Teaching Kids Tabletop Games: Bending the Rules


As the mother of a 9-year-old one of the greatest challenges I face is getting her attention and keeping it. She’s had a cell phone for several years because it seemed to be the only way I could convince her to learn to read and write which was the same reason my parents bought me a game boy color with Pokémon Red. With that said, for the last two years she’s been gaming with the adults playing heavier games. Above and Below has been her favorite game since she was about five due to the storytelling aspect of the game and I’ve been searching for another game to hold her attention in the same way but I don’t believe the game I’m searching for has been published yet.

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to teach an adorable and charismatic child who had just turned 5 years old at a convention in Missoula, MT called MisCon. It had been a long time since I had taught a kid this young but I remember the basic principles that helped me teach Hailey at that age and helped her develop a love of tabletop games as a result. These fall under these three categories I've developed: Pick and choose rules, make it cooperative, eliminate player elimination.


Pick and Choose Rules

A fantastic example of this is simply throwing away end scoring if there is any. I don’t remember winning or losing any games I played with my grandmother. I only remember having fun and enjoying the time I spent with her. Growing up I primarily played games where the rules were very clear but with games increasing in complexity, it’s more than okay to pick and choose rules when playing with kids and most of the time it will result in a more enjoyable experience.

Over the weekend we played a game of Drop It. It helped the kids understand and practice their shapes, colors and counting. The only rules I told them were that if you touch a shape of the same color or shape then you don’t get points but if you avoid both of those things (walls and floors included) then you do score points on the highest level you’re reaching based on the point bubble visible on that level. These are far from the real rules but they were easier for a 5 year old to comprehend while playing with three slightly older kids. Everyone had a great time learning and her mom wrote down the names of every game we played to purchase later. The little girls dad is really into tabletop games including MTG and D&D so her mom was always looking for games that she could enjoy with the kids. Happy Party was a huge hit with the kids as well. She desperately wanted to play Pantone but in the end, we decided to go for some slightly easier games.


Make it cooperative!

Next up we played a game of Catch the Moon. dexterity games like Jenga can be fun but challenging for unskilled kiddos. We followed the dexterity rules loosely and ended up with a mess of ladders but it was all very worth it. Our focus was completely based around us supporting each other and paying close attention while each player put their ladder on the platform. We played the game cooperatively so we were all working together to get all of the ladders put on the platform together. This meant we were all invested in each other’s success and rooting for each other the whole way through. In the end, we got every ladder onto the platform and all of the kids were happy as can be.

In Just One, the guesser is tasked with guessing a word they can not see and they way they do this is by having all other players write a single word on their player board and then they word writers secretly compare their words and if any two words match, they are erased and no longer shown to the guesser. In our version of the game the adults were guessing the words and the kids worked together to come up with the 3 words they were going to show the adults. The youngest, being just 5 years old, either drew her clue or we had one of the older kids write a word down and had her copy it. This was a great way to get her more used to writing but also allowing her to draw instead of write helped keep her in good spirits while also including her in a fun game that her mom was a part of as well.


Eliminate Player Elimination

In Catch the Moon if a player ever has 3 total tears they’re eliminated from the game. With young kids at conventions who could probably use a nap, it’s not a great idea to eliminate them from any kind of table top game. In our case, we simply never told the kids anything was bad, including the tears. I framed the story of the game as “The moon is lonely and need a hug! We’re working together to build a ladder up to him so we can keep him company.” Then we explained that if a ladder fell off, the moon got a little sad so we were given a tear. We didn’t explain that this was a way to eliminate the players. If we ever ran completely out of tears as a group then the moon would have a temper tantrum and be put in time out.

What I loved about this whole experience wasn’t that I got to teach kids, it was how much I learned about teaching. Kids are wondrous creatures and learning from them is one of the greatest things we can do as elders to them. As technology evolves it may become increasingly difficult to hold their attention but if you’re willing to bend the rules to accommodate them, and then evolve with them as their cognitive skills and abilities evolve, you’re going to create a much more positive and memorable experience not only for them, but also for you.