Food. Shelter. Love. And…games?
Though playtime may not pop to mind when you list the essentials for family happiness, it’s one of the best things you can share with your partner or kids.
“It connects family members to each other,” says marriage and family therapist Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D., author of Tending the Family Heart
. She recommends playing games of all kinds together, from Parcheesi to Ping-Pong, tiddlywinks to tag. “It teaches sportsmanship. It teaches vocabulary and communication, all those social skills—take your turn, be patient with a younger one, have a little respect for the older ones.”
The Benefits of Playing
Games may even make kids more resilient. It’s easier to face life’s setbacks, after all, if you’re used to handling Life’s bad spins and Scrabble racks full of vowels. Same deal if you’ve seen Mom shrug it off when she flubs a Frisbee toss, or Dad laugh when his golf ball lands in the water, Marie says.
Of course, in this era of packed schedules and multiple jobs, making time for games can feel tricky. “One of the ways to deal with that is to reset your priorities,” Marie points out. Cook simpler meals. Cut back on housework. “Who really cares if your house is vacuumed once every two weeks instead of every day, if vacuuming means you’re not playing with your kids?”
Another key to playing more: Put regular game nights (or days) on your calendar. “Institutionalizing anything makes sure it happens,” Marie says. What games are right for your family? “The main thing I would stress is that they need to be age appropriate to the child, not the adult—and as the child grows, you should introduce more games that require the kid to stretch,” Marie says. That stretching should be gradual: With board games, for instance, go from simple, luck-based ones (Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders) to ones that incorporate a bit of strategy (Qwirkle, Connect 4).
What games are wrong for your family? First, avoid “gotcha” games that can leave players feeling bad—the kind that require players to spill secrets or accuse each other of lying, for example. Second, be honest—for everyone’s sake—about your own limits. Are you hyper-competitive? Your kids will probably have more fun if you stick to cooperative games like make-believe.
Are you impatient? Avoid glacially paced toddler board games. “I’m not a dollhouse person—I couldn’t stand it,” Marie says. “I was the make-a-fort person—put up a card table, throw a blanket over it, now we have a fort.”
Invent Your Own
As Marie’s forts suggest, the best games are often spur-of-the-moment: improv games, say, where you play characters (spies, advice experts) over dinner or at the supermarket; spoken word games that involve rhymes or synonyms; even cleanup games (two points each time you toss a pair of undies in the hamper!)
And in the end, it’s play itself, more than any specific game, that matters. “It’s the fact that this is family time,” Marie says. Memories of family games “will last through your children’s lives. These are the ties that bind.”
Melissa Balmain is a humorist, journalist and teacher. She is also the author of Walking in on People, a full-length collection of poetry.