Family Games Your Kids Will Love

Does your family have any extra downtime this summer? This may be the perfect time to introduce your kids to some simple, giggle-inducing, creative games to play anytime and almost anywhere. I have ideas for you! These are games my kids begged me to play over and over again that would never fail to crack me up too, and even became family lore. Some of these you’ve definitely heard of, others my kids and I invented. None are about winning, losing, screens, or making any sort of product, just learning (without realizing it) and lots of FUN.

Transcript of “Family Games Your Kids Will Love”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

I’m excited. I think this is going to be fun—at least for me, hopefully for you too. Most of the time when you hear me talking about play, I’m usually talking about how to help nurture our child’s ability to create their play, to be self-directed, because there are so many benefits to this that are well-documented, creatively, cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically. In terms of developing skills and self-confidence, there’s really nothing like knowing that you have ideas and you can play them out with other children or by yourself. This is a lifelong gift we can give our children. So, most of the time you’re hearing me talk about that. Often it’s about our boundaries, being comfortable not being as involved in play. Being able to be a supporter and a responder rather than somebody that’s doing the play for them in an entertaining way, therefore possibly creating dependencies.

Today’s going to be completely different because I’m going to talk about games to play with our children. It might be surprising for you to know that my family is a games family. We love games, even now. My kids are adults and we still play games when we’re all together and we really get a kick out of that. And as a parent, I did that too. I would play games with my children when they asked me. Not always. Because I had also tried to cultivate their self-directed play, they didn’t ask me that often to play with them. I would enjoy watching them a lot of the time. I’d enjoy being in the next room and just hearing what was going on. I loved those days when my children used to talk out loud to themselves, playing the different characters that they were imagining or just thinking out loud. Of course, children stop doing that around five or six to eight years old, somewhere in there. They don’t do that as much, especially if they think you’re watching. But I loved those days. So I got a lot out of them being able to play on their own too. I also got breaks, I got to do things I wanted to do and feel like they were doing something really positive.

But we would also play things together. We had games. Some of them we made up on our own, some my children brought to me that they’d heard somewhere or someone else had played with them. All of these games are creative, they’re simple, they need almost no preparation and only minimal equipment, just household stuff, which I love. They’re unplugged, screen-free, non-board games that un-bore children, and they’re all about playing rather than producing something or winning or losing. Best of all for me, as a parent who is not crafty, they don’t cause big mistakes and mess-ups that disappoint everyone and make me look foolish because I didn’t inherit those crafty genes. There’s no product involved.

Some of these games are more eccentric and originated in my family, and some of them are so odd that I really wondered why my kids enjoyed them so much. But these all generated giggles and fun, so I thought I would share them with you today.

The first one is Sardines. Everybody’s probably played that before or heard of it. You need three players or more; the more, the squishier. And a two-year-old can play this, ages two to 102. As many of you know, this is a classic game of hide-and-seek, but it’s turned inside-out. Only one player hides, and then the others try to find him and secretly snuggle in next to him in his hiding spot. And then the last player to find the hiding spot opens a can of very giggly sardines. I’ve been that last person, it gets so quiet and you know you’re the last person. It’s really embarrassing because you know everyone’s having a good laugh at your expense. For a child that’s very young, it’s better to have them team up with someone so they’re not going hiding on their own. Kids love it, and it’s actually really fun for grown-ups too. So that’s a really fun one.

Next: Folding Game. There are actually two different versions of this, but I’m going to talk about the one that’s, I would say, for ages four and up. What you need for this game is paper, just regular letter-size paper, and crayons or markers. I guess you could also do it with a pencil. Each player has a piece of paper that’s folded into thirds, or you could do it with quarters if you have four or more players. Each player draws on the paper that’s in front of them, at the top of the folded page. They draw a head and shoulders of any kind. It could be a person, an animal, a vegetable, a mineral, a monster, an alien, whatever. Just in that top folded section, that top third. And what they’ll do is then continue the shoulder lines, so the outside of the shoulders, very slightly so that it goes onto the next folded section, the second folded section, the middle section.

