8 fun pencil and paper games for kids (+ printables!)

Fun, simple pencil and paper games will keep kids occupied at the restaurant, doctor’s office, in the car, on rainy days and more.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

No fast food on this outing. Tonight you’ve taken your kids to a restaurant, made your selections from a menu you can actually hold in your hands and now you’re waiting for the food to arrive. And waiting. And waiting.

Want to keep your restless, hungry children from becoming completely miserable? Melisande Neal, mom of four, always keeps a stash of pencils and paper in her purse for just these emergencies.

Start simple, advises Neal. When her kids were at the younger range of this age group, she taught them tic-tac-toe. As her children’s skills increased, she added other, more challenging games. This list should give you some ideas the next time you’re waiting at the dentist’s office, in an airport, in the car…

1. Categories
Draw a grid on a piece of paper—a square filled with smaller squares. The number of squares can vary, depending on the attention span of your child. Down the left side, put some letters of the alphabet (for example, you could spell out a child’s name: LISA). Across the top, write categories —for example, girls’ names, boys’ names, animals, colours, cars, places. You can make this harder or easier by changing the categories. Players take turns writing in words that fit the category and start with the letter in the left-hand column. (Next to the letter L, in this example, you might have Laura, Liam, lion, lavender, Lexus and Labrador.) Give extra points for words that nobody else thought of.

Get the printable Categories template here>

2. Battleship
For two players. Here’s another popular game you can play without the official version. All you need is graph paper. Each player needs two grids. Label each grid by writing numbers across the top and letters down the side, so that the squares are easily identified as A8 or F5. One grid will be for locating your own ships, the other for recording shots against your opponent’s ships. Each player places three or four “ships” on his grid, then let the guessing begin. The first person to sink all the other person’s ships wins.

Get the printable Battleship template here>

3. Hangman
Most people know how to play the traditional version of Hangman. But what about kids who aren’t yet master spellers?

Neal plays a variation suitable for pre-writers. “We play it like 20 Questions—I would think of something, and my son would have to think of yes-or-no questions to guess what it was,” she says. “Each time he got a no answer, I’d add another part to the Hangman figure.”

Get the printable Hangman template here>

4. Dots and Squares
Begin by drawing a grid of dots on the paper. Using lined paper or graph paper can make this a little easier. The first person draws a line connecting two dots beside each other. The second player then draws another line to connect another two dots. The goal is to be the person who draws the last side of a square. Then you put your initials inside the square (or some other abbreviation to claim your square). In some versions of this game, if you complete a square you get another turn. The player with the most squares when all the squares are drawn is the winner.

Get the printable Dots and Squares template here>

5. Sprouts
If you can’t quite master drawing a neat grid of dots, you might find this game easier. Draw dots randomly all over the paper. The first player draws a line between any two dots, and draws another dot in the middle of that line. The next player draws a line between any two dots, and puts a dot in the middle of that line. No lines may cross each other, but they don’t have to be straight, so they can loop around other lines. Only three lines in total can emerge from any one dot. The dots put in the middle of the lines already have two lines connecting them to the two other dots, so they can only have one more line. The game continues until no more lines can be drawn. The person who did the last line is the winner.

Get the printable Sprouts template here>

6. Foldovers
Give everyone a piece of paper. On the top section, draw a head. It can be an animal head or a person’s head, as weird as you like. Now fold that section back, so that it’s hidden, and slide it across the table to the next person. Without looking at the hidden drawing, the next person draws a chest and arms (of a person, animal, alien), folds it back as well and passes it on to the next person. Without looking at the previous pictures, that person draws a body (stomach and hips) and the final person draws the legs and feet. (You can have more or fewer sections depending on the number of people you have playing.) Finally, unfold your papers and laugh at the weird creatures you have created.

Get the printable Foldovers template here>

7. Why? Because.
Each person writes down a question beginning with why (for example, Why do dogs bark?). Adults can help with the writing for children who find this difficult. Fold the top over to hide the question, and pass to the next person who, without looking at the question, writes an answer starting with Because (for example, Because chocolate tastes good). Then read out all the questions and answers.

Get the printable Why? template here>

8. Building Words
For players who can read and spell. The first person writes down a letter. The next person adds a letter, and must have a word in mind. The next player adds another letter, again working towards spelling out a word. Next player adds another letter, and so on, until nobody can add another letter. If you think the other player doesn’t have a word in mind, you can challenge him, and if he can’t tell you the word, he’s out.

Originally published in January 2003.

Read more:

The top 20 family games>
10 kid-friendly card games>
Fun old-fashioned games (and rules)>

5 comments on “8 fun pencil and paper games for kids (+ printables!)

  1. Heading on a train trip with my 7 and 9 year olds. These will be invaluable! Thank you.


    • These paper games are so much fun to play in times for waiting or in free time. Thank you for showing me free time games.


  2. Good tips for those who want children to be engaged and enjoy their free time.


  3. Will use these wonderful ideas on old fashioned games, pencil and paper games, etc. at a family fun day for Kids First and Parent Mentoring families. The templates will be extremely valuable.


  4. Can you write how to play plz


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