The Littlest Players: Games for You and Your Toddler

Reading Time: 9 minutes
Photograph by Sara Blackburn

If you’re a board gaming parent like me, probably at least .001% of the reason you had kids was to make it easier to play your favorite games at player counts higher than two. Coordinating schedules with other adults is tough. Your kids are a captive gaming group.

But when you brought home that little lump of joy, you might have realized there was a flaw in this plan somewhere—it’s going to be a while before they’re ready for Candyland, much less Terraforming Mars. If you’re daunted by the seemingly endless no-man’s-land between peekaboo and Hi Ho! Cherry-O, I have good news: there’s an increasingly rich selection of games designed just for tots and toddlers, and I’ve put many of them to the test with my guinea pig—ahem, that is, my child. Highlighted here are four we’ve enjoyed.

As with games for preschoolers and school-age kids, games for the little ones combine guided play with age-appropriate educational tools. Through fun, active, and silly play, these games can introduce your toddlers to basic game mechanics, familiarize them with taking turns or cooperating to complete a task, and reinforce basic skills like matching, early counting, playacting, and motor skills. Best of all, though, is the opportunity for tots and their loved ones to do something together and share some belly laughs.

Roll & Play

When I sent out a plea on Facebook asking my fellow gamer parents to recommend beginner games, one that intrigued me most was ThinkFun’s Roll & Play, because the minimum age to play is 18 months, lower than most any other game I’ve ever seen. It’s for 2 or more players, and retails for $19.99. The object is to get caretakers and little ones playing together, and to teach and practice basic skills.

Photograph by Sara Blackburn

Game Play

The game comes with:

  • 1 large plush cube, each of its six sides a different color (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple)
  • 48 cards, 8 for each color category—the color is shown on the backs of the cards, as well as on the border of the card fronts.

To play, either you or your child rolls (or throws) the die, and you identify the color that was rolled. Then you find the card pile for the corresponding color, and choose one. Perform the action designated on the card together, and have fun!

The die is big and soft, fun and safe to toss around. The cards are bright with adorable little drawings to illustrate the actions. Each color category emphasizes a different kind of skill. Red cards are actions your child might perform in everyday life, like waving bye-bye or blowing a kiss. Orange cards combine counting and bodily movement with tasks such as spinning around twice or stomping six times. Yellow cards encourage you to emote and playact through actions like making a surprised face or laughing. Blue cards are all about color, and instruct you to find an object that’s a certain color. Green cards ask you to make different animal noises, such as roaring like a lion or neighing like a horse. Finally, purple cards suggest actions involving body parts, like rubbing your belly or touching your toes.

Photograph by Sara Blackburn

At 18 months, your child may not be able to perform some of the game mechanics or actions on their own, and that’s to be expected. When we first began playing my child loved tossing the die, and with some urging could (sometimes) identify the color rolled. Matching that color to one of the card decks was either beyond him or uninteresting to him at first, so I would find the deck and choose an action. Some actions he could perform readily, either with me pointing him in the right direction or by him imitating me—for instance, he was an ace at making the noise of the animal pictured, or at spinning in a circle (though he wouldn’t stop at just 2 spins). Other actions took longer for him to get, like making emotive faces or identifying objects of a particular color.

Why We Love It

My son loves playing with the big die and showing off to me all the things he knows. I love that every turn provides an opportunity for tots to proudly display skills they’ve gained, practice skills they’re still working on, do something together with you, or see and learn from your example. I also appreciate that the actions promote many different skills and areas of knowledge, ranging from color identification to physical movement. Particularly interesting to me were the yellow actions that ask you to make a face. It’s a great mechanism to encourage social awareness and understanding the emotions of others, an integral skill to foster at an age when children are gaining an increased sense of self/other and are beginning to be able to empathize. The play structure also teaches very basic gaming mechanics: rolling a die, checking the result, and matching that result to an action to be performed. With its simple mechanics and rich learning opportunities, Roll & Play has a lot to recommend it as an early game for your child.

