Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Top Toddler Toys: Game On!

(Updated 11/2017)

Mr. X and I have long been fans of board/table games, and before Toddler X joined the family, we frequently enjoyed duels in Scrabble, backgammon, Boggle, Yahtzee and Trivial Pursuit. But with an the arrival of our first child, games took a backseat to baby play -- these days, most of our adult games are, quite literally, collecting dust in the garage.

But as Toddler X approached age 3, games slowly began to creep back into our lives. Like, really slowly -- snail slow, in fact, as the first game we really enjoyed all together was the hilarious (and super toddler-friendly) Snail's Pace Race. (Update: With Baby X, we've discovered another great early toddler game: Where's Bear? More on that below.) Soon, we also began to play Where is Sock Monkey?, which Toddler X had received as a 2nd birthday gift but just couldn't grasp until around age 3.

Next, it was the Richard Scarry's Busytown: I Found It! game, a Christmas present around age 3 and an immediate whole family favorite. Then, for his 3rd birthday, we gave Toddler X another popular toddler game -- The Sneaky Snacky Squirrel -- which, again, was a hit.

As Toddler X aged, he grew out of some games but grew right into others. At just shy of four years old, we began to introduce games where there was an actual winner and loser, and even a bit of strategy involved. Richard Scarry's Busy Busy Airport and Zingo were Christmas presents that year, Sight Words Zingo and Disney Matching were 4th birthday presents, and we added Monopoly Jr. and Scrabble Jr. the following summer. For the following Christmas, he got Disney: Eye Found It!, and for his 5th birthday, it was Guess Who? (one of my childhood favorites). Most recently (at nearly six years old), we got Scrambled States of America, which we're all loving. We have a few more new games coming for Christmas.

As you can tell, board games are one category of toys that I don't mind purchasing. They teach patience, turn taking, how to handle victory and defeat, and strategic/critical thinking. Games like Scrabble Jr. and Sight Words Zingo build word skills; Monopoly Jr. works on counting; Guess Who?, Where is Sock Monkey?, and Where's Bear? are great for deductive reasoning; and Scrambled States is awesome for learning geography.

But more than anything else, board games require family togetherness and attention -- if you're checking your cell phone during Sight Words Zingo or Disney Matching, you're going to lose. Games are something that has always brought my family together (even now, games come out nightly on family vacations with my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews -- Scattergories, Apples to Apples, Farkle, you name it!), and I'm excited to bring my children into the fold.

Finally, I find that board games make excellent gifts for other kids. First, it seems like few families collect them like we do -- I don't worry much about giving duplicates. Secondly, you can find games at good birthday party prices -- $10-20 -- and when you're in a class where everybody invites everybody to every party, that's critical. They're good gifts when you don't know the child well (see my last point), as the ones we've chosen seem to be almost universally liked. And when you're getting gifts for older siblings who have welcomed a new baby into the family, something that can distract a couple of kids together while parents manage a newborn is a huge benefit. (We recently got Guess Who? for friends in exactly this situation.)

If you, too, enjoy board games and are ready to introduce your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener to them, here are my suggestions by age. I've included affiliate links for each item. Thank you!

For the Littlest Gamers (1-3 years)

Where's Bear?: This is a 2017 addition to my list, a game we received for Baby X's first birthday in August. She has loved it from the moment she opened it, to the extent that one of her first words was "Buh" (bear), which she says as she pulls the game from the shelf. To be honest, we haven't been playing according to the instructions yet (the game is intended for two year-olds, so we'll be there soon), but have been having fun hiding the darling little wooden bear under one of the six colorful boxes (designed to reflect the rooms in Bear's home), and questioning "Where's Bear?" until she lifts the right one and claps for herself. The game offers lots of opportunities for vocabulary-building and collaborative play, with five different game options and a parent guide. The cardboard nesting blocks are very durable, and the game is pretty compact, making it good for travel. Plus, it's just super, super cute. We'll be giving this to our 14 month-old nephew for Christmas, and I'd recommend it for a 1 - 3 1/2 year-old (with the caveat that a young 1 year-old will probably just be playing the searching-type game that we're enjoying right now, while an older child will have fun with matching and asking questions). Love this one!

Snail's Pace Race: I bought this for Toddler X for Christmas 2014 (he was a few months shy of 3 years old) because the Amazon reviews said it was a fantastic first board game for toddlers, and I can tell you that I definitely concur. All you do is race 6 brightly colored (and super cute!) wooden snails across a game board, rolling dice with colored dots to indicate which snails move in each turn. You don't have "your own" snail -- everyone is working together to move all the snails forward (though they do encourage guessing which snails will come in first and last). It's a fun, sturdy game that introduces turn taking in a cooperative, rather than competitive, format.

