Family Game Night with Toddlers: Practical Guidance for Including Your Little One in the Fun
Family nights are a positive way to connect as a family and build bonds that tether children to their parents. Hosting a family game night with toddlers takes a bit of forethought and a lot of flexibility.
What I’d love to highlight today, is that you can still host a fun and exciting family game night with toddlers without playing only toddler games or doing solely toddler activities.
The trick is to modify, adjust, and tweak your family games or activities just enough to help your toddler feel included and get something out of the experience.
There are a lot of ways to do that so everyone has fun while making and tons of memories!
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The Value of the Family Night
Family nights have been in place in our home for about 9 or so years. Before the birth of my third child, I didn’t feel strongly compelled to intentionally implement them because my husband, myself, and our two little ones were pretty much together ALL the time!
None of the children were in activities or sports outside the home yet, and there was plenty of time for everyone, so pretty much every night was family night.
However, once our third child was born, and my oldest turned four, we began finding ourselves a bit busier than before. Being proactive in protecting our sacred time together as a family, we knew it was necessary to designate a family night every single week.
The value of having family nights is mostly in the prioritizing of your family’s connection. Implementing family night on purpose and being unwilling to allow anything to intrude on that time. Your children can see the worth and regard you place on your family.
As a result, your children can experience and understand that your family is something special. They sense that being a part of your family is an extraordinary place to be. And they feel a sense of belonging. Children deeply desire to belong. We all do.
Prioritizing family nights as often as possible teach your children that your family is important and that you will do what’s necessary to invest in it!
Including Toddlers in Family Game Night
Though we waited until our oldest was 4-years-old to begin family game night, looking back, I wish we’d have started sooner.
The truth of intentional parenting and child training is that the earlier you begin developing good habits within your children, the more likely they are to stick and the more positive of a family culture you’ll create.
We’ll chat about specific examples of how to have family nights with a baby, toddler, or preschooler. First, let me give you just a quick rundown of the theme you’ll see woven throughout the examples below.
- It’s ok to change (or break) the rules.
Feel free to play any child-appropriate game that you would with school-aged children when having family game night with toddlers. The rest of the family can play by the rules, while the youngest participants can simply participate.
Likewise, you can change the rules of any game altogether to include your toddler or preschooler.
- It’s ok to make it up as you go.
If you changed the rules of a card game for the toddler and he thwarts a game by giving away someone’s cards, just roll with it. Change out the cards for a new hand. It’s ok. Competition is good, but family bonds are better.
- Improv to the max.
When you are playing an intense game of monopoly and your toddler’s contribution is to put on an improv play about batman, give him a round of applause. Or, better yet, buy your way into the play with some monopoly money!
- Let the little ones win.
In the really early years, you’ll train your child to look forward to family game night by offering a lot of praise. It doesn’t really matter what you’re praising for, just encourage your toddler’s participation.
As your baby, toddler, or preschooler gets older, you can teach him actual rules and introduce competition. However, you won’t be able to do that if he doesn’t want to play in the first place, because he doesn’t know what applause or winning feels like.
- Give the freedom to wiggle.
Allow your youngest family game night participants the freedom to move, wiggle, and giggle! Family game night is suppose to be fun! The first four years of a child’s life are full of SO much development, it’s actually necessary or him to move, as much as he does, for proper growth.
Family game night is not the time to practice self-control or work on child training other parenting endeavors. It’s about connection. It’s ok to implement boundaries, but for the most part, allow the atmosphere to be carefree.
5 Family Game Night with Toddlers Examples
I’m going to give you a handful of examples for how to have family game night with toddlers using non-toddler games. What I want you to see here is how we use the 5 principles above to keep things fun and engaging for EVERYONE without making it all about the babies.
1. Headbandz with a toddler twist.
Headbandz is one of our favorite family game night activities. This game has every element that we enjoy.
Comedy ✅ We all look silly with a card strapped on our foreheads.
Mental challenge ✅ Question and answer strategy is necessary to solve your card.
