Game Night: Five Benefits of Board Games for Families

I love playing board games with my kids. We started our game nights as an alternative to screen time in the winter, or when the weather’s bad. Somehow I’ve become addicted to these easily-organized family activities. Unfortunately, most of the research on games is related to the impact of chess on problem-solving or memory skills. Although lots of games provide opportunities to practice these abilities, there are benefits to playing other games that could be just as important! Here are five benefits of playing family board games:

1. Games provide easy ideas for shared activities

We live busy lives - my work sometimes keeps me away from home until after supper, which doesn’t leave a lot of time before the kids go to bed to think of something to do. I used to think of Monopoly, The Game of Life, or Risk whenever I considered playing a game. Those games take so long that it would be nearly impossible to fit them in on a school night. Luckily, we’re in the midst of a board game renaissance, and you can find games with almost any theme and nearly any length of play time. Typical play times and age ranges are usually printed right on the box.

It’s too easy to fall into the habit of focusing on screens instead of each other - especially since screen time seems to be becoming the default activity for teenagers. Regardless of the weather, if you can clear space on a table, you can set up a game. For us, games are a no-brainer when we’re looking for something to do as a family. And there are YouTube videos that explain how to play almost any game, so you don’t even have to read the rules!

2. Board games are a lateral transition from video games

Video games are a huge industry, and with smartphones and tablets, they’re more portable and accessible than they ever were when I was a kid. Parents often ask me about limiting computer time, and I always say the same thing: “Don’t tell your child to turn off the computer and find something to do, tell them to turn it off and do something with you.” There are games that stick pretty close to a video game theme; Boss Monster is based on classic side-scrolling games that I used to play. Other games are more abstract, but there are an infinite number of board game themes.

3. Board games can teach about winning and losing (as well as problem-solving and memory)

I confess that I’m pretty competitive. So are my sons. When they were little, losing was pretty hard for them, but it didn’t take long for that to change. Now, we play games with enough variety that it’s rare for any one of us to lose too often. We all have our preferences, and they change depending on our mood. One of my kids loves dexterity games like Jenga or Crokinole, but the other finds these stressful. There might be a bit of “trash talk” during a game, but it’s (almost) always good-natured. It took some effort to shift the focus from winning the game, which is still fun, to having fun playing together, which is better than winning. Most of the time, the kids aren’t too overbearing when they win, or too hurt when they lose. 

Of course, other skills can be developed by playing games, including memory, planning, and problem-solving. Mensa even maintains a list of brain-building games, and Harvard University Center on Child Development recommends board games for the development of cognitive skills. The Duke has long been a favourite of ours.

4. Not all games are competitive

Some kids become so focused on winning that it’s too hard for them to enjoy playing games. Luckily, there are plenty of games that don’t require players to compete against each other. There are cooperative games, like Forbidden Island, Pandemic, or Magic Maze, where all the players compete against the game itself. You might lose (in the case of Pandemic, you probably will), but everyone wins or loses together. Some of the more recent cooperative games include rules that prevent one player from bossing the others around - in Magic Maze, for example, players are rarely allowed to talk or gesture to one another.

Other games involve storytelling. Many of these require the players to choose the best story, but some, like Tall Tales, aren’t competitions.

5. Board games can strengthen relationships with extended family members and friends

I’m lucky that several of my friends also enjoy playing games, and they’ll join in with the kids. In fact, we have a monthly game night when uncles and aunts come to play with the boys. Activities between kids and their extended family members or adult family friends can be important for building self-confidence and reducing the impact of peer pressure.

The opposite also happens. When my kids’ friends come over, they sometimes ask if we can play games together. Sometimes it’s because they want me to join in. Often it’s because I’m better at explaining the rules. Playing with your children’s friends gives you a chance to get to know the people that your kids are spending time with. It can also prevent a problem that has a negative impact on family relationships:  Kids, especially teenagers, can perceive a competition between their friendships and their family relationships. They might think that their parents don’t like their friends, regardless of whether it’s true, or that their friends would not enjoy spending time with their parents. By having everyone spend time together, this perception is reduced, and your children won’t feel that they have to choose between feeling close to their friends and feeling close to their parents. 

Those are a few of the reasons why I like board games, especially when playing with the family. Leave a comment if you have other suggestions, or if there’s a game that your family enjoys! I’ll periodically post about the games we’re playing as well.

 Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.