One thing I particularly like is that you can change the duration of the game depending on your child's attention span. On days when Toddler X's attention is short, we just get the first snail across the line, declare him the winner, and pack up the box. If Toddler X is still interested, we'll keep on playing until all the snails have crossed the line, with the last one being just as exciting as the first.

We bought 5 or 6 of these around Christmas time the next year and gave them as birthday gifts to several of our little pals in January and February -- it's a good choice for ages 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 year-olds, and they'll probably enjoy it even until around 4, though I wouldn't choose it as a gift for a 4 year old.

The Sneaky Snacky Squirrel: This is another game that gets rave reviews for young kids, and we've enjoyed it, though maybe not as much as the others. Here, each player gets a little cardboard tree trunk and a spinner dictates your activity at each turn -- using a pair of plastic squirrel pincers, you pick up colored acorns and try to fill your tree.

This game is a bit harsher/real world than the others -- not only is there a clear winner (the person who fills their tree with each of the colors first), but one of the spinner segments is a wind gust that empties out all the acorns you've collected thus far, and another allows you to steal an acorn from someone else's tree -- two things that toddlers might find hard to accept. Toddler X actually handled both occurrences well, but I can see him having a hard time if we told him he had to put back all his acorns, or that someone else was stealing one.

This game is slightly more mature than Snail's Pace Race, but still doesn't require reading, so I'd say it's fun for ages 3+, but I wouldn't get it for a 4 1/2 year old or older.

Preschooler Fun (3-4 year olds)

Where is Sock Monkey?: This is a hilarious game that Toddler X received as a 2nd birthday gift, but simply couldn't handle at that time. We packed it up for a year and pulled it out again just after his 3rd birthday, and wow -- what a difference a year makes! It quickly became his single favorite game, and even now, almost three years later, it still comes out every so often. It's lots of fun for the whole family too -- though probably more enjoyable if you have a bigger house than we do!

In this game, one person hides the sock monkey stuffed doll (included with the game) somewhere in the house (in plain sight, but tucked in a room somewhere -- we've had him coloring at the easel or wound up on the telephone cord, etc.). Then everyone else flips over cards with room features on them and poses questions to the hider, trying to identify the room in which he is hidden. "Is he in a room with a TV? With a sink? With a rug?" The hider answers the questions yes or no, and the cards are placed on the board accordingly. Eventually, someone flips over a "Look now!" card, and has 30 seconds to determine what room they think Sock Monkey is hidden in and go try to find him.

I love this game because it really does build Toddler X's logical reasoning skills -- you can see them improving from one week to the next. Whereas in the beginning, he'd randomly go search the whole house, now I can see him assimilating information as it comes to him -- "Hmm, it's in a room with a sink...must be the bathroom, kitchen or laundry room. The room doesn't have a mirror -- can't be bathroom...", etc. He's gotten good at hiding the monkey, and accurately answers questions about the relevant room now -- though, hilariously, he sometimes runs to the room in which he hid Sock Monkey to check on the answer to a question, thereby obviously giving away the location. But still, he loves loves loves the game and squeals with delight when someone finds the Sock Monkey he's hidden. This is a great game for a whole family to play together. I'd buy this for 3 year olds and up -- this is one that will still be a favorite at 5 or 6.

Richard Scarry's Busytown: Eye Found It!: If you've read my top toddler books list, you know we're huge Richard Scarry fans -- I was as a kid, and Toddler X is now. A few years ago, we discovered the Busytown tv show on Netflix (sadly, no longer there), and we got to know Huckle and Sally Cat, Lowly Worm, and Hilda Hippo even better. When we discovered this game around Christmas 2014, we knew it would be a good fit.

The Busytown game is a super cool, "Where's Waldo?"-esque adventure combined with a board game. Here, unlike Snails Pace Race, you do have your own character game piece, but ultimately all players win or lose together -- again, no need to go easy on a toddler or risk a meltdown. The 4 foot long board (don't worry, it folds up) features tons of intricate, classic Richard Scarry drawings, with lots of small features incorporated into them -- balloons and shovels and trash cans and the like. Part of the game entails all players working together to find a specific item before time expires, using little plastic magnifying glasses to mark their finds.

It's a super cute and super fun game, and there are enough item cards that doing the searches remains fun and challenging play after play (just as challenging for mom and dad as it is for toddler!). If I had to choose any of the games in this post to play, Busytown would definitely be the winner. I'd recommend this for any child (though children familiar with Richard Scarry will probably enjoy it more) ages 3 and up -- at almost 6, we're still enjoying it frequently. (Note: I bought the Disney version as a gift for Toddler X's 5 year-old Christmas, and found it to be a bit too difficult for us at that age! Review below.)

