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Board Game Big Kid or Mini-Me?

ticket to ride london feature

Question Time: when does a child transition from kids games to proper games? Is it the recommended age on the box? Is it when we feel they are able to understand and appreciate the complexities of a given game? Or is it whenever they want to? Are they a board game big kid or mini-me?

I suppose we should really start this debate with a few more fundamental questions; what are kids game? And why are they somehow different to proper games?

What are Kids Games?

Kids are the veritable experts, aren’t they? They eat, sleep, and breathe games. By rights then, surely their games should be considered “proper”. With their imaginations firing on all cylinders as soon as they are old enough to think independently, not to mention having the energy levels of Skittles-powered Tiggers, they can invent games out of thin air, literally.

Kids play games. Kids love games. And some of the most successful school systems (whatever that means) across the world prioritise creative play over formal education. Educators and politicians seeing the value of not only learning but mental and physical health and wellbeing, through games.

So why would we arbitrarily determine that children aren’t able to play some games until a specified time?

All About Theme

Is it theme? Maybe. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable exposing my 5-year-old to the darker artwork on display in some otherwise brilliant games. Is it complexity? Perhaps. Fostering confidence and interest in children is a delicate skill. Exposure to overly convoluted rules and gameplay restrictions isn’t going to be much fun for anybody around the table. Or is it something more self-indulgent than that?

Certainly, there are some games which my husband and enjoy playing together (no, not those ones, cheeky!). Games that help us unwind and switch off after another hard day as the real world rages, wild and unpredictably, outside our door. These aren’t always complicated games. Hell, by 6 PM some days, I can’t even remember my own name let alone grapple with the economic intricacies of a Eurogame – but they are, I suppose, proper games.

And is it the same relaxing experience for us with our son at the table? Making up new rules on the fly and “helping” in his own special way by kindly revealing what pieces, cards, and/or dice we are each concealing? I really wish I could say yes. But I can’t. Please don’t get me wrong; it is another lovely experience for sure. But it is a different one.

What is a Proper Game?

So, again, that brings us back to the question of “what is a proper game?”. I can see the infinite and circular arguments forming as I write these words and so I will park the bigger issue for now in an effort to drag us back out of the rabbit hole (although be warned, I am coming back to tackle the bigger philosophical fish soon!). Instead, I am going to focus on a part of this debate that is a little more relevant to what is happening right now. Namely, board gaming in Lockdown.

Lockdown Gaming

We, like parents across the world, are home-schooling our son. We are also simultaneously working, stress eating digestive biscuits, inventorying loo rolls, and trying desperately to keep on top of the ever-changing pandemic situation unfolding globally. Our bubbles are blowing, popping, and hopping faster than a celebrity bash in Maria Carey’s bathroom and it is exhausting!

Now, our son’s school has been a lot more prepared for Lockdown.2 or .3 or whatever iteration of domestic imprisonment we currently find ourselves in. The first time around, we were cast into the educational outback, alone and afraid. We ricocheted between downloading free (hopefully age-appropriate) resources and taking it upon ourselves to teach him real-life skills like brick-laying, re-decorating, and helping mummy fold the omnipresent pile of laundry.

This time around, however, we have allocated reading. We have Zoom meetings. There are maths and science worksheets. We have P.E, R.E, and fine art projects to complete. And we have a timetable that is so organised it would make Marie Kondo weep with admiration (well, she would if it didn’t risk messing up her perfect outfit or makeup!).

But, and this is a big BUT, we are now struggling to fit the school day into the workday into the everyday. Can’t win, right?

The Game of Life

I would love to say that we smash the 10+ formal activities which our son receives daily via his iparent. Indeed, anxiety smacks me upside the head when I can’t upload completed sheets and press the goading, little green tick in the corner of the screen. And woe-betide the knife-edge held together harmony in our house if new work doesn’t drop into his portal home by 9am sharp. We are ALL in for a rough ride when that techno-no-go-go happens.

His teachers, bless them, compliment us on our “efforts”. But they fail to hide their passively-aggressive disappointment when we miss an assembly or run out of time to recreate an exact scale model of the Colosseum using kitchen sponges and a fruit bowl.

But we are not teachers. We are parents. We are working. And we are trying desperately to keep it together.

Board Games 101

The delineation between school and home has now disappeared entirely and my 5 AM starts to fit in a few hours’ work before our son wakes up is my own brand of normal. Whilst discovering I can just about send a professional sounding email in the twilight hours is helpful, one of the more pleasant things I have discovered in this mental endurance race, however, is just how much our 5-year-old son wants to play board games.

And not just kids games (there I go with that loaded phrase again) which, for want of a better description right now, are either 100% plastic fantastic or simply dry lessons parading about in a fancy cardboard dress. No, our son wants to play games like Carcassonne and Kingdomino. Spiel des Jahres smash hits which we love and which, according to the boxes, shouldn’t be in his purview for at least another 3 years.

And do you know what? He is good at them! And do you know what is the best part of all? They are teaching him things without him even realising that he is learning. He is having fun off-line; Playing Games 1: Parental Guilt 0!

We can have a stellar maths session, adding and subtracting buttons in Patchwork before I have even wiped the toast crumbs from his chin. He can practice pattern matching and spatial awareness in Cartographers before the school delivers the day’s digital payload. And he can learn about different local landmarks and making connections through Ticket to Ride London whilst I juggle laptops, smartphones, and landlines. On that basis, even if he misses a green tick, I know he isn’t missing out.

Final Thoughts

I won’t profess that our son is some sort of child prodigy. He doesn’t fully appreciate the strategic depth of these proper games. I also confess to taking a rare dive to keep his smile beaming when he thinks he is “the Game Beater”. But he gets them. On his level and in a way that satisfies him, making it a fun activity for him to enjoy with us.

I won’t lie; I still crave a two-player cardboard duel with my husband when the work-day winds down (it never truly ends). But, knowing that board gaming with my son can be part of his creative learning as opposed to being at the expense of his formal education is a relief for this anxious, overthinking board gaming parent.