Holiday Gift Guide 2018

Looking for a gift for your kids that's fun, but perhaps a little more intellectually stimulating than the Nerf MurderGun 5000 or Princess Daenerys's Glitter-Shedding Dragon? Don't worry, Games for Young Minds has got you covered.

Below, I've shared two games for each age level: One game that I've profiled previously, and a new game that I haven't gotten the chance to write about. No matter what age your child or what games they've played before, you should be able to find something useful below. Enjoy!

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Qwirkle - Play Scrabble before you can read!

Have you ever played one of those people in Scrabble who knows all the two-letter words?

I'm not talking about "it" and "he." I mean someone who confidently plays "qi" and then dares you to Google it. 

My friend Robin is one of those people. I have played her in Scrabble since high school, and I have no idea how many times I've lost to her. But I definitely remember how many times I've won: zero.

Don't get me wrong, Scrabble is a fantastic game. Someday I'll probably write a newsletter (or three) about it. But it does pose a problem, especially for parents: How do you play a word-based game with a kid (or friend) with a much lower vocabulary than you? What if your kid can't even read or spell yet?

Fortunately, I have found the perfect introductory game to the fun and strategy of Scrabble: Qwirkle. If you play Qwirkle with your five-, six-, and seven-year-olds, they'll be totally ready to dive into Scrabble as older kids.

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Prime Climb - Make your way to 101!

I'll admit it: this week's game is for older kids. 

I've been holding onto this game, Prime Climb, for over a year, just waiting to see when my kids would be old enough to play. I even tried a modified version with my 6-year-old son, but it just didn't work. To get to the heart of this game, you really need to know the ideas of multiplication and division. I'd recommend this game for kids who are at least in 3rd grade.

The good news is, the game is just as fun with older kids and with adults. I was able to buy a class set of Prime Climb games for my math games elective, and my 8th graders absolutely loved the game. They got to use math creatively in a way that they rarely have, and I had just as much fun as they did. 

In school, math often feels like a set of procedures that you must perfectly mimic. But in Prime Climb, you are free to be as mathematically creative as you want.

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Is This Game Too Tough For My Child?

A few weeks back, I did a celebratory Q&A for my first 1000 subscribers. I had such a fun time writing my answers that I kept an eye out for other questions about games, math, and parenting.

Well, last weekend I was talking with another parent about birthday presents when they hit me with a question I just had to answer in the newsletter. So here we go!

Alison asks:

I've noticed that you always seem to recommend games to kids who are on the younger side: the box recommends players 8 and older, but you'll recommend it for 5 or 6 year olds. Why is that? Won't the kids get frustrated by a game that's too hard for them?

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Rummikub - A Classic Rummy-Based Tile Game

Often, when I teach my kids a game, we play a couple of "face up" rounds, where everyone can see each other's cards or pieces. During the game, we talk freely about every player's options, as well as strategies that might pay off in the future.

As I've begun playing games with more and more kids, I've come to realize that face-up variations of games are just as fun! Instead of patiently waiting my turn, I am able to engage my kids in a conversation about what their possible goals might be, and how they can reach those goals. 

I'd like to illustrate this idea by discussing the game Rummikub, a classic tile-based game that I was introduced to on a family beach trip this past summer.

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Sequence for Kids - An Excellent Introduction to Board Games

I played a lot of classic board games as a kid, but I got sick of them eventually. It seemed like a dead hobby: once you got sick of Monopoly, Scrabble, and Risk, what else was there?

Then my uncle brought Sequence to a family gathering and I fell in love with games again. I particularly enjoyed playing in teams, trying to work together with my partner without any direct communication.

My kids are a little too young for Sequence, especially my 3-year-old. Fortunately, the makers of Sequence have come out with Sequence for Kids, a game that keeps the spirit of the original game while making the rules accessible for kids as young as three.

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Guess Who?

Do you still remember the faces from the original Guess Who game? I do. The big noses, the rosy cheeks. The...interesting skull shapes.

I mean, just look at Bill. Poor Bill. The guy looks like a pink raindrop with facial hair. I mean, he's a happy pink raindrop with facial hair, but still...

The game has gone through several much-needed printings since the 80s, adding more women and people of color to the mix. But you can still find the classic version if you so choose.

And I do recommend that you find a version you like, because your kid will definitely want to play Guess Who? a bunch! There's a reason the game was such a smash hit when it came out 30 years ago: the rules are simple, the play is quick, and the competition is fierce!

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Tenzi - A Fast-Paced Dice Game

You know Tenzi; it's that tube of multicolored dice that suddenly appeared in every toy store in America a few years ago.

I bought the game and played it with my kids a year or so ago, but I wasn't sure how mathematical the game was at its core. Other than learning how to recognize, or subitize, the number on each side of the dice, where could I find the math?

Then I bought the companion piece, 77 Ways to Play Tenzi. Some of the games are ridiculous and silly, while others are really interesting mathematical games. Best of all, they all incorporate the most fun and addictive aspect of Tenzi: frantically rolling a ton of multi-colored dice.

