For more advice on fun stuff to do with your kids, from ridiculously overqualified experts, check out the rest of our 940 Saturdays.
Try to teach your toddler chess while listening to classical music and you’ll just get slobbery pawns flying across the room to the tune of Vivaldi (unless your kid is a prodigy, which they’re not). That’s because, between the ages of 2 and 6, complexity isn’t of much use to kids when it comes to games — play needs to be paired to their current stage of development.
Nobody’s helped develop more brains than Rebecca Palacios Ph.D., a National Teaching Hall Of Fame inductee with over 30 years experience. And few know games for developing brains better than Scott Kim Ph.D., a puzzle master who worked on Bejeweled. With her expertise in language and his in math, Palacios and Kim help design the curriculum and games for the 65,000 U.S. classrooms that rely on ABCMouse.com as a teaching tool.
According to these 2 masterminds, you can develop your kid’s language and math skills so they hit the ground running in elementary school with simple games that use things lying around the house. You can even use those slobbery pawns (just not for chess).
Ages 2-3: Categorizing And Organizing GamesAt this stage, “game” is a foreign concept, so forget winning or losing and just get them to participate in games focused on organizing similar objects (your call on whether or not that earns them a trophy). “I urge parents to start thinking classification with toddlers — games you can play that put things together, objects that can be organized together, and collections of things,” says Palacios. And if letting the baby pair socks helps with laundry, win-win.
- Start by telling them to gather “things that brush” or “things that roll.” Give a common description for types of objects to gather.
- Tell them to arrange household objects in a specific way, like “big to small” or “in a circle.”
- Gather assorted objects and organize some according to a secret category like “metal” or “red,” and then see if they can guess what those objects share in common.
Ages 3-4: Visual Vocabulary GamesOnce they get basic categorizing down, a child’s vocabulary hits overdrive, but it sounds less like well-formed prose and more like a billion questions about every damn thing in sight. “So, develop their visual skills and vocabulary skills,” says Palacios. Just remember to steel yourself for your kid’s “Why?” period.
- I Spy: This classic can help build your kid’s vocabulary if you’re spying things they don’t necessarily know the words for. Add math skills by spying different numbers of things each time, and alternate who plays “spy” so your kid learns turn-taking.
- Spot It: This is an inexpensive card game where every card includes something visually similar to every other card, and it comes in multiple editions so your kid can learn words specific to outdoorsmen, jocks, and, most importantly, hipsters.
- Magnetic dress-up games, like Melissa & Doug’s, teach words about clothing (obviously) but can also get your kid thinking about surrounding contexts, like what outfit is appropriate for what weather.
Age 4-5: Turn-Taking Music GamesHopefully, you’ve played enough I Spy for your kid to fully grasp turn-taking, because this is the age where that becomes more central to gameplay. It’s also the age where you can introduce rudimentary musical concepts like rhythm (which requires counting) and singing (which requires pronunciation and vocabulary). It may also require earplugs. For you.
- Dueling Banjos (but with hands): Just because your kid can’t play the banjo yet (again, not a prodigy) doesn’t mean you can’t trade licks back and forth with increasingly complexity. Just do it with clapping patterns instead.
- Patty-Cake: Great for kids struggling with pronunciation because it forces them to say specific syllables on specific beats.
- Start A Band: Hum or clap a song, making sure to alternate who sings and who does beats. To up the difficulty, switch who sings and claps mid-song or every other verse.
Age 5-6: Reading, Writing, And Math GamesKindergarten is the last chance to polish up on the fundamentals before grade school. More importantly, their basic grasp of numbers and rules means you can convert them into card sharks, and their improved fine motor skills mean your refrigerator is covered with drawings of things that actually look like things.
- Pictionary: Drawing of any kind trains fine motor skills and doing it Pictionary-style enhances communication skills by forcing the young egomaniac to consider others’ perspective, which is an underrated writing skill in 6-year-olds.
- Creative Writing Madlibs-style: Write down 10 different people, places, things, and ideas on slips of paper to make 40 total. Draw one from 4 different hats and have your kid write a story that incorporates each kind of noun.
- Board Games: “Rolling a die and moving a token around spaces on board is really excellent preparation for thinking about mathematics,” says Dr. Kim. Opt for games like Chutes And Ladders, where movement requires counting.
The good doctors are quick to point out that, just because your kid advances beyond one stage of development, you don’t have to abandon the games from that stage — just add some complexity. “Try to build on existing skills,” Palacios says. Upgrade I Spy from “something blue” to “something periwinkle,” so your kid learns new colors. Upgrade the identification game from finding “one kind of tool” to finding “the worst kind of tool,” so your kid learns who Martin Shkreli is.