So the next player can have those lines for guidance for what they’re going to draw, but they’re not going to see that first part at the top of the page. We each fold that part back, that head and neck and shoulders thing that we made, we fold that part back to hide what we’ve drawn and only expose the rest of the paper with just those little lines of guidance showing for the next person. I’ll share a picture of this in the transcript, so don’t panic if it’s not making sense.

Then, each one of us passes our sheet of paper onto the next person, and then each of those players draws a midsection of any kind. It can include hands and arms, if this creation happens to have hands and arms, and they can be in any position. And from there, we’re going to continue those lines of the hips and maybe the tops of the legs very slightly into the bottom folded section. So there’ll be maybe two or four lines there, two for each leg. Those will be slightly coming down for the next person, who has the third section. And if you do this in four sections, you can have it be the head, the midsection, the hips to the knees, and then the knees to the feet. We’ve done it that way too, it’s pretty fun.

Now we’re going to fold that part back too. So all the next person’s going to see on our paper is the bottom section with just these four little lines coming down at the very top of that section. All they’re getting is that. And then for this last round, everybody draws legs and feet, any kinds of legs and feet, or maybe it’s a mermaid and they have a tail. We just have fun with it. And really, even if somebody’s drawing stick legs, it still comes out cool, it’s amazing.

Then we’re going to unfold and just enjoy our communal person or beast or thing, whatever it is, and maybe we’ll name it if we want to. This game, long hours of fun. There’s this great surprise at the end with what it looks like, it makes us all laugh. So that’s Folding Game.

There’s another Folding Game that children have to be older to play, because they have to be able to read and write. In this game, at the very tippy-top of a piece of paper, as small as possible, you make a picture of anything. It could be a little star or a heart, an animal’s face, it could be a scribble, anything. You pass that to the next person. The next person looks at that and they think of a way to describe it, simply. Maybe they’re using an analogy, maybe they’re just titling it with a couple of words. And then what they’re going to do is fold down that picture. So now the top picture is hidden and I’m writing on top of it this description.

And then the next person doesn’t unfold it and look at the picture that was under there, all they see is that description. Then they fold that description down, and on top make a picture that that description brings to mind. Anything, it could be totally random. And I’ll be sharing an image of this in the transcript as well. Now you pass that to the next person, and they make a description on top of that, folding it down a tiny bit, and no one’s looking at what’s underneath.

That goes on and on and on until you get to the end of all the papers. And then you open it up and it is hilarious. It’s a hilarious adult game because it’s sort of like telephone, but much more visual. You see how something gets totally distorted and becomes something completely different because of people’s imagination. And you might end up with a description or you could end up with another picture, but it’s probably better to end up with a description at the end. So everyone stops there and then, Wow, does this describe that very first picture at all? No, it doesn’t.

Third game, we made this one up: Close Your Eyes and Open Your Mouth. All this takes is a parent and one child or more, could be ages two to 102. And all we need here is some food. Players take turns closing their eyes while mom, dad, or a trusted older sibling brings tiny bites of various edible items. Nothing totally gross, that’s not fair. And the players have to guess, with their eyes closed, what they’re tasting. It’s sort of an exercise in trust as well, because you’re closing your eyes and you’re really hoping somebody doesn’t give you something that you don’t like at all. We try to be very kind. And of course it’s very tempting to take full advantage and put highly nutritious foods into our child’s mouth that we know that they don’t like. But I’ve found it’s really best to hold the cod liver oil and give samples that children can at least tolerate. So, Close Your Eyes and Open Your Mouth.