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Connect 4 - Add to 10 Variation

Do you have a Sharpie handy? I hope so, because today we are going to be defacing a classic game, Connect 4!

Connect 4 doesn't need any improvement, honestly. The game is great for young kids developing their fine motor skills and their spatial reasoning. But I found a lovely little variation from Catherine Reed at Brown Bag Teacher and I just had to try it with my son.

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Manifold - An Origami Puzzle Game

I picked up Manifold at a game shop shortly before a flight I took recently. It turned out to be one of the most addictive puzzle games I've ever played. As soon as I solved one puzzle, I stuffed it in the front pocket of my backpack and tore off the next one. 

By the time the plane landed, my backpack was practically brimming with folded puzzles. I had solved over half the puzzles and was feeling very accomplished (I had to skip #39, but I don't want to talk about it and I'm not mad.)

This game is aimed at older kids (10+) than most of the games I review for this newsletter. It's also one of the most engaging and unique puzzle-solving experiences I've ever had. I simply had to share it with you.

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Laser Maze

I walked into the playroom holding a board game, which is a pretty routine occurrence in our household. "Hey J, do you want to play a game?"

"No."

"It has lasers..."

"OK!"

Since I showed my son this game, he has introduced it to his little sister, his cousins at the beach, and two different friends who have come over on playdates. He has also wandered our house, finding new mirrors he can use to bounce lasers onto furniture, framed photos, and annoyed family members.

In short, Laser Maze is a hit in the Haines household. J definitely doesn't think of Laser Maze as a math game, but I can already see him learning new concepts about angles of reflection and spatial relationships.

Occasionally he even lets me play, which is really fun because, again, there are lasers.

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Race to the Treasure

The first five years of your child's life are the most developmentally important years, and the foundation they build through play and exploration will form the basis of their learning for years and years to come.

That's why I am a big proponent of the Tammany Hall approach to the first five years: Math Early and Math Often.

So when I found Race to the Treasure, I knew I had to share it with my kids, and with you! If you're looking for your child's first board game, you could hardly do better.

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Yahtzee

Can a three-year-old play Yahtzee? Well, no, not exactly. The rules are simply too complex.

But can a three-year-old have a rich mathematical experience while playing a modified version of Yahtzee, or by helping their parent or sibling play? Of course!

You may have noticed that I am pretty liberal with my age recommendations for games. This is intentional; I believe that kids can gain mathematical ideas and insights from a game, even if they don't have the attention or skill to complete the game in its original form. 

Once you know how to play a game, you can modify it to meet the needs of your children. To illustrate what I mean, let's talk about Yahtzee.

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Mastermind

My wife really shouldn't let me go to Target. Every time, she sends me to get one simple item, and every time I show up at home with a new board game. I keep telling her "It's helping the kids learn!" but honestly they'd probably learn plenty from the other 28 board games we have...

But you, dear reader, get to benefit from my game addiction! A few weeks ago, I spied a game in retro packaging that I'd never seen before. I eagerly snapped it up and brought it home.

Within minutes of playing the game, I couldn't wait to see what my own students could do with the mathematical implications of the game. It's a great game for a 3rd or 4th grader, but the mathematical ideas that the game uses are taught in high school and college courses on discrete mathematics. Not that your kid will know that! To them, they're just guessing which colors match your secret code.

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Peg Solitaire

When I was a kid, my parents bought me a triangular peg solitaire game from a Cracker Barrel, and I never could figure it out. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't end the game with one peg. I always ended the game with two or three pegs, no matter how hard I tried.

Well, I am happy to announce that I dug this game out of the closet recently, inspired to finally conquer my old nemesis. And I did it! At long last, this deceptively challenging game of pegs and holes was within my grasp.

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Othello

When playing a game with your child, should you let them win? This is a common dilemma for any parent who routinely plays games with their kids. On one hand, you don't want to beat your kid at Go Fish or Battleship or chess every time; they'd get sick of losing and quit playing with you eventually. On the other hand, you don't want your child to get so accustomed to winning that they can't handle a loss. 

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Mancala

Of all the games I've recommended so far, Mancala is the one that I recall most fondly from my childhood. I vividly remember playing match after match with my friend John, arguing over strategy and trash-talking the way that only eight-year-olds can.

I loved this game as a kid for the same reasons that I love it as a parent: Mancala is a breeze to learn, easy to set up, play,  and clean up, and contains far more strategy than you might expect. 

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Equilibrio

Want to hear something crazy? Back in the 80s, researchers watched a bunch of 4-year-olds play with blocks to see how sophisticated their block play was. Were the kids stacking the blocks at random without regard to their shapes, or were they using the properties of the blocks to make sturdy, steady castles and towers?

When the researchers checked in on those same kids in high school, they found out that the kids who had been more sophisticated block builders at age 4 were more likely to take higher-level math courses and to perform well within their courses. 

Seems bizarre, right? But actually, the connection between block play and mathematical ability is one of the most heavily researched areas of young children's development. Block play is heavily tied to spatial reasoning, which is how kids and adults think about objects in relation to each other.

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