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Scaling Games for Toddlers

Initially, playing games geared toward 10-year-olds with toddlers seemed mind-boggling. Starting accidentally, scaling games was one of our best mistakes. When our boys were two and three, I bought Dino Math Tracks because the game pieces were dinosaurs and my boys LOVED dinosaurs. I ignored what the game was about because I knew they would play dinos. When the game arrived, I realized it taught problem-solving and place value. Instead of putting it on the shelf, I pulled out the dice and pieces and created my own revised rules. We rolled the dice putting them in ordinal order and moved our pieces accordingly. When they were ready for a lesson in place value, I had them recall the game and explained its other aspects. A few years later, we played Hangman ad nauseum. As they started writing, I let them create the puzzles for us. Before they could spell, we played in front of a bookshelf so they could use book titles as puzzles for us to solve. It was a great way to work on spelling and handwriting fun.

However, as our family grew, the younger children watched us play games and wanted to join in on the fun. Over a decade ago, our then 3-year-old watched her older brothers, and I play Mancala. She asked to join. Initially, I thought…no, you’re not old enough to play. Then I thought, why not? She won’t put the pieces in her mouth, so it’s not a choking hazard. She took her turn without any problems. She had observed the rules of engagement and knew exactly what to do. From that moment on, she played whatever game she wanted to with the family.

Qwirkle is another of those games with another three-year-old. She sat on our lap for about a year and was on someone’s team. She’d pick pieces from the bag and place them where instructed until she was ready to play. In addition to logic, there is an element of luck with the pieces you pick. At 3, we were playing, and she was ready to play on her own. She picked three pieces that allowed her to Qwirkle three times and won the game. Without missing a beat, she bellowed, “I’m a beast at Qwirkle!”

Now we have another 3-year-old, and she has been playing UNO for just over a year. Because of this, she knows how to hold cards without bending them, match colors and numbers, deal cards- counting out 3, 5, or 7 cards for each player, understand ordinal numbers, can track who goes first, second, or third, distinguish between 6’s and 9’s confidently, she understands what a Skip, Draw 2, Draw 4 and Reverse means. She can sit through a 20-minute round if it goes long and congratulates the winner at the end of the game. She models what we do, and we gently correct her as she plays - if she bends a card, we remind her that is not how to treat our cards. There are some relaxed rules, we don’t penalize her for not saying UNO, we don’t keep score when we play with her, and if I have multiple Draw 4’s and she has a lot of cards, I will swap a card or two. However, in about a year, we’ll make fewer accommodations.

We’ve been playing Tic Tac Toe for about as long. When she started, she made scribbles for her letter, but each time, it was a very similar pattern. Now she makes legible x’s and o’s. As we begin to write our letters, we will play b’s and d’s or q’s vs. p’s. There’s nothing like losing a game because you wrote the wrong letter to help you remember the correct direction.

When your child will sit on your lap without interrupting the game, here are ways they can be on your team.

  • Roll the dice

  • Pick the game piece or letters

  • Turn the card

  • Move the piece on the gameboard

We homeschoolers are bombarded with information about starting early versus waiting on schooling with littles. There is a difference between classroom-type instruction with workbooks and the natural learning that happens through reading, doing chores, and playing games. This blended approach allows children to learn at their own pace. I suggest we seek opportunities to nurture the natural love of learning children possess. In my experience, children are far more capable than we assume.

Hopefully, you’ve picked up a few ideas to scale games with your younger kids, allowing you to introduce and practice concepts and skills in a fun and engaging environment so that they become part of the child’s vocabulary long before they are required in the official curriculum.

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