Checkers anyone? Not with a toddler or preschooler. Board and card games are great ways to engage young children in activities that challenge their developing minds and entertain at the same time. But most games require strategy and rules that are beyond their ability to grasp.
The rules of a game are usually the hardest part for small children to learn. In fact, for toddlers, they take all the fun out of it, according to Margarita Perez, Ed.D., associate professor of early childhood education at Worcester State College in Massachusetts. "Developmentally, toddlers don't accept rules like taking turns," she says, adding that the best games for young children allow them to react to things they know about the world, not structured games that involve memory and strategizing. Those will come later, as they build the necessary skills.
In the meantime, here are some age-appropriate games developed by Sheila Ellison, author of 365 Games Toddlers Play (Sourcebooks, Inc.):
Two-Year-Olds: Hands-On Playing
At this age, children love to explore things using their sense of touch. To capitalize on that, fill a large rectangular cake pan with sand, sugar or flour and show your toddler how to draw lines or pictures in the granules. "Build" a design by drawing a line, having your child add another line, and so on. Before long, he's taking turns without even noticing.
Sorting pasta is another tactile activity that involves a toddler's growing ability to see differences in things. Ellison suggests mixing a variety of different pasta shapes (corkscrews, elbows, bowties, etc.) and colors in a large bowl. Show your toddler how to make a pile of same-shaped or same-colored pasta. As she sorts, tell her the names of each shape.
Three-Year-Olds: Playing by the Numbers
Preschoolers typically get the idea of taking turns, and are starting to learn to count. To promote both of those skills, Ellison suggests a variation on Go Fish, which also taps into a toddler's interest in the world around him. Create 12 or so pairs of index cards by hand or on the computer. The images on the cards should be things your child knows -- animals, colors or family members. Mix up the cards and let her deal three to each of you, counting out loud. Stack the rest face down as the draw pile. Ask for a card that matches one you hold. If she doesn't have it, she gets to say "Go fish!" and you draw a card from the pile. The first person to match all the cards in her hands wins.
Four-Year Olds: Brain Boosters
By this age, children are developing their memory and strategy skills, and getting ready to move into more sophisticated game-playing. The game of Concentration, using part of a deck of cards or cards you've made (see above), involves shuffling several pairs of cards and placing them face down in a rectangular pattern. The object is to make matches until there are no cards left. When it's your turn, flip over two cards to see if they match, making sure your child sees them, too. If they don't match, turn them over and let him take a turn. The player who makes a match keeps those two cards and tries again until he misses. The player with the most matches at the end of the game is the winner. Start with six pairs, and increase the number as the game becomes too easy.
When younger children want to play games intended for older ones, let them --but bend the rules as you need to. Four-year-old Megan Hassi of Jacksonville, Fla. can't read yet, but that doesn't stop her from "playing" Monopoly with her sisters, who are six and eight. "We usually find ways to accommodate Megan, by playing in teams or having the older girls cover their ears when we read a card to her," says her mom, Catherine. And sometimes, even the big girls need to bend the rules: "They don't get that they have to give up their pretty-colored money if they want to play the game."
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