Additionally…

If this game sounds like it’d float your rubber ducky, ThinkFun also makes a similar game called Move and Groove. It’s basically identical in its components and mechanics, but the action cards focus specifically on energetic and silly movements like skipping around the room, hopping like a kangaroo, or doing the funky chicken. We haven’t played Move & Groove, but if there’s anything in this world I can endorse, it’s doing the funky chicken while your kids are still young enough to think it’s hysterical.

My First Game: Petting Zoo

My First Game: Petting Zoo is a game designed to promote the skills of following 3-step instructions and tactile matching. It’s for 2 players age 2 and older, and retails for $21.99.

Photograph by Sara Blackburn

Game Play

The game comes with:

  • 1 plastic barn with a large hole covered by flaps on one side
  • 6 flat textured farm animals (cow, sheep, pig, rabbit, snake, and frog)
  • 1 spinner with 8 sections (6 are textured to correspond to the animals, 2 are special areas that will be explained later)

The red plastic barn is nice and sturdy, big enough so both little and adult hands can access the inside. The designers did a nice job finding distinct textures for the animals, as well. The cow feels a bit leathery, the pig satiny. Both the sheep and rabbit are soft and fuzzy, but the sheep’s texture is distinctly thicker. The frog is bumpy, and the snake covered with a mesh to simulate scales. They all look different, too, so if your tot cannot match only by feel just yet, they’d be able to do it visually.

To start, place all the farm animals inside the barn. Players then take turns spinning the arrow, feeling the texture of the space it lands on, and reaching inside the barn to find the matching animal. The spinner also has two special areas with different instructions. If the spinner lands on the section showing an apple and carrot, it’s Animal Feeding Time and that player skips a turn. The space showing a question mark is a wild space, and the player can pick any animal. The instructions also suggest adding some other fun elements as your child is able, such as making noises or movements like the animals, or having one player give a clue or riddle as to which animal the other player should find (i.e. “I like to eat flies and say ‘ribbit!’”).

Photograph by Sara Blackburn

Why We Love It

My First Game: Petting Zoo brings a fresh and really cool angle on the matching mechanism for toddlers. I’ve seen many toys about matching colors, shapes, or pictures, but far fewer about matching by texture–and this is the first matching game I’ve encountered with thematic play and mechanics more elaborate than just laying out swatches and matching them. I worried the mechanics would be a little beyond my son, but he actually picked up quickly that the animals matched spaces on the spinner, and that he was to reach into the barn to try to find the chosen animal. He doesn’t have the patience to play this way for long (nor the skill to find the matching animal all that often yet), but he loves to take the animals out and stuff them back in the barn, out and in, out and in . . . and when he’s holding the animals he does enjoy comparing them to the spinner (which is easier, since he can match visually). Even aside from their use in the game, the barn and animals make for a fun toy.

Monkey Around

Monkey Around is a game for 2 or more players age 2 and older, and it retails for $17.97. The name of the game says it all: the object is to get up, get moving, perform actions, and be silly together. Nobody wins or loses, but the game does have a defined end point, thus introducing your little one to the concept of finite gameplay.

Photograph by Sara Blackburn

Game Play

Inside the box you’ll find:

  • 1 playing board
  • 1 beanbag banana
  • 40 Monkey Around cards

The playing board is in the shape of a tree, charmingly illustrated with two monkeys and a bunch of bananas. On the leaves are five empty spaces where completed Monkey Around cards will be placed throughout the game. The Monkey Around cards are circular and made of sturdy cardboard, each with a little illustration accompanying a mission that is to be performed either Solo or Together, often involving the beanbag banana. Solo tasks include things like balancing the banana on your head or stomping your feet. Tasks to be completed Together are things like being a seesaw or passing the banana through your legs to your partner.

To begin, lay out the playing board and place the banana within reach of all players. Shuffle the Monkey Around cards and place them in a pile face-down. Players then take turns selecting a Monkey Around card, performing the task either Solo or Together with another player, and placing the completed card on the board. Once the five empty card spaces are full, the game ends.

