The advertisement is one of those upbeat, slice-of-life mini-dramas: A mom is happily filling her discount store cart with board games we remember from childhood. Another mom reaches for a different game on the shelf. “Wednesday night?” says one. “No, Thursdays,” says the other. They both smile and head for the cashier. Cut to a scene later that evening when one of those moms is shaking the dice, her kids’ eyes riveted on the board game in front of them; a bowl of popcorn strategically placed nearby. Everyone is having a great time! The voice-over celebrates Family Game Night as this year’s big thing.

Games manufacturers–whose sales for years lagged way behind electronic devices, video games, and computer virtual realities–have spotted opportunity in the economic downturn (or barely upturn). They know that families that can’t spend big bucks this holiday season can usually manage the price of a board game or two or a deck of cards and some poker chips. Although intended to increase sales, the Family Game Night promotions have produced an unintended but quite wonderful consequence. The ubiquitous ads are normalizing family time as a national pastime again. It may have taken an economic crisis to do it but, hey, I’ll take it. Sometimes the worst of times does breed some good times after all.

It’s not news that getting the family together regularly to share some fun is a good idea. It’s also not news that it’s hard to fight the pull of the ever-present screens in kids’ lives and their ever-present need to be connected. What is new is the unlikely ally of Madison Avenue ad execs. Finally, we parents are getting some support for family time. Important lessons are a natural part of family games.

Why Family Game Night Is Important

  • Game nights connect family members to each other. We are living in a time of increasingly individual and solitary activity, with each member of the family going his own way to pursue individual interests. As electronics have become cheaper, it’s no longer unusual for children to have their own TVs or computers. With on-demand TV, families no longer even have to watch the same shows at the same time. An hour or so a week of family time playing together helps reconnect everyone.
  • Games teach important life skills. To win a game, one has to follow the directions, take turns, be patient, and stay friendly with the others around the table. Many games require us to strategize, to read others’ nonverbal cues, and to learn from our own errors. Regular game nights give kids practice in these essential skills and provide immediate feedback about what works and what doesn’t.
  • Games teach good sportsmanship. Kids aren’t born good sports. They tend to gloat when they win and whine when they lose. Most kids try out cheating at least once. Games provide opportunities for kids to learn that honest winning feels better and makes better relationships than cheating. They provide a forum for teaching children how to be gracious winners and good losers.
  • Playing together fosters family communication. As kids get older, the in-between times become the times when the most important conversations occur. Kids are more likely to share their thoughts and feelings when they are doing something else. The times between turns, between hands of cards, between games are fertile ground for casual sharing of sometimes not-so-casual information.
  • Family game nights are the stuff of positive memories. Families that can have fun together on a regular basis create an emotional “bank” of good memories and positive feelings that can be drawn on when times are hard or when family members are apart.

Getting Started

Start them young if you can. Anything you do early and often becomes part of children’s expectations of the way life should be. There are plenty of preschool friendly games that are still fun for the adults.

Too late to start young? Start anyway! Involve your kids in choosing and purchasing a few games and a deck of cards. When kids are involved in choices, they are more invested in trying things out.

  • Set a regular day and time. If you can’t do it every week, try every other. Mark it on your family calendar. Don’t let other activities interfere. Even if everyone can’t participate, play with those who can. Making family time a priority communicates that the family is important.
  • Eliminate distractions. Put a circle of specialness around the hour or so of game night. Turn off the TV. Let your answering machine answer the phone. Ban cell phones from the room. (There are few calls, texts, and tweets that can’t wait an hour to be answered.)
  • Make sure everyone can play. Choose games that are suitable for everyone in the group. If you have a multi-age family, pair up younger kids with older ones; give little kids a role; alternate an easy game with a harder one.
  • Keep it fun! If you’re not naturally a person who loves games, focus on the fact that you love your family and get into the spirit of the thing.
  • Get the adults to curb their own competitiveness if it gets in the way of fun. There is more going on in family game night than winning and losing. Family Game Night should be a time that everyone enjoys now and will remember warmly in the future.


A brief Internet search yielded this sampling of helpful websites. Listing them here in no way is an endorsement by Psych Central.

A site that describes the rules for old favorites like “Go Fish,” “Old Maid,” “Go Fish” and “War”

Central resource for board games

Suggestions for games that teach thinking skills to kids

A list of top ten games for family gatherings

A site that rates games