Alright, next game: Copy. My kids turned me onto this. I did not think this one up and I never played it as a kid. Two or more players, ages three to 103. All you need is paper and crayons or markers. Now this one’s really, really simple, but my children have played it with me and with each other, better yet, for hours. So entertaining. Each child has a piece of paper and one child draws whatever they want to draw—a shape, a dot, a figure, whatever it is—anywhere on their paper. Then the other child tries to copy that. Then they pass the papers on, or to each other if they’re just two of them, and the other child or the parent tries to copy that onto their paper and then they add something more. So I’m going to make what you made as best I can, and I’m going to add something more. And then I’m going to pass it back to you, we’re going to pass it back to each other, and then we’re going to continue that idea: copying what that person added and adding a little more. This copying back and forth, back and forth continues until the children decide that they’re done. And it’s so interesting, you end up with two drawings that are similar but surprisingly different as well. So that’s Copy. I highly recommend it. 

Charades. Many of you already play charades or you know what it is. We need at least two players (but the more, the merrier), small scraps of paper, and a pen or pencil. This game is a personal favorite of mine and in my family. I loved charades parties in my teens and twenties, so 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, so they don’t have to be able to read, and they can act out what it represents. There’s a board game— that isn’t sponsoring this podcast, I promise!— called Kids on Stage that has picture cards in three categories, either animals, actions, or objects. And children love to act them out. You saw a snake picture, so they’re trying to slither like a snake to make us guess that. And charades then became a favorite after-dinner party game when we’d have friends or family over. The younger ones, they need a little help. Sometimes they need a partner and they need a lot of encouragement at first, but soon everybody’s willing to go out on a limb, behave foolishly to try to help people guess that movie or book or famous person that they’re acting out. And the things we all do are so silly. There’s lots of laughter.

Spice Girls. This is one that we made up, my daughters and I. You need one adult and one child or more, maybe one older child and one younger child. And then you need spices. This is a guessing game that’s kind of a variation on that food game, Close Your Eyes and Open Your Mouth. With this one, one person closes their eyes while the other one holds a spice jar under their nose. Then you have to try to distinguish the spice. Adults should really try this one too. It’s hard, and it’s interesting how some of the most commonly used spices have this really unappealing smell when you just smell them from the jar. Maybe other people know that, but I didn’t. Another sort of, I guess you’d call it educational game that’s actually really silly and fun.

Next, scavenger hunt. Everybody knows what a scavenger hunt is, right? I just want to tell you a little about how I did them, because it was just such a great feeling to send my kids off knowing they’re going to learn a lot, that they’re having great social time if there’s more than one child, but they can do this on their own as well. They’re exploring environments, preferably outdoors, so they’re out in nature, maybe. For this you need at least one child, ages three to 103, and then we have to make the scavenger hunt. This does take some preparatory work for us, but it’s worth it because children get really, really into it. At least mine and their friends did. So it was always worth the trouble. And it was kind of fun to figure out for me too, I’ve got to admit it. I would resist sometimes at first mentally, but then I would embrace the challenge and it was really fun.

We’re blessed to live in a semi-rural area, so we do have a nice, unmanicured yard. When I was prepping it, I would wander about, note colors and shapes and designs of leaves, things like that, small rocks, flowers. And I’d make a list that might include something like something purple, something that smells good, something that smells bad, something sharp, something soft. When my kids were pre-readers, I would just do it with pictures. I would draw little pictures of what it was, and they would try to match the picture with the real-life object and find it. These searches get much more complex as children get older, and then you can get really educational. You can include items like, I would say a piece of eucalyptus bark the length of your humerus or a live isopod crustacean, which is a roly-poly bug. I’d be really proud of myself for figuring those out. And then the hunt would always end up being this creative, educational, kind of rewarding for me too experience. It’s a good accomplishment.

That’s been one of our all-time favorites. Of course, my kids haven’t asked for that kind of thing for years, unfortunately, so I’ll have to wait for possible grandchildren someday, and I can make scavenger hunts for them as well. You could also do this in the house, maybe just narrowing it down to one room where you do things, or in a park if you’re able to supervise little kids.