Photograph by Sara Blackburn

Why We Love It

As it turns out, bananas are objectively hilarious. Nothing makes my child laugh more heartily than when I place the banana on my head and act bemused about having a banana on my head, which is generally not a resting place for bananas. Monkey Around provides ample opportunity to ham it up and giggle together, and it’s also an active game that keeps participants moving (so, the side benefits are that laughter naturally releases melatonin and movement tires kids out—the problem may be that these things can make parents sleepy too!). The structure of the game helps kids learn to take turns and to view games as having an arc with a beginning, middle, and end (as my son says, “All done!”). Understanding that a game is finished helps children celebrate starting and completing a task together, and is also good preparation for competitive games where there’s a limited window in which you will win or lose.

Tidy Up!

Tidy Up! is one of the newest games in HABA’s My Very First Game line, known most famously for First Orchard among many others. But I couldn’t resist checking out Tidy Up! on the name alone, the key word being Tidy. THAT is a life skill I would very much like my toddler to learn. This game is for 1-3 players age 2 and older, and helps develop object recognition and sorting, along with other basics like motor skills and coordination. It retails for $15.99.

Photograph by Sara Blackburn

Game Play

Inside the box you’ll find:

  • 1 game shelf to be assembled inside the box
  • 1 wood Tomcat Tiptop figure
  • 18 toy tiles (6 each of building blocks, vehicles, and stuffed animals)
  • 3 toy chest tiles

When the game shelf is assembled, you will have a box with three main interior sections. Laid on top is a “door” displaying the three types of toys—building blocks, vehicles, and stuffed animals—each with its own tile hole. The toy tiles and toy chests are made from robust cardboard, and adorably illustrated with toys such as a stuffed giraffe, building block archway, or truck.

The story of the game is that Tomcat Tiptop has been playing in his room, and now his toys are strewn hither and yon. He needs your help to figure out which toys go together and where they should be put away. To begin, set up the game shelf with Tomcat Tiptop alongside, and lay out some or all of the toy tiles (for younger or less experienced players, the instructions recommend starting with just a couple tiles from each category). Depending on your child’s abilities, guide them to identify what kind of toy is pictured on each tile, and how and where each tile ought to be put away. As their skills advance, you can add layers of difficulty like starting with the tiles face-down. The game ends when all tiles have been tidied up!

The instruction manual also outlines a couple other modes of play, including a competitive game, a matching game, and a lottery variation in which 1-3 players can each select a toy chest tile, which specifies a certain type of toy—then they can try to find all the toy tiles in that category only.

Photograph by Sara Blackburn

Why We Love It

As Mary Poppins says, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun,” and I am willing to sell my child on that falsehood if it means I can stop calling myself Cinderella. In all seriousness, it’s easy for us parents to fall into the trap of cleaning up too much after our tots, because for so long they couldn’t clean up themselves, and then it’s just so much easier and faster to do it yourself. If you’re guilty of this (raising hand), Tidy Up! is a wonderful, playful way to introduce your toddler to putting things away, while also reinforcing their growing skills in identifying and classifying objects. With my child, I found I had to start with just one tile at a time, holding it up so we could talk about the picture, and about where it might go—if I laid several tiles out, he just wanted to put them in the slots without even looking at them (because putting small things inside a big thing is very satisfying). He’s still a little young to be making the connections about categorization, but older 2-year-olds I borrowed (with permission from friends!) got the gist better. With them, I also saw how the game can serve as a transition to encourage the child to clean up their actual toys. “Wow, you did a good job putting Tiptop’s truck with his other vehicles. Do you have a truck? Where does your truck go?” All in all, Tidy Up! is a clever little game to harness the helper in your child.

And One Last Thing: Playing With Tots

The games outlined here have loose rules and goals, but all are also flexible and easy to tailor to your child’s abilities and stage of development. Toddlers are curious and funny and fun-loving, and sometimes they don’t need no stinkin’ rules. Always remember that, for them, the best part is the joy of playing and being with you!


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Disclosure: GeekDad received copies of My First Game: Petting Zoo and Tidy Up! for review purposes. Roll & Play and Monkey Around came from the author’s own collection.

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