Darkness and winter cold settling in can be a recipe for cabin fever. Rather than turning on screens, why not pull out a board game? Even when they aren't specifically “educational,” many board games can exercise particular skills—in a way that's so entertaining kids won't even realize they're learning!

I have too many favorite games to cover in one post (I often say that playing games is my love language), so here is “Part 1,” a selection of 10+ games that are especially popular with my younger children (ages 4 and 10).

Note: Some of these are not actually played on a board. I use this title primarily to distinguish them from video games and standard card games. Also, we do not always follow the recommended age or number of players. Use trial and error, and figure out what works for your family!

Zingo (ages 4+, 2–6 players, 10 min)

My youngest has loved Zingo since he was probably 2! It contains small boards with 9 spaces, each displaying pictures of everyday objects. A simple dispenser releases two chips at a time, which players race to grab and match with the spaces on their boards (or, don't race and let the little one win). Educational benefits: matching, item recognition. One particular version of the game is great for number skills!

Headbanz (ages 6+, 2–6 players, 20 min)

In Headbandz, players each place a plastic band around their head, which then holds a card picturing an everyday object. Everyone can see each other’s cards, but not their own. To play the game properly, players take turns asking questions about their item until they guess it. To make it preschool-friendly, however, we take turns describing the items to one another instead. (My youngest is surprisingly good with his powers of description!) Benefits: logical reasoning, language/description skills.

Sleeping Queens (ages 8+, 2–5 players, 20 min)

Technically a card game, Sleeping Queens enthralls my youngest with silly pictures of queens that can be “awakened” by cards in the playing deck. Players can gain advantages with special cards such as sleeping potions, dragons, and knights. Addition skills are also utilized with the less-important numbered cards. (We help the preschooler here.) Benefits: critical thinking, math skills.

Farkle (ages 8+, 2+ players, 15 min)

This is perhaps the only game on this list that doesn't require a special set, only a set of rules and 6 dice. Take turns rolling for combinations of points, scoring as high as you dare. If you cast a non-scoring roll, however, you will lose all the points you've earned. Younger kids may need help with the odds and math involved, but they should enjoy tossing the dice! Benefits: learning about chance/odds, math skills.

Bonus recommendation of a similar game: Pass the Pigs, played by tossing tiny rubber pigs instead of dice (scoring based on landing position). Cute and unique!

Shut the Box (ages 6+, 2–4 players, 15 min)

I introduced this game from my childhood to my older son a couple of years ago. A wooden box has numbered flaps on the edges that can be put into “open” or “shut” positions. Roll two dice, and players must choose to shut one or more of the flaps that add up to the number rolled. The first player to “shut the box” wins. Benefits: math skills (particularly addition).

Blokus (ages 7+, 2–4 players, 30 min)

Blokus looks and works a bit like Tetris on a board. The challenge: you can't let your own pieces touch except at the very corners. Benefits: spatial awareness, critical thinking.

Shifting Stones (ages 8+, 1–5 players, 20 min)

Shifting Stones uses large cardboard tiles (“stones”) with an image on each side. Players must take turns swapping the positions/sides of the tiles to make a pattern that matches a card in their hand. The tricky part, of course, is that you are working against your opponents who are also trying to match the cards in their hands. Benefits: critical thinking, logical reasoning.

Pandemic (ages 8+, 2–4 players, 45 min)

A favorite of ours since before COVID-19! Challenging enough for adults but still approachable for elementary schoolers, this strategy game is one of my older son's favorites. It is cooperative, meaning that players are working together against the game itself. The mission: save the world from being overwhelmed by disease. Players must coordinate their movements and use their special abilities to prevent the spread of 4 diseases while working to find “cures.” The game can be played at varying levels of difficulty, depending on the age and ambition of the players. Benefits: critical thinking, logic/planning, social skills (cooperation), world geography.

Forbidden Island/Desert/Sky (ages 10+, 2–4 or 5 players, 30-60 min)

This description applies to three separate games in the same series. While having different themes, they are similar in overall concept. Like pandemic, they are cooperative games—a positive for children who can tend to get stressed by competition. As an explorer in an inhospitable environment (island, desert, or sky), you must survive long enough to complete your exploration and escape. Benefits: critical thinking, logic/planning, social skills (cooperation).

Forbidden Jungle was recently added to this series, but we have yet to try it!

Just One (ages 8+, 3–7 players, 20 min)

If strategy games aren't your thing, this cooperative family game might be a good fit. One player at a time selects a card with a word that only the rest of the group can see. These players each write one word that they think will give a clue to help the selected player guess the mystery word. But be careful: if any players write the same word, it cannot be used as a clue! This game is a favorite for the whole family. Benefits: vocabulary, social skills (cooperation, understanding how others think).


I hope one of these games piques your family’s interest and can be added to your game night repertoire! And if these games don't suit your fancy, I encourage you to pull out one of your old favorites and engage in some enjoyable brain exercise! I'm certain that the many board games I played as a child were excellent for honing my mental skills, and I'm hopeful the same will be true for my children.