Those were our mainstays. But other things my kids played and loved that really didn’t involve me much at all were we had all these scraps and weird dress-up clothing item-type things, hats and old stuff that we collected in a big box. And children would put them all together differently and make weird fashion shows and we’d have them walk the catwalk, pretend, and maybe I’d take a movie of it. They loved to do that, especially with friends over. My oldest daughter loved making up shows or she would do shows. I did this as a kid. We actually would sell tickets to our shows and all they were were us lip-syncing to Disney soundtracks. So you can get a soundtrack of a musical and have your kids just enjoy making a show to them.

But those kinds of games, we can’t really say, Okay, this is what you’re going to do or This is what we’re going to do. It’s more about letting those happen, maybe giving our child the idea and then letting them take that idea and go with it, or not. Trusting. A lot of trust around play, that’s the key. The more trust we give children, the less we try to tell them what to do or how to do it, the more confidence they feel, the more freedom they feel, and the more joy they get out of this in so many areas. The way that it makes them feel like they’re creative people, that it makes them feel like their ideas can be a success. Those are the kind of messages we want to give children. Especially in the summer when we’ve got some looser time, hopefully. They can explore these kinds of things.

Other board games that my kids liked: Well, all my kids went through a Candy Land phase when they were really little. Of course, you have to tie me down and ply me with something to play that, pretty much. I don’t know why kids love it. Well, I do know why kids love it, I think, because it’s this wonderful idea that we’re in a candy land and there’s all this candy. But when you play the game, you’re just looking at pictures of it and it’s kind of a boring game. But my kids did all like that, I have to say, that was a rough one.

But the board games that I did like, besides Kids on Stage, Guess Who? I loved Guess Who? You could see how it’s teaching deductive reasoning, sort of the way that 20 Questions does, but it’s so much easier because the pictures are right in front of you. Does the person have dark hair? No. And now I can put away all these pictures of people with dark hair. It’s a very clever, simple game that I would almost always say yes to.

And when I was a kid back in the stone ages, here’s some other things that we did. I have three sisters, so there were a lot of us, and one of the things we did that actually took a lot of time, and it was a game in itself, was we had all these different games and activities we could do and we would make a list of all of them, a lot of them we’d made up in the past, and then we would each get to vote. We would write down number one, number two, number three. What we wanted to do the most, the second-most, third-most, fourth-most, all the way to tenth or whatever it was. And then we would just add up the totals and whichever game had the lowest number, that’s what we would do. That kind of planning is so good for children. They learn so much, and it’s such a team-building exercise too. So I would consider all of this play. Anything the children engage in like that, you can be sure that they’re learning a ton.

Another thing we did, my dad worked for this early kind of Xerox-type company, I don’t even know if they had Xerox back then. But he would come home with these huge sheets of paper, I guess now you could use poster board or maybe there’s a place you can buy huge sheets of paper. We would make drawings together. It wasn’t like Copy, that game that I brought up, it was when we were a bit older. We would have a scene, like, we’re in a park. That was all we would tell each other. And then each of us would make our own little scenes within the scene. I mean, we liked to draw, so it wasn’t such a stretch that way. None of us were great at drawing, but we really enjoyed it.

Another thing we used to do is make scary stories where we’d have sound effects, and sometimes it’d be this music box that played this scary theme, or it could be thumping or screaming. We would make up a whole story and we would act it out on audio. I guess that’s for much older kids, but I remember that so well. All the fun we had doing that. Oh my gosh, so many laughs.

I really hope some of these play ideas come in handy for you, or maybe they inspire your children to spin off their own ideas on them. I didn’t always want to play with my kids when they asked me, but honestly when I think about it, I never regretted saying yes. It was bonding, we created memories and rituals and family lore, and it was a way to carve time out of our busy lives and just focus on each other. So enjoy the games that your family’s into and consider the value and the added pleasure of doing less, enjoying more. As Magda Gerber said, keeping it simple. I hope you get to do that this summer. Carve out some time where you have no agenda except just hanging out. I really hope some of this helps.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

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

  1. Wanted to say that I loved the highly coloured Orcs!

    I was drawn in by your Instagram post.

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