Educational Games for Pre-Schoolers

Bus Stop Board

I started playing games with my son Noah as soon as he could talk coherently enough to form a sentence.  He is now 9 years old and I must have played hundreds of games with him over the years.  Today begins a short series focussed on games appropriate for children of various ages.

I think boardgames are tremendously educational for children – they learn so much.  The first entry in our series starts right at the beginning though.  What games can you realistically play with very young children?

As long as they understand what you’re saying and can communicate what they think, you can begin to play a whole range of games with them.  I probably played the games I’m recommending in this article with my son when he was about 3 years old.  Let’s look at games for pre-schoolers…

Early Development

Before we launch into game recommendations, I’d like to speak a little bit about those first couple of years, particularly the first 6 months.  I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time researching child development as part of my teaching job over the past 5 or 6 years and the results always surprise me.

If you want to get to a point where you can play Terra Mystica with your child as early as possible (which Noah could do confidently at about 7), then you need to put the work in when he’s young.  The first 6 months are the most critical for development.

The more you interact with them, the more their brain grows!

