Family Game Night: Make It Fun for Everyone

By Carol Band

How to Hold a Family Game Night that's Fun for Everyone

An evening of playing games really can bring your family closer, help you get to know each other on different levels, and even build character and provide hours of fun.

Soccer practice and sleepovers, committee meetings and club outings - there are plenty of reasons to rush through dinner and head out of the house. Parents and kids have loads of commitments that take them in separate directions and keep everyone on the go. How do you carve family togetherness time out of that kind of schedule?

Hold a Family Game Night.

It isn't a new idea. In fact, parents and children have enjoyed playing games together for years. But, these days, we need time together as a family more than ever. An evening of playing games really can bring your family closer, help you get to know each other on different levels, and even build character and provide hours of fun.

So dust off the dice, count the cards and let the games begin!

Reserving the Night

Family Game Night can only be successful if everyone shows up, so plan ahead. Choose a night (or afternoon) that isn't busy. Then make sure you don't:

  • accept any social invitations
  • bring work home from the office
  • make any excuses.

Mark the night on the calendar and remind everyone that they're expected to be there - ready for fun. Treat Family Game Night like a special occasion, and that's what it will become.

The key is to make the night an eagerly anticipated, not obligatory, activity. Build the excitement by leaving a game board piece under your child's pillow the night before, placing a card next to her breakfast plates, or sending a note in his lunchbox ("See you at Family Game Night, tonight!). Promise to serve a favorite snack during the games.

"I once put Monopoly money in my husband's wallet on the morning before our scheduled family game night," says Jen Radley, the mother of two boys, ages 11 and 14. "It was a fun way to remind him that there were plans for the evening."
Don't let anything interfere with your game night kickoff. Eat dinner early or order takeout. Make sure homework is done, piano has been practiced and there are no distractions. You might even want to turn off the phone. Then clear away the dishes, put out some snacks and play!

Everyone Plays

Everyone in the family can be involved in planning a Family Game Night. Let kids decide what food will be served, where to play - in front of the fireplace, on the living room floor or at the kitchen table - or whether everyone will wear a goofy hat. Both adults and kids should have a chance to pick what games will be played. To make it fair, everyone can write down the name of a favorite game and the youngest can pull the selection from a hat.

Keep your first few game nights confined to your immediate family. You'll learn what games you like to play together and which ones don't work. You'll gain insight into your kids' abilities, including who needs practice making change in Monopoly, who's a whiz at words and who's a good loser or a gracious winner. Eventually, you may want to include friends or neighbors to play with you from time to time. But always retain a special night just for your family. As your kids get older, these evenings together will create moments you'll recall for years ("Remember when Mom mortgaged Boardwalk?") and provide fodder for inside jokes - the glue that sticks many families together.

"When I was growing up, my family always played games," says Julie Amov, who has passed down the tradition to her husband and stepdaughter. "When my 11-year-old stepdaughter came to live with us a year ago, I thought that playing games would be a great way to spend time together. Now, about once a month, we order pizza and play classic games like Monopoly, Scrabble Junior and Trivial Pursuit. Sometimes, we invite the neighbors or my stepdaughter's friends and their parents and turn it into a potluck."

Beyond Candy Land

Young children enjoy deciding which game to play, but after seven rounds of Candy Land or Uncle Wiggily, it's probably time for something different - both for the young ones and for the rest of the family. Fortunately, there are plenty of games that can be played (and won!) by kids who haven't learned to read, even when they're up against older siblings and parents.

Preschoolers will often beat their parents at memory games, such as Concentration; physical games, such as Jenga and Squeezed Out; or games like Blokus, which requires no reading - just luck and a little strategy. Classics, such as Sorry or Chutes and Ladders, are fun for a range of ages and teach basic counting and matching skills.

Here are some tips for playing with kids of varying ages:

  • Keep games short. With younger children, it's better to play one game three times (or three different games) than to have a game drag on and have the youngest players lose interest. 
  • Play in teams when playing more advanced games. Pair your preschooler with a parent or older sibling to keep him or her engaged. 
  • Make sure everyone is involved in every game. Even toddlers can pick letter tiles in Scrabble, roll dice in Monopoly, match colors in Uno and move game pieces in The Game of Life. 
  • Look for ways to adapt adult games to kids. If you're playing Scrabble, agree on a flat rate for kids' words, and score adults' words by the letter value. That way, if kids are awarded 20 points for each word, adults have to average at least that for each word in order to win. You'll also find that many of the classics, including Scrabble, Monopoly and Clue, have junior versions, which make introductions to these games.