Just the right pace ✅ This game takes just the right amount of time to play. It doesn’t go too fast, but it doesn’t drag on forever either.
Modify it for your toddler by allowing him to wear a headband too (if he wants), and when it’s his turn, he can simply look at his card and shout the object in the picture. Then, swap out his card for another one and repeat.
You’ll need to teach your toddler the importance of not saying what that object on anyone else’s card is. I have found that if a child is young enough not to possess the self-control to keep other player’s card’s a secret, he’s probably not verbal enough yet to ruin the game. Once he possesses the verbal skills actually to give away the objects, he has enough self-control capability to be told not to, and understand what you mean.
2. Charades, aka toddler free for all!
We LOVE to play charades! Although I do not love coming up with the charades ideas. So I buy pre-made charades cards like these or these.
Anyway, charades are one of my family game night with toddlers favorites because it is hilarious!
The rest of us can all play charades exactly as intended, and our preschooler can simply dance around like a wild child for 90 seconds while we shout guesses as to what/who he is.
At the end of which he proudly says, “Nope, you’re all wrong, I was Batman riding on a dolphin during a tornado!”
Now THAT is a good time!
3. Clue and the toddler did it in the living room with a banana.
Another one of our family favorites for game night is Clue! Figuring out how to play this one with a toddler was a little tricky at first. I asked myself this question, “What does the toddler truly want out of this experience?”
The answer was simple. He just wanted to be included.
To play Clue on family game night with toddlers, give the little one a clue card (not a character, weapon, or location), but an alibi card or something, let him roll on his turn, ask him who he thinks the bad guy is, then tell him he has to wait until the game is over to find out if he was right.
Let him do this each time it’s his turn. It’s not super important that you remember what he said because he won’t remember either. What IS super important is that he feels included and belongs.
4. Go Fish and catch some learning!
Another activity I think your family will enjoy is playing a simple card game such as Go Fish. Go Fish decks come in numbers, letters, objects, etc.
To play with your youngest family members, you can choose to get a deck of cards geared toward little ones and play by the rules as best as you can.
Or you can use a regular deck and walk your toddler and preschooler through how to match his cards.
I like this because of the educational aspects the game provides. While the tiniest of participants may only be able to hold some cards and yell “Go Fish” from time to time (which is completely acceptable), 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s can actually look for letters, numbers, or objects that are the same.
Help them along, and keep it fun. Put an adult in charge of helping the toddler look for a card when another player asks for it. Yes, you’ll know what’s in your toddler’s hand, but you can be fair, right!?
5. Freeze Dance the night away.
The game is supposed to be played by turning the radio on, designating one person in charge of the volume, dancing until the music stops, then freezing. The last one to stop once the music stops is out.
But… freeze dance is fun because you can throw all the rules out the window and just dance with your children.
Rarely do we actually make the children sit “out.” We just dance and stop. Dance and stop. Dance and stop.
There’s no end to the ways you can adjust and tweak your family game night with toddlers to make it a family-first bonding experience that everyone will enjoy.
I provided you with 5 examples of how to tweak regular games to include your toddler, and my hope is that you can see the theme woven through all of them.
Adjust, break (or remake) the rules if necessary, tweak, modify, and take the liberty to make your family nights what they need to be for every family member to look forward to them!
Family Nights are a Purposeful Parenting Must
Finally, in this day and age, it’s intensely important to make your family a priority. That means clearing the schedule to put family bonding activities on there before anything else. It can’t be an afterthought.
We use the Faithful Family Planner to schedule family nights before anything else.
We have a family night every Friday evening, barring unforeseen circumstances that make it impossible.
When it comes to tethering your children to you and building family bonds, quality does not supersede quantity. It’s important to have nights like this regularly.
Begin having family game nights now, regardless of how old your children are. The sooner, the better. Good habits are created by repeated implementation over a long period of time.
You can have a family game night with toddlers that doesn’t have to be full of baby games. Inclusion and belonging are what your child is longing for. Those things are easy to provide when you cultivate and nurture an environment of togetherness and positive family culture!