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The first time my eight-year-old played chess, I was shocked. Not because she won (she didn’t) or because she was incredible (she wasn’t), but because she sat still for 30 minutes straight, focusing intently on the game. For a busy kid who’s always on the go, it was truly remarkable.
Strategy games like chess don’t just encourage concentration, they also teach kids how to plan ahead and problem solve, says Tal Granite of the Chess Institute of Canada, a charity that uses chess as a tool to help kids acquire life skills. In chess, kids have to solve problems over and over, making a decision and learning right away whether it was a good one. If it wasn’t, they have to adapt. “They learn how to deal with failure but also how to use it to their advantage,” says Granite.
Researchers have long touted the benefits for kids who play chess. A three-year study out of New Brunswick, for example, found that the more chess fifth graders played, the better they were at problem solving.
Heidi MacLean credits the game with teaching her eight-year-old daughter, Lilly, patience. Soon after Lilly learned to play, she started sticking with other activities for longer periods of time. She went from reading picture books to reading novels. “When we first started playing, she just wanted a turn, but as we kept at it, she took more time to think about the pieces and her moves,” says MacLean.
Kids can play chess when they’re old enough to learn and remember how the pieces move—usually between five and seven, says Patrick McDonald of the Ontario Chess Association. To ease your kid into the game, play with just the pawns, introducing other pieces when your kid is ready for more, he says. And don’t let kids win. Instead, warn them of the consequences of a move before they make it. If your kid wants more chess than you’re willing to play—each game takes 30 minutes to an hour—then look into joining chess clubs or board game nights at your local school or library.
One of the oldest strategy games, chess is likely already on your board game shelf. Want to further boost your kid’s brain and sneak in some quality parent-kid time? We asked experts for newer board and card strategy games that are perfect for the six to nine set.
Players take turns laying down colourful differently shaped tiles in a grid, matching the shape or colour of their opponent’s tiles. It’s similar to dominoes, in which players score points for each sequence—the longer the sequence, the higher the score. Boost your tally by completing a line of shapes or colours, called a Qwirkle. 2–4 players; 45 min.
In this card game, players try to assemble a sushi meal by taking a card from the deck, which is passed around. The goal is to assemble the highest-scoring sushi meal by selecting cards strategically; some cards will multiply points if they’re picked in the right order, while others will allow you to take more than one card on your next turn. Players have to balance building their own meal and scooping up cards their opponents may need. 2–5 players; 15 min.
Each player is a magician’s assistant, collecting stray objects while moving through an invisible maze. Players can’t see the walls, so they have to remember where they are, collecting their objects without bumping into one. 2–4 players; 15 min.
In this storytelling card game, a player describes the artwork on one of the cards in his or her hand. The other players toss out cards from their hands that best match the description, racking up points if they trick opponents into thinking their card is the one that was described. The game bolsters kids’ imagination and descriptive storytelling. 3–6 players; 30 min.
When it comes to kids games, don’t take the age recommendations on the box too seriously, says Paul Hanrahan, a board game specialist at Toronto’s 401 Games. “You can be flexible within a year or two,” he says. “It’s best to throw kids in the deep end. You’ll probably be surprised by how much they can do.”
Losing can be tough, but it’s a normal part of life, so kids need to experience it. If your kid hates to lose, you can help them get through it, says psychologist Troy Janzen. Before starting the game, remind your kid there will be a winner and a loser, and explain how you want her to react in each situation. Afterward, don’t focus on the outcome. “Praise how fun it was to play,” says Janzen.