"My youngest is 5 now and he loves to play games," says Anne Murray, a mother of three. "We've found that the junior versions of Monopoly, Scrabble, and Boggle are challenging enough for all three of our kids. Now Grant, the youngest, initiates our Family Game Nights."

Winning - and Losing It

"I get to take it out of the box!"
"I get to be the racecar!"
"You saw my cards!"

How do you keep Family Game Night from becoming a family feud?

"We couldn't wait to start playing games with our kids," says Jen Wells, mother of Sam, 12, and Charlotte, 9. "But the reality of it was horrible. They fought over everything and were hugely competitive. It really wasn't fun for anyone. That was several years ago, and we've been hesitant to try again."

Let's face it, winning is more fun than losing. For children, winning gives them a sense of being important and successful. It's no different for parents.

"Learning to lose and learning to win are part of the value of game-playing," says Janine Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington and a Seattle-based child psychologist who uses games in her practice. "Children who master these concepts grow up with better skills to navigate not only a game board, but also to navigate life."

But it's up to parents to help teach those life lessons. "When adults play games with kids, the parents need to grow up," Jones says with a chuckle. "Parents have to forget about winning and focus on teaching their children how to handle losing, how to win gracefully and how to play by the rules."

Of course, there are times when a child really needs to win. "A child who is experiencing rejection or failure in other parts of his life has to have a success somewhere," Jones says. "If you can provide a boost of self-confidence through game-playing, that's great."

Generally, though, you shouldn't always let your kids win, Jones adds. "Look for other ways to build up their confidence."

Recognize the smaller "wins" as you play: "Hey you passed Go first!" or "You rolled doubles more than anyone else." You may want to reward attributes other than the final score; give out certificates for "Champion Double Roller" in Monopoly, or "Picked the Most Vowels" in Scrabble, or "Had the Most Babies" in The Game of Life.

Play a variety of games that reward a variety of skills, so that each child has a chance to excel. Play one game that requires a good memory, one game that uses math and one game of chance.

Eliminate the pressure of winning and losing by playing cooperative games, or those with no clear winners, such as Break the Safe or The UnGame.
Tweak classic games by playing on teams or competing for a combined high score. Outline expected behaviors before you set up the game.
Explain to older kids that younger ones are at a disadvantage for some games, and that introducing the concept of handicaps or double turns can make it fairer for everyone.

Have the high scorer clean up the games and put them away.

Cheater, Cheater …

What if you have a cheater in your midst?

"I caught my 8-year-old daughter stealing $500 bills from the bank during a recent game of Monopoly," says Will Gerzon, a father of three. "When I pointed it out, she burst into tears and ran into her room."

Kids who cheat really, really want to win, says Jones. "Ask your child why it's so important to win. Then de-emphasize winning. Encourage them to just have fun and remind them that no one likes to play with someone who cheats. Promise that you'll play enough games together so that everyone will have a chance to win and to lose."

Ultimately, the goal of Family Game Night is to enjoy being together. Keep the night all about fun, and everyone will be a winner.

Fun and Educational!

Different games teach different skills:

Apples to Apples - public speaking and creative thinking

Bingo - numbers and letters

Candy Land - matching, taking turns and counting

Clue - memory, deductive reasoning and record-keeping

Cranium - creative thinking and improvisation

Jenga - hand-eye skills, observation and concentration

Monopoly - attention span, negotiation, compromise and money skills

Payday - planning and money-management skills

Scrabble - vocabulary, addition and spelling skills

Sorry! - counting, colors and strategy

Yahtzee - multiplication, counting and record-keeping

Resources: Books

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Family Games, by Amy Wall, Alpha Books, 2001. This book offers everything from how-to instructions on playing games as a family to ideas for innovative games and strategies.

The Little Giant Book of Kids' Games, by Glen Vecchione, Sterling Books, 1999. Covers more than 200 creative game ideas and instructions for children.

Putting Family First, by William Doherty, Ph.D., and Barbara Carlson, Owl Books, 2002. Offers tips and strategies for making more family togetherness time, from eating dinner together to reading at bedtime.

More Resources:

Six Tips for Successful Family Game Nights

Games for Toddlers to Teens

How to Hold a Family Game Night That's Fun for Everyone

Get more Family Game Night ideas among the National Parenting Publications Awards-winners.

Carol Band is a frequent contributor to Dominion Parenting Media and the mother of three.