Of course, I may be biased, but in my opinion, there is no better “stealth education” than board gaming. I’ve already shared my thoughts on “educational games” and why they may not be the best use of your time. What I’m sharing today are all the things that your kids are naturally learning by playing excellent, well-balanced board games, designed, not to be “educational”, but to be enjoyable!
I think board gaming would be worth the family time and fun, even if the kids weren’t learning “academic” things. But if it makes you feel better, here are some of the things they can learn through playing board games!
- Dwarves and Dice – Roll three dice. Find the card showing the little guy dressed in the same three colors as the colors shown on your dice! My littles have all enjoyed this game when they were first learning about board games!
- Flower Power – This game not only teaches color-matching, but building secondary colors using primary colors. Roll a die and collect the correct transparent primary-colored circle. Layer primary colors to create the right secondary colors for your flowers!
Shapes & Geometry
- Colorful Caterpillars – This is a great first game for little people. Roll the dice and chose the piece that matches the shape on one die and the color on the other. Add that shape (bead-stringing-style) to your caterpillar!
- Blokus | Blokus Jr. | City Square Off | Fits – Move beyond basic shape recognition into a visual-spatial challenge of placing multi-unit pieces (think: Tetris shapes). Observe shapes with the same area (number of units) but different perimeter because of layout. Which type of piece is easier to play? Which earns the most points in a particular game? (The titles listed above are four different variations of gameplay using the same basic pieces.)
- Quirkle | Quirkle Cubes – Make a row of six tiles (or dice). Either match the color with a unique shape or match the shape with a unique color. Finish off a row of six and earn a “Quirkle” bonus score!
- Set | Set Jr. – In a grid of cards, compare shape, color, and number of items. Can you pick out a “set” by finding three cards that, in each characteristic, are either all identical, or all unique? This speed game is not for the faint of heart! (Set Jr. uses a two-sided board to begin with shape and color matching and then advances to a version of the original gameplay.)
- Phase 10 | Haggis | Dutch Blitz | Five Crowns | Five Crowns Jr. – Any trick-taking, rummy-style game like these practices looking for and creating patterns.
- Battleships – Announce attacks on your opponent on a letter-and-number grid. Track your opponents attacks against you on a similar grid. Teaches finding locations on a two-dimentional grid system.
(Note: You can get a FREE printable Battleships Game in The Bike Shed on this site!)
- Flash Point Fire Rescue – This is a fantastic fire-fighting collaborative game. Move through the house, put out the fires, and rescue the residents. Fires and explosions pop up according to dice rolls on a letter-and-number based grid system on the board.
- Uno – Yep, this is a good old family favorite. Even little people can join in. And when they do, they are practicing number recognition. (And just a tiny bit of Spanish, too!)
- Target Number: Place Value – This isn’t officially a board game, but it’s a game that our kids have voluntarily played for fun (even when grandparents are visiting) and one that I’ve enjoyed playing with them, too!
Addition and Subtraction
Almost any game you play will teach adding and/or counting skills. Here we’ve picked a few of our favorites or ones that approach the topic with a unique twist!
- Can’t Stop – Our now-six-year-old daughter learned how to add by playing this game. Roll dice, move along a track and try to reach the top of three columns. The trick? If you can’t move, you loose all your progress! Take just.one.more.turn? Or play it safe and save your progress?
- Sleeping Queens – This fun little card game involves waking up queens with king cards and employing dragons and potions to interrupt your opponent’s strategies! Players can get new cards by making addition problems using the numbers in their hand.
- Qwixx – A fun, quick, dice-rolling game that requires zero set-up. Your goal is to cross off as many numbers as you can on four different colored tracks. Great to get kids thinking of all the different possible ways to combine numbers to reach a sum!
Greater Than/Less Than
- Rat-A-Tat Cat – Each player has four cards face down. At the end of the game, the player with the lowest score wins. You don’t know what cards other players have, and you start the game knowing only two of your own! With cards ranging from 0 to 9, should you take that 4 or leave it for the next person?
- Medieval Academy – Go on tournaments, demonstrate chivalry to fair ladies, and study to become a fine scholar. Earn points for good deeds. But watch out; you might earn negative points if you fall behind! In the end, you’ll need to combine your negative and positive points to determine your score. My children noticed early on that they could combine a +1 and +2 to cancel out a -3.