Zingo: Zingo was a Christmas present at just shy of 4 years old, and represented a step forward for Toddler X, game-wise. It's basically Bingo with picture tiles, which are dispensed through a nifty little machine, but there's a speed element too -- you need to be the first to grab the matching tile when it comes up. Each player has his or her own Zingo card, and every single slide of the tile machine represents a competition. Toddler X loved this from the very first minute -- the tile dispenser, the speed element, the bingo aspect -- and we've really enjoyed playing with him too. I'd recommend this for a child aged 3 1/2 and up, and I think it would still be a good gift for a 5 year old. (Update: Toddler X loves Sight Words Zingo too! Once your little one is an emerging reader, it's a great pick for fun and learning.)

Disney Matching: Memory was one of my favorite childhood games, and this is exactly the same, only with classic Disney characters -- Lady and the Tramp, Thumper and Bambi, 101 Dalmations and the like. You flip two cards and hope for a match -- sounds simple, but it's a great memory-building and strategic thinking exercise. You can include as many pairs as you want to make the game easier or more difficult -- we started with 6 pairs and worked up, and it's now a fun game with all the pairs. In my current sleep-deprived state, and with a kid who has a fantastic memory, I'm now losing games almost as often as I'm winning them (though I still do give hints when I can), making this a fantastic game as kids grow up. You can introduce this one at maybe 3 1/2 or older, but it's definitely a game that has staying power throughout childhood.

For Bigger Kids (4 years old and up)

Monopoly Jr.: A friend introduced us to this game when Toddler X was about 4 1/2 years old, and we had so much fun with it that I bought it for no occasion whatsoever a few days later. I've always loved Monopoly, but obviously it's way too complicated for a preschooler. This game? Not so much. There is literally NO strategy involved, as you're required to purchase any square you land on if it's not owned, and pay the owner if it is. There are no houses or hotels, just properties, and only $1 bills to pay the different rents. It's a great introduction to Monopoly without any of the complexities. I'd recommend it as a gift for ages 4-5 or so. (Update: At 5 1/2, Toddler X is still really into this game!)

Richard Scarry's Busy Busy Airport: This was a Christmas gift at just shy of 4 years old, but I'm putting it further down on the list than several more recent additions because it's a bit complicated (and requires a bit of patience) to set up, plus it takes some time to grasp the rules and the strategy. Once you do all those things, it's pretty fun. One bonus is that while set-up takes some time, if you have more than two players playing (four is the max), it is a SUPER fast game. I'd recommend it for a child 4 - 5 1/2 years old.

Sight Words Zingo. This was a birthday present for Toddler X at 4 years old, purchased because he was such a fan of the basic Zingo game that we had given him for Christmas a few months before and was just beginning to recognize sight words. When we first introduced the game (which is exactly like Zingo in play, except the tiles each have a word and image instead of just an image), Toddler X only knew maybe half of the words, so we gave lots of hints and extra time for him to grab a tile that came up. As the months have gone by, he's become more and more adept at spotting matching words quickly, knowing what they say, and grabbing them. We still give him extra time as we pretend to puzzle over our cards to see if we need a certain tile, but he's improving and he loves it. I'd recommend this for a child who has begun recognizing sight words and is actively interested in learning to read, whatever age that might be. (Note that it will be fun even after they learn to read, because there's still the speed and strategy element.)

Guess Who? This is a game I remember fondly from my own childhood, and when Toddler X came home from school saying that they'd played and he loved it, I just couldn't resist getting the old-school edition. As you probably remember, each player tries to identify the person on his opponent's card by asking questions about his or her physical characteristics, and eliminating possibilities based on the answers. It's a great game for building deductive reasoning skills, and lots of fun for adults and kids to play together (though only two players at any one time). I'd recommend this for ages 5 and up.

Scrambled States of America. We discovered the Scrambled States of America book via a short video a few years ago, and we all found it hilarious. Toddler X is really interested in geography, so when I saw a good deal on the corresponding game last month (Toddler X is a few months shy of six years old), I went ahead and grabbed it. It is so much fun! It really does improve your knowledge of the states -- their locations (each player has a map), their capitals, and their state mottos. There's no memorization/trivia element -- all the information you need to play is on the cards in front of you. Having basic reading skills is necessary in this game, so I'd base my recommendation less on age than where the child is in terms of reading. I imagine most first or second graders would do fine with it, and I highly recommend it for them (or reading kindergarteners) on up to third or fourth grade. Parents will really enjoy playing along with their kids!

So there you go -- our favorite toddler/preschooler games. I'd love to hear what readers have to say about other offerings -- I'll add them to the bottom of this post.

Happy toddling!

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