Before I had kids, I thought three years was the perfect age difference between siblings: it gave child #1 a chance to be the baby for a good long while, to be potty trained and to be comfortable sleeping in a bed (so I wouldn’t have to buy two cribs). It seemed a long enough time to make life easier for me, but not so long that the kids would have different childhoods or be unable to play together.
I ended up having two children three years and five months apart. While I did appreciate not having to buy two cribs and the fact that Molly (child #1) was potty trained by the time Frankie (#2) came along, I misjudged how big an age difference three years and change is when you’re dealing with little kids.
Now they’re 4-and-a-half and 8, and it’s getting easier to find things to do together, but it’s been a lot of trial and error. For example, I couldn’t wait to go roller skating as a family. Molly, at 7-and-a-half, loved it instantly, while Frankie, newly 4, got so frustrated, he eventually sat down in the middle of the rink and had a screaming tantrum, trying to pry the skates from his little feet.
Then there was the time Frankie was finally old enough to play and enjoy Candy Land. Molly, a big 6-year-old, balked at the suggestion that we all play together, considering herself way above that “baby game.”
Thankfully, we’ve been able to find a few games that meet the needs of both kids. If you’re eager to get family game night started, try one of these crowd-pleasers, which have become my family’s favorites:
This was the first game we found success with. You spread out on the floor a bunch of differently colored and shaped pads with pictures of kid-friendly things. A battery-operated console calls out the directions (“Slither to a pad with an animal!”), then announces the pad with the winner. There’s enough physical comedy and suspense to keep Molly interested, and it’s just right for Frankie. One potential pitfall: the winner gets to take a bow or do a funky dance, but Frankie started taking a bow/dancing when Molly won, which, of course, sent her howling. So we added the rule that anyone who bows/dances during someone else’s turn has to sit out the next round in his room (how surprising that the manufacturer didn’t have that in the directions!).
There are different editions, but ours comes with dice featuring members of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse gang.
Headbanz and Kids on Stage
Headbanz is a 20 Questions-inspired game, and Kids on Stage is a version of charades. They both take imagination and come with pictures of things a 4-year-old will know.
Star Wars Trouble
I was sure Frankie was too young for this (it’s labeled for 5+), but once he saw Anakin and friends on the box, he wanted to play like nobody’s business. With a little coaching and leeway, he loved it. He relished deciding which character he was going to take out, bring home, etc. Much as I hate to admit it, it goes to show that game manufacturers know what they’re doing when they use familiar characters instead of plain old game pieces!
Highlights Clubs: Top Secret Adventures.
While this isn’t a game like the others that you can buy in the store, it fulfills the same objective (i.e., killing time together in as pleasant a way as possible). Every month to three months, you get a kit in the mail that includes a book on a foreign country along with clues to solving a mystery that takes place there. Your older child (aged 7-12) can do the research, and your younger one can help use the clues to narrow down the suspects (for example, ask him to find the suspect who wears glasses). From the publishers of the famed children’s magazine Highlights, it’s “fun with a purpose.” You can order your first kit for free, cancel at any time, and order just one every three months, which has the added benefit of creating intense anticipation (I’ve even been known to keep a kit in the mailbox until a rainy Saturday).
Another tip when playing with differently aged young kids: Play teams when possible, and, if playing a game where the younger one’s going to need some leeway, try making your older one feel “in on it” with the adults, rather than like the kid who’s getting the short end of the stick.