- Skip-Bo – I played this growing up and now my kids love it, too! Try to empty out your hand by playing numbers in sequence order from 1-12 in one of four ongoing piles. Or, finish of a stack with a 12 and start again at 1!
- No Thanks – Like golf, you’re aiming for the lowest score, so nobody wants to take those high-point cards that come up in the deck! But if you pass, it will cost you a chip. Agree to take the card others have passed, and you get all the chips, too. Cards up your score, but the chips lower it. Plus, if you have several cards in consecutive order, you only have to count the points of the lowest card in the series!
- Wrong Chemistry – This is a visual-spatial game in which two players compete to earn cards by moving hexes and discs to match the image on the card, creating an “element”. Scoring bonuses to those who can complete multiple elements in a numerical sequence! (Bonus: Each of the game elements is a pun on the name of an actual element, so extra discussion for those who are familiar with the periodic table!)
Multiplication and Division
- Machi Koro – Build shops and plant fields. Get paid when your number comes up on the die. But if you have a building that cashes in on your earlier investments? Your earnings multiply!
- Alhambra – Purchase buildings to add to your Alhambra. Score points if you are the person who has the most building of a certain type. But if several players tie in number of buildings, you’ll have to divide the points equally among yourselves! (Bonus: Paying for a building with exact change gets you an extra turn, so those addition skills really come in handy!)
- Lost Cities – You are striking out on a risky archaeological adventure. Will you even be able to succeed in paying off the cost of the trip? If you take on investors, you could double or triple your earnings … or double or triple your losses, if it doesn’t go well! (This is one of our all-time favorite two-person card games.)
- Tumblin-Dice – Roll the dice, aim for the high-scoring zone. Find your score by multiplying the die face by the scoring factor of the zone it lands in. Plentiful conversations about whether it matters if you add the dice in a zone first and then multiply, or multiply the score of each die and then add them together!
Most any game that involves some randomizing mechanic (dice rolling, spinning a spinner, drawing cards, etc.) teaches probability to a certain extent. Here are a few games, however, where this element particularly rises to the surface for excellent observation and conversation!
- Three Little Pigs – Build your house out of straw, sticks, or bricks. Will it withstand the force of the wolf’s blow? On a six-wedge spinner, three wedges contain straw, two contain sticks, and only one contains bricks! Which house is most likely to withstand the blast?
- Dragonwood – Take an adventure into a magical forest and try to capture beasts. Roll dice to determine the strength of your strike, stomp, or scream! Dice in the game are six-sided but are labeled uniquely: one 2, two 3s, two 4s and one 5. How does that affect your chances of rolling a ten with two dice?
- Balance Beans – Learn about comparative weight/mass (and the physics behind levers and fulcrums) in this engaging game. A challenge card shows you where to place the initial “beans” and also which beans you need to add to balance the board! (Bonus: Also a great way to introduce multiplication. Beans in the second and third rows back from the fulcrum have exactly twice and three times, respectively, the relative weight of those in the first row. One bean in the third row will balance three beans in the first row. Three beans in the second row will balance two beans in the third row.)
- Fauna | Fauna Junior – Truly, these games could fit in so many categories of learning! In Fauna, players look at the top half of an animal card and make guesses about where on the map it can be found, as well as guessing its weight and length. Because one side of the board is in metric units and one is in U.S. customary units, it provides a great opportunity for dual exposure to estimating length and weigh in both sets of units. (In Fauna Junior, rather than guessing units of weight, players guess size compared to seven different objects, choose location from only six regions and guess if it lays eggs and/or eats only plants.)
- Scrambled States – Use visual clues and riddles to try and pick out the correct state! (Based on the funny and engaging children’s book Scrambled States of America. A mini edition of this book comes with some versions of the game.)
- Ticket to Ride – Connect railways across the United States and Canada (or other locations in expansion games, such as Europe or Asia) between major cities. Players will develop a quick eye for the relative location of major cities as they search for the best way to link up their destinations!
- Terra – This game is another in the same series as Fauna (see above) and this game could definitely be counted as one that provides measurement practice. In Fauna, players guess about the location and measurements of animals. In Terra, each card relates to a geographical feature, such as a lake or mountain range. Players guess where it is located and can also estimate features like length or surface area!
- Memoir 44 – A two-player tactical strategy game based on 17 actual battles from World War II. Play as the Axis or Allies and use small plastic soldiers, tanks, barricades and more to simulate conditions and maneuvers!
- Twilight Struggle – A two player strategy game based on a cold-war era simulation. Gameplay can last for several hours, so this is definitely an opportunity for teens and adults who enjoy “epic” gaming!
Plus, check out this entire post about learning with history games!
- Lemonade Stand – How much of your money should you spend on ingredients and how much you should spend on making signs advertising your lemonade stand? And how much should you charge for your lemonade tomorrow? If it rains, your investment in ingredients will be wasted, because no one will come! But, if it’s a beautiful day, won’t it be a shame if you don’t have enough supply to cash in on all those thirsty customers?!?
- Lazer Maze | Lazer Maze Jr. – Complete the challenge on the card by setting up mirrors to reflect a (real!) lazer and complete the maze!
- Gravity Maze – Set up the board according to the challenge card and then add to it with the required pieces so that the marble will drop into the “goal” successfully!
- Circuit Maze – Follow the instructions on the card to set up the challenge. Use the pieces listed to see if you can complete the electrical circuit!
- Compounded – You are a lab manager trying to use elements to form compounds before other players can complete them, or before they are destroyed in an explosion! The score tracking chart is a periodic table of the elements!
- Fauna | Fauna Junior – This is a repeat, because it is such a strong match for measurement, geography, and biology! In Fauna, players look at the top half of an animal card and make guesses about where on the map it can be found, as well as guessing its weight and length. Cards also tell the scientific name (bonus: Latin!) as well as the order and family classification!
- Into the Forest – This is like the food chain made into a card game! Each card shows and animal and list what it eats … and what eats it! The deck also includes parts of the food chain other than plants and animals, such as fungus and decay!
- Duck, Duck Go – This game is a great intro to programming-type games. In more advanced games, players design a series of moves. In this beginner’s game, players choose one of three cards, each with a series of moves on it. Move your duck around the bathtub towards each of the goals and, finally, on to the finish line at the drain!
- RoboRally – Program your robots with a carefully chosen series of instructions. Direct them to move across the floor of the warehouse, touching each of the flags … without being destroyed in the process!
- Code Masters Programming Logic Game – a Minecraft-looking theme that teaching the logical planning needed for programming. Use “condition tokens” and a particular sequence of actions to complete the challenge in each level!
- Scrabble – I hardly need to mention this one, but no list of spelling games would be complete without it! Earn points by spelling words, bonuses for using less-frequently-occurring letters and bonus spaces on the board.
- Quiddler – Draw a hand of between three and ten cards, depending on the round, and try to use your entire hand to spell a word. Use of a dictionary is allowed (when it’s not your turn!) so players can get practice with that skill, too! Artwork is reminiscent of illuminated texts.
- Word on the Street – This is a party-style game in which participants think of words that fit a category and score points by moving the tiles that spell the word towards their side of the “street”. Since this game is played in two teams, it’s perfect for combining family members of different ages.
- Rory’s Story Cubes – This isn’t really a game, per se, but it’s been a huge hit in our home! The basic set includes dice that have picture faces. Roll the dice and create a story with the pictures shown. Instructions include suggestions for varriation on game play. (If your family loves this set, check out all of the expansion packs available!)
- Hannabi – The goal is to play cards of a single color in the right order. The only trick is that you are holding your cards facing out. The other players can see your hand, but you can’t! You have to use clues from other players to help you decide which card to play next!
- Dixit – Look at a series of pictures with interesting features. Describe one of the pictures with a few words or even a story. Other players try to guess which picture you are describing. The artwork alone makes this game worth having and playing!
- Snake Oil – Combine two noun-cards from your hand to form an intriguing new product (like a “rope cloud” or “apple easel”). Then try to sell your newfangled invention to a “customer” who is playing a role determined by the card she drew. How would you sell your product to a grandma? What about a gangster?