Using Family Games to Encourage Healthy Development
Kelseanna Hollis-Hansen, PhD, MPH, UT Southwestern Medical Center School of Public Health
Research has found that making time to play games together supports more effective, open family communication and a greater sense of togetherness. But the benefits of gaming together don’t stop there. Playing games has also proven to help children develop academic skills like mathematical reasoning and reading.
In addition to amplifying academic abilities, playing games is associated with social, mental, and emotional benefits for children. Games require us to take turns, cooperate, learn systems of rules, and persist through setbacks. These are skills that are highly valued and require regular practice to learn. As such, playing family games is correlated with developing healthy social behaviors, increases in self-esteem, and greater motivation to pursue goals.
Whether your family prefers to play games outdoors or on a screen, here are ways to connect and get your bodies and brains moving.
Adding an element of play can make a walk or hike more enticing. This also encourages family members to exercise, which can also have a beneficial impact on mood and behavior (for kids and adults).
- Follow the Leader: Form a line with the leader in-front. Follow the leaders movements down the trail: anything from hops, skips, and jumps to squats and jumping jacks are encouraged. Everyone takes turns motivating movement as the leader.
- 20 Questions: Along the trail pick-up small items and hide them in your palm or pocket or think of the item if it’s too big to carry. Guessers take turns asking yes or no questions until they figure out the item in hand or in mind.
- Spelling games: Take turns pointing out and spelling what you see from h-o-n-e-y-b-e-e-s to p-i-n-e-t-r-e-e-s. This can make a walk more engaging for children looking to showcase their budding word skills–and provide them with another space to practice while investigating their surroundings.
Board Games and Card Games
Starting a family game night, or any regular chance for the family to play games together, can be difficult. Busy schedules, exhaustion from days at work, and other demands on time often get in the way. Getting in the habit of regular family game time can help relieve the stress of the day and create time dedicated to reconnecting with loved ones.
Pull out classic favorites or try something new, like a cooperative game. In cooperative games, players work together towards a common goal rather than competing against each other. Researchers have found that kids may enjoy cooperative games more than competitive games and may gain additional social benefits from cooperative play.
- Peaceable Kingdom makes cooperative games for young children: Monkey Around (Age 2+), Count Your Chickens (Age 3+), Mermaid Island (Age 5+) and Gnomes at Night (Age 6+) are just a few to try. For older kids and teens, Mysterium (Age 10+), Pandemic (Age 10+), and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (Age 13+) are great options as well.
In addition to cooperative games, some games aim to teach and facilitate emotional regulation and self-esteem across early childhood and adolescence.
- My Feelings and Happy or Not are for kids 4 and up with a focus on helping families explain and explore feelings like happy, angry, excited, scared, frustrated, sad, and tired. I Like Me 123 (Age 7+) and Totem (Age 8+) are card games that promote positive self-talk and self-esteem.
Video games sometimes get a bad rap. When used in moderation (not at the expense of sleep, exercise, or social interaction), video gaming has definite benefits. Research has shown that video games are associated with cognitive flexibility, improved decision-making, more accurate risk assessment, and, when played together, family bonding. If individual play gets in the way of spending quality time together, there are many fun, cooperative games that can be enjoyed as a group.
- Overcooked is a cooperative game that requires communication and collaboration among players to prepare a variety of dishes that keep a giant meatball monster and hungry zombie bread (“the unbread”) fed and happy.
- If you’re looking for a game that promotes physical activity, Just Dance and Just Dance Now are great options. Co-op mode allows players to earn stars together and for people with physical differences that limit movements, there are songs for the upper body only that still get the heart pumping.
- Big Brain includes fast-paced mini-games that target different cognitive skills, like memory and attention. It’s perfect for families as everyone plays the game at the same time, but each player sets their preferred difficulty from “Sprout” to “Super Elite”, so everybody has a chance to win, and all can enjoy.
While it can be hard to prioritize family game time, remember that it doesn’t take large blocks of time to make a difference. Try to use those short windows between activities or responsibilities to play family games. Whichever way your family prefers to play - outside, indoors, or on a screen - each offers an opportunity to bond, communicate, and promote healthy childhood development.
Disclaimer: Brand names are mentioned to help readers identify product examples only. No endorsement is intended, nor is criticism implied of games not mentioned. The author has no relationship with any of the companies that make the games mentioned.
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