Did you know that many of the classic games you probably played as a child can help lay the foundations for reading, writing, maths and much more?
If you want to give your child a leg-up with some of the basics before school starts, but don’t much fancy boring practice books, these games strike a great balance. And because they’re games, children won’t even know they’re learning:
1. Noughts and Crosses
Good for: mark-making, turn-taking, strategy, planning ahead
This old-favourite game for two players (o and x) can be played anywhere – all you need is paper and a pencil. Players take turns putting their marks in a three-by-three grid. The player who gets three of their marks in a row first, wins. If you don’t have paper and pen, you could try replacing your noughts and crosses with something physical – fruit or buttons, for example. Make your grid with straws or sticks. The result is the same – strategy, taking turns and planning are all enhanced.
2. Top Trumps
Good for: learning numbers to 100, more/less than
In Top Trumps, each card holds a list of numerical values. The aim of the game is to compare your values with others and win your opponents’ cards. It’s a fantastic way for children to learn numbers up to 100, as well as concepts like larger and smaller. It also teaches probability. If you are holding a card that scores 99, the odds of your opponent holding the one card in the deck that scores 100 are very low, so you’ve got a great chance of winning the hand. The 100 square is super-important in Reception, so Top Trumps is a great game for your pre-schooler.
3. Snakes and Ladders
Good for: recognising numbers up to 100, counting on, identifying patterns in the 100 square.
The aim of Snakes and Ladders is to beat your opponents to the finish by travelling around a numbered grid. The number of squares you move on the grid is determined by rolling a dice. Lucky ladders give you a step up while slithery snakes set you back.
The concept of ‘counting on’ is a hard one to grasp. If you are on number ‘7’ and you throw a five, you don’t start by counting the square you are already on. Most children end up on ’11’ the first time they try this. Snakes and Ladders gives them lots of practice seeing that they should be on number 12.
Snakes and Ladders also introduces the 100 square, a vital piece of kit in a Reception class. As well as showing the numbers to 100, it draws attention to tens and units. Children often notice the patterns themselves. All the numbers ending in ‘6’ are in a column; the first digit of each number in a row goes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….
Success in this race is down to luck, have fun along the way.
Good for: phonics and initial sounds (even if your child only knows three sounds, use these)
Everyone knows how to play I-spy. This simple game needs no equipment, can be played anywhere and makes a great distractor during times of extreme boredom such as waiting to see the doctor or a long car journey. As well as developing their knowledge of sounds and words, it also teaches children to be observant and – when they are the ones doing the guessing – use logic and reasoning to get to the correct answer.
Good for: pen-control, concentration, finishing tasks
Mazes teach many of the strokes used in handwriting without any of the pressure. They require children to stay within the lines and as such are great for pen control. They lay strong foundations for letter formation, too, as they help children draw straight lines and curves, achieving the same results as tracing over letters in exercise books but in a way that’s much more fun. Mazes also require children to keep an eye on the direction they’re heading, to reach the finish, much as they will need to when writing on lines at school.
6. Word-searches and alphabet bingo
Good for: letter recognition
Word-searches are easy to create and a great way to learn to recognise new words and consolidate topic-related vocabulary. For example if it’s someone’s birthday a word search could contain vocab like cake, hat, party
In Alphabet Bingo, children become familiar with the rather confusing visuals of uppercase and lowercase letters, and the corresponding letter sounds. It’s dull-but-effective flashcards, disguised as a fun game.
7. Spot the Difference
Good for: visual discrimination, attention, scanning methodically
In Spot the Difference, children have to scrutinise two almost-identical pictures to find a set number of subtly hidden differences. You’ll often find this absorbing puzzle in children’s magazines and it’s a great way to pass time on a long journey or at the table before dinner. Spot the Difference helps develop focussing skills and teaches how to scan a problem methodically to find the answer.
As an added bonus, when you’ve finished you get to colour in the picture, which is brilliant for pen-control.
8. Snap, Rummy, Pelmanism
Good for: turn-taking, mental maths and keeping track (eg of cards used or of the score)
In rummy, the aim is to find sets of three or runs of consecutive numbers. Snap teaches attention and speed of thought. Pelmanism (or matching pairs) develops visual-spatial attention and memory.
But most of all, card games encourage turn-taking and patience, which come in handy when making new friendships at school.
Not to be overlooked is the fine-motor control required to hold, fan out and otherwise organise a hand of playing cards, making these games all-round winners for pre-schoolers.
9. Parlour Games
Good for: speaking clearly, thinking on feet, confidence
Charades, Blind Man’s Buff, Sleeping Lions: many of the old-fashioned parlour games involve a combination of logic and word-play with physical movement which, as any teacher will tell you, is one of the best ways to teach children. They’re often competitive but not ruthlessly so, and most involve plenty of laughter and silliness. They can played for as long or as little as you feel like and while scorekeeping does feature, it’s usually the taking part that matters. All of which make them brilliant games for children to play with friends and/or other grown ups.
10. Hangman and other pencil and paper games
Good for: fine-tuning reading and writing skills
Hangman is a word game where one player has to guess the word being thought of by another, using the familiar hangman drawing to get there. Despite its questionable premise (the drawing that emerges is one of a man being executed), it’s a great way to fine tune spelling, handwriting and reading skills. Don’t attempt this with your child until you feel confident they have a broad enough vocab, pen control and handwriting to play effectively. For most children, this will be after they have started school, but some may be ready to play it sooner.
N.B. You may want to consider making your own – less gruesome – version of hangman. We’ve found a nice version online where you make a snowman instead. Any picture will do. As long as it’s easy to replicate and requires 8-10 lines to complete.
You can also try other pencil and paper games like dots and boxes, sprouts, regions and battleships, all of which are easier than hangman as they can be played by children who can’t yet read or write.