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My First Gamer: Engaging Young Kids with the Right Games

When coming up with a topic to write about, I knew I wanted to write about my experiences with my eldest son, who is just now reaching the age where gaming is becoming exciting. There were countless routes I could have taken with this, but I decided that sharing my perspective as a thought piece would work well. This isn’t an academic article, and it’s not a review; it’s simply me expressing my thoughts and feelings on the subject of gaming with young children. As you read, consider how my story relates to your life, and how my experiences can inspire your own (for good or illyou decide).

I love board games, and I love my kids. Thus, I want to share with them the joys that board games can bring. Unfortunately, they’re both still pretty young (ages four and almost three, as of this writing), and so they can’t quite grasp the complexities of X-Wing, Champions of Midgard, and other games I’m madly in love with.

Fortunately, there are games out there specifically made for their age group—and I’m not even talking about Candyland. Games like First Orchard (HABA), My First Castle Panic (Fireside Games), and Yummy Yummy Pancake (Mayday Games) have been favorites of theirs for a while now. The best part is, I can see their brains working through what is happening and figuring things out on their own.

While I could talk about the aforementioned games themselves (and I actually have, as reviews, on this very site), I’d like to instead talk a bit about the experience of playing with young kids. In particular, I’d like to talk about the experience of getting them interested in the first place, of how I “convinced” them to play games over other, more digital activities. If you have kids—young or old(er)—this may spark some ideas to help you get your kids participating in less screen time (because the world doesn’t need anymore zombies).

I have two young boys, and both have more energy than Goku powering up to fight Vegeta, Cell, and Frieza all at once. It’s insane. But, they can sit still when entertained. Unfortunately, the television is the activity of choice. Mostly for my four-year-old, but my youngest is also heading that direction if not soon diverted. 

My wife and I have tried very hard to avoid letting them spend too much time in front of the TV. Our oldest gets hooked otherwise, and it’s a battle to get him off. We were doing great with not having them watch TV...until we moved across the country and lived in my in-law’s basement for a few months while we fixed up the home we bought (which just so happened to be next door to said in-laws).

The house we were living inthe house my wife actually grew up inis large, but even adding the four of us made it a wee bit crowded. And, in order to avoid having our kids destroy the house (it is most certainly not kid-proof), and to give them something to do, they ended up watching a lot of TV and playing video games with their uncle(s). While I’m happy that my boys love Super Smash Bros. now, the amount of time they spent plugged in was simply not good.

And we needed a way to break them of the habit.

When we finally moved in to our newly renovated home, we were able to unpack our board games. While we only had a couple of games for kids their age, it was enough to get them excited. Animal Upon Animal, My First Orchard, and “Drops” (officially known as “Drop It,” but I won’t ruin it for them by telling them the truth) were a lot of fun for them. But, as is sometimes the case, it didn’t hold their attention long enough to fully break them from their TV enthrallment.

Skip ahead a number of months to earlier this year (2019) when I went to Origins on behalf of Everything Board Games. As a game reviewer, I was able to pick up a handful of kid games—games specifically designed for this age of youngling.

While they enjoyed Yummy Yummy Pancake and Click Clack Lumberjack, their favorite (or, rather, my eldest’s favorite) was My First Castle Panic. He loved it! Still does, actually.

One morning a week or so after returning from Origins, my four-year-old woke my wife and me up at some unholy hour, excited about something he did. Needless to say, my anxiety shot through the roof, because anything a four-year-old is excited about before the sun’s even up can’t be good (and we’ve been the benefactors of many rude awakenings by the little hooligan).

To my shock, my little dude had My First Castle Panic unboxed and—you guessed it—fully set up on the dining room table. So, we played.

And he did great. He’s even set it up and played by himself when I wasn’t able to play due to work or some other form of adult responsibility. And he loves the theme! He loves capturing monsters and tossing them into the dungeon. And you know what else he loves?

Wild Kratts.

Wild Kratts is a TV show on PBS Kids where two fully grown adults are cartooned and they have creature adventures. And I, being the gamer that I am, wondered how I could capitalize on that. After some solo brainstorming sessions, I came up with a brilliant idea. I decided to make an RPG for my boy in which he could have his own creature adventures. And so I did.

I made an 8-bit map (courtesy of some map-making website) of a forest with a path running through it. Also, a river they have to cross. And some loot crates that, if discovered, give them items to use (or not use) at their discretion. Items include rocks (what young boy doesn't love rocks?), acorns, chocolate, and other random goodies kids his age would want in real life or in a game.

The first adventure was basically a practice for me, but it worked out well enough. The backstory was simple: a squirrel had stolen his favorite item (one of his favorite dice) and we had to get it back. Thus, the adventure began.

I’ve never DM’d before, and I’ve only played one session of D&D and two of Edge of the Empire (Star Wars role playing game). But, I took my limited knowledge and came up with a scenario, played through it with him, and figured I’d see how it went from there.

He loved it. In fact, it’s his new favorite game and he wants to play all the time. I haven’t made any more maps yet, so I just make other adventures using the same map. The encounters consist of bears, foxes, bees, and other woodland creatures, as well as threats such as getting lost, climbing trees, and other challenges.

There isn’t a lot to it, and it’s super flexible in execution, but the fact that he loves it says a lot. For one thing, it says that there are things that can take precedence over television for my boy, and that’s what I’m going to focus on with him. In fact, it's the main reason I made this game in the first place. The other games were great, and we still enjoy them, but it took a little experimenting to find the thing that resonated with him. And, it’s teaching him about animals (I try and make it educational) and how to help others (and deal with things not going his way).

This has been my experience with my kids—in particular, my eldest. I think it’s safe to say that he is now on the slippery slope to a life of board games; all he needed was the right starting point. Now, I’m not suggesting that four years old is the age when indoctrination should begin. That’s just how it worked out for us. What’s important here, however, is the fun he has. And it’s not passive fun, such as watching PBS Kids (even though it can be quite educational). Rather, it’s engaging him, and it’s allowing us to get together and have fun and laugh together. Games are a great tool for families, and I absolutely love the time I have with him, whether it's gaming or doing something else. But to see his excitement at being part of a story, to make decisions that aren’t vetoed by me or my wife because we don’t want a squirrel for a pet (or whatever else enters his mind), is a huge win. His eyes sparkle with life, and he makes some very good decisions—many of which I would never have thought of myself.

It’s fascinating to see his young mind work, and it’s a good feeling to know that he’s having fun by cultivating his imagination in new ways. If you have young kids, I encourage you to experiment with them and find games that cultivate that imagination. Let yourself get lost in the story with them. Whether you’re following the game’s rules or making them up as you go, it doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re having fun and opening a young mind to endless possibilities.

What's your favorite game to play with your kids? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author:

Benjamin Kocher hails from Canada but now lives in Kentucky with his wife and kids. He's a certified copyeditor through UC San Diego's Copyediting Extension program. He's a freelance writer and editor, and covers everything from board game rule books to novels. An avid writer of science fiction and fantasy, it comes as no surprise that his favorite board games are those with rich, engaging themes. When he’s not writing or playing games, Benjamin loves to play ultimate Frisbee, watch and play rugby, and read the most epic fantasy books available. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminKocher and Instagram @Benjamin_Kocher, and read his board game-inspired fiction at BenjaminKocher.com.

Check out Benjamin's reviews here.
My First Gamer: Engaging Young Kids with the Right Games My First Gamer: Engaging Young Kids with the Right Games Reviewed by Benjamin Kocher on October 31, 2019 Rating: 5

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