go off and find other games to play outside.

  6. These are wonderful! Thanks so much for the fun ideas. I’m excited to play them with my son. My siblings and I used to play a lot of similar games, including a drawing game where we’d each draw a giant squiggle on a piece of paper and then exchange papers and turn the squiggle we received into a drawing, incorporating all the lines. We would spend hours on this! The “copy” game reminded me of it. We also played one where someone would yell “giraffe!” and then then we’d all be as silent and still as possible. The last one who was perfectly silent and still won, but usually we’d all be giggling by the end. We also played a game that was kind of like a verbal exquisite corpse (like the folding game you described above), where one of us would start a story which could be completely from our imagination or could be based on a book we knew and then we’d go around in a circle and add parts in turn – this would occupy us for such a long time. Thanks for reminding me of these fun games with my siblings and for the inspiration!

  7. My husband is away this weekend and I knew it could be all to easy for my 4 year old to end up playing on the iPad for longer than our usual agreed time while I was feeding my 8 week old baby. I described the folding game to him and he said “wow, that sounds terrific, I’m going to close the iPad” (he adores drawing anyway but was enthralled by this twist on it and the opportunity for somr quality connection time with me). We then proceeded to spend 2 hours creating pictures together and a further 1 hour playing with a friend. He only stopped because it was bedtime and he went to sleep with his “creatures” under his pillow so he could play with them when he woke up.

  8. Florencia says:

    Beautiful! With my 2 year old daughter, we play hiding diferent things in a bag. Then vwe close our eyes, put one hand in the bag and we have todo guess what object Is!
    We love it!
    Thanks from Argentina!

    1. Oh, yes, I’d forgotten all about that one, Florencia. Wonderful!

    2. There’s actually a children’s game by Ravensburger (or was?) just like this! Guess-a-Shape. The objects aren’t real, but 2d cardboard cutouts tho. One of the few games I actually enjoyed playing w/my kids, and for sure they loved it. I still have it in near perfect condition 30+ years later. I do daycare and when older “alumni” come to visit, often on a school holiday, they’ve all loved it just as much. Maybe it’s because I’m generally spatially challenged, but it’s amazing how different an object can seem when you don’t know which way is up or down, and can only feel the shape formed edges.

  9. We called your Folding Game Picture Consequences when I was little. My granddaughter loves playing it with me.
    Hunt the Thimble is another fun game. You let them know if they are getting closer to the hiding place by saying warm, very warm and hot and so on. If they go in the wrong direction it’s cold, very cold, freezing. You can use any small object though a thimble is traditional. I have also done this hiding several toy animals so each child has a chance of finding one. Getting the children to take turns hiding them is a winner!

  10. Lisa Damian says:

    I’ve played a game with older kids – 12 and up, called Exquisite Corpse – not sure why it’s called this. You can name it what you want.

    Everyone gets a piece of paper and they fold it into 4 or 6 sections by holding it in the ‘Portrait’ position and folding in half and then in halves or thirds to get the fold lines horizontally across the shorter side.

    Each person gets a pencil and at the start they must write a strange sentence that involves some sentient being making some kind of action.

    Ex.: A fiery green dragon flew over the raging sea and dove into the mouth of the volcano.

    Then papers get passed to R or L. The next person uses the empty section below to draw a picture of the sentence. One only as a minute or two to do this. This person then folds the sentence so it is behind the drawing and sends the drawing on to the person next to them in the order of passing.

    This person sees the picture and writes a sentence describing what they think it is illustrating. Again, some sentient being involved in some action.

    One it goes until the end. then the papers get unfolded and each one is read and looked at. Hilarity ensues….

    Try it…..You’ll want to play it often.


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