Do you like playing board games and wonder which are the best games for preschoolers – that adults would also like? Here is the list of our favourite games to play as a family with three- and four-year-olds.
In our life before kids, I was an enthusiastic board game player. Whenever we got together with friends, I would take a board game out to play. After the kids, this interest dwindled. It seemed like there was never enough uninterrupted time to play, and when the happy moment happened, there was a dozen other things to do. Then, last year, a wonderful realization came: my oldest was probably old enough to try playing games.
Soon after that, I was in the store and saw Monopoly Junior on sale. “Let’s get it and play with our son!” I said to my husband. We opened it at home, and just as I hoped, my son was excited to try it out. We played. He liked it, and I thought it was good for him – all that counting money and spaces to move. But my husband and I felt just a little bored. In addition to that, the game lasted for half an hour. So whenever our son asked us to play, we did, but never really suggested it ourselves – and, to be completely honest, I didn’t really look forward to him asking.
So, is it just universal that board games for preschoolers bore adults? Even those adults who love board games?
We never gave up on our search and have tried a fair number of games. Along the way, I decided that adults actually can enjoy playing board games with their three- and four-year-olds. There is an amazing number of imaginative, educational and yet fun games available for kids these days. Some would work great for the whole family, with teenagers and grandma joining in the fun. Others might be a little flat, but they would be so beautiful and short that you wouldn’t mind squeezing in a ten-minute game right before bedtime. And when you have a variety of games, playing Monopoly every month or two isn’t so bad either.
But why play board games with kids at all? A lot of the board games give an opportunity to practice math, logic, and literacy. Pretty much any game would give a preschooler a lesson on counting, and a lot of them would have just enough text to try a little reading. And all the games are good for developing such important skills as concentration, attention to details, taking turns and the ability to lose (or win) gracefully.
Solo Board Games for Preschoolers
Solo games are basically logic puzzles, but these days they come with such beautiful engaging components that they do feel very much like board games. While they’re meant for solo play, it’s often most fun for kids to get together and figure the puzzles out with their peers. It is especially true for preschoolers who would likely require a little bit of parental help, especially with their first puzzles. Eventually though, they’ll be able to take these games out and play by themselves, making them a particularly good gift for families with one child – or children with big age gaps.
All of the games come with a number of challenge cards, usually 40-60. The first challenges are really simple, but they get progressively more difficult, so that the last few challenges would actually make adults stop and ponder for a minute. With that in mind, children can start enjoying the games when they are quite young and continue for a few years. If you put the games away for a while and then take them out again, they seem just as challenging as right out of the box.
Works on: Spatial skills
In Little Red Riding Hood, players arrange puzzle pieces on the gameboard, so that a direct path is created from Red Riding Hood to Grandma’s house. All the pieces of the game are ridiculously cute. I usually prefer big chunky wooden pieces in board games, but the figurines in this game are made well from a pleasant rubbery material, and my daughter loved opening the box and playing with Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf since she was one. I think that it was a genius idea on the creator’s part to give an abstract logical puzzle the faces of familiar characters!
If that isn’t enough, the game comes with a small storybook “Little Red Riding Hood”. It is wordless, so kids can understand the story just by looking at the pictures.
Camelot Jr. (3+)
Works on: Spatial skills + Engineering concepts
Similar to the previous game in concept, Camelot Jr. works with wooden blocks. The possibility of three-dimensional rotation adds complexity to the challenge. Still, the first puzzles are very simple with the latter ones getting progressively more difficult. While not based on any particular fairy-tale, Camelot Jr. suggests that players help a wooden knight reunite with a wooden princess and once again makes an abstract puzzle into an engaging story. At least, whenever my son plays it, he focuses on reenacting their meeting a lot more emphatically than on resolving the puzzle. Funny, but I also feel quite happy when the knight and the princess finally meet!
It is a beautifully made game and a firm favourite both with my five-year-old son and my toddler daughter. Which means that if you get it and it turns out that your child isn’t quite ready for the puzzles, he or she will still love it and slowly grow into it!
When choosing this game, I compared it to Castle Logix. The games work similarly in a way that they both operate wooden blocks, but Castle Logix requires children to arrange them in a certain order by hiding some blocks inside of the others. That’s the main difference. Castle Logix also doesn’t include any characters to give the activity a storytelling element. All in all, Castle Logix seems a little easier than Camelot Jr., which can be a good thing if you’re shopping for a younger child. I might try it with my toddler.
Balance Beam (4+)
Works on: Explaining elementary physics
Seesaws are fun! Even when they are only toy seesaws, made from, say, Lego, my kids can spend a surprisingly long time, giving rides to various Lego men and balancing different bricks onto them. So I could tell that they would like the game of seesaw challenges.
The game is very simple. Set up the red beans according to the challenge card. Then carefully place the colourful beans on the seesaw to keep it from teetering. When you balance the seesaw in this bean-filled logic game, you’re actually balancing an equation. If you count all the beans up, you can introduce a little math to the kids at the same time as simple physics while playing the game.
Rush Hour Junior (4+)
Works on: Sequential thinking + planning skills
In this junior version of the traffic jam logic game, players navigate an ice-cream truck through gridlock to the exit from a parking lot in as few moves as possible. The game really makes you think, and I wouldn’t have guessed that my son would be capable of playing it, but he got it as a gift when he turned four and could do all the easy puzzles. He has been working through the rest of them ever since. It requires more concentration than the previous games on my list, for it requires to not just find the answer, but to make a multi-step plan.
Cooperative Games for Preschoolers
Cooperative games are really great for introducing board games to children since they can focus on the experience of playing instead of the competitive aspect. And if you do lose, which still happens sometimes, you all lose, and there are no hurt feelings. You can take an opportunity and model the positive behaviour, “Oh well, next time we’ll do better. It was fun playing anyway!”
I also find the experience of playing a cooperative game together with my kids very satisfying since I can act on my natural desire to help them play without completely undermining the meaning of the game. We can play as a family and enjoy working as a team!
Richard Scarry’s Busytown, Eye Found It (ages 3+)
Works on: Attention to details + Counting/Number recognition up to 4
Of all the preschoolers’ cooperative games, this is my favourite. It’s basically an oversized “I Spy” game with some extra rules that makes it more fun. With its enormous board (I only managed to squeeze about half of it in the picture), the Busytown game has so many things going on that it provides just enough of a challenge for adults to enjoy it as well. The fact that we read some of Richard Scarry’s books a hundred times also helps everyone to get into the story. It’s pretty short, so we can sometimes manage two games in a row.
My son really likes this game, but we have quite a few others for him to choose from, so we haven’t played it so many times that we’d memorize where all the objects are hidden. I imagine that it might happen if someone really gets into this game. But never fear! Eye Found It is a big series of games. Try Journey Through Time (also good for a bit of history introduction) or World of Disney (for Disney fans).
Outfoxed (ages 4+)
Works on: Logic + Deductive thinking + Counting up to 4
This game really caught my eye with its illustrations! If it was a book, I would buy it right away. It is also a worthwhile addition to any preschooler’s game collection for its unique concept. In Outfoxed, you move around the board to gather clues, then use the special evidence scanner to rule out suspects. The game is great for demonstrating how the process of deduction works, and it is quite enjoyable to see my four-year-old, making conclusions and ruling out suspects like a professional detective, all on his own.
Snug as a Bug in a Rug (ages 3+)
Works on: Pattern recognition + Counting up to 4
First, players spin a spinner, then, based on the symbols it shows, work together to find the right kind of a bug and slip it under the rug. If they cannot find one, they have to add a stink bug to the play area. The game is won if they manage to slip all of the bugs under the rug before three stink bugs are taken out. The game has different levels of complexity for different ages, which makes it last for a while. That – or Hoot Owl Hoot – would make a good first game for introducing preschoolers to board games.
Works on: Spatial skills + Logic
In this game, players take turns picking up cards and building paths to the keys. They need to pick three keys before eight troll cards appear on the board.
It may just be me, but I always liked tile placement games that work like building a map (think Carcassone or Kingdomino), and so I enjoy this game even if it’s very easy. For kids, the game works like an open-ended puzzle, so they often like playing with the parts, disregarding all the rules.
Competitive Games for Preschoolers
Solo games and cooperative games are a lot of fun, but there is a certain thrill that can only be obtained from competitive games.
Animal Upon Animal (age 4+)
Works on: Fine motor skills + balancing + counting up to 2
For competitive games for this age, HABA is my favourite publisher. This particular game is easy for kids to understand, and yet all the adults who I played this game with have enjoyed it enough to play several consecutive rounds. It is a stacking game, but the adorable wooden animals and special die give it an interesting twist. Since the game is made in Germany, all the pieces are very high quality, so before learning how to play properly, my kids really liked to just play with the figurines as if they were animals. I consider it a miracle that we have still got a full set!
For a similar idea, but a different execution, try Rhino Hero. It looks like a game that would appeal to doll house lovers!
The Magic Labyrinth (age 3+)
Works on: Memory
While we like good old memory games with matching pictures and even make some of our own, it is interesting to try a memory game with different mechanics. In The Magic Labyrinth, you start by constructing a labyrinth with little wooden walls. As soon as you are finished, the labyrinth gets covered by another layer of cardboard and becomes invisible. Players manipulate chunky wooden meeples and move them on top of the board. But underneath the board, every meeple has a metal ball magnetically attached to it. When players try to go wherever the wall is, the ball falls down with a thump, and the meeple has to go back to the beginning.
It’s s very easy to regulate the level of difficulty in the game since the players are the ones designing the labyrinth. If you want to make it easier, just put fewer walls in. But I seldom find kids at a disadvantage in this game: if anything, they seem to have a better memory! A surprisingly satisfying game even as you keep bumping into the walls.
Monza (age 4+)
Works on: Strategy & sequential thinking
Another interesting game from HABA. At the beginning, each player chooses a car and puts it on the starting tile of the three-lane racing board. The first player throws all six dice, then tries to move his/her car according to the colours obtained. It sounds simple, but the game provides a real age-appropriate challenge for kids of planning their moves carefully. Of course, the combination of cars and colours theme in the game is a real hit among kids! At least, my son enjoys the wooden cars, and my daughter likes the colourful dice.
Bugs in the Kitchen (4+)
Works on: Speed + Dexterity
Take one simple roll-and-move game, add a cockroach hexbug and get a fast-paced hilarious game for the whole family! Players take turns throwing a die and moving different parts of the labyrinth to make a trap for a hexbug.
A wiggly hexbug bot is a definite winning feature of the game, and for the most part it’s just a fun and fast game to give everyone a good laugh.There is however a certain level of strategy involved in trapping the bug that will be just right for preschoolers.
My son is technically not a preschooler anymore, but we still play most of these games. In addition, my toddler daughter is about to hit the age when she can enjoy board games. So, what are your favourite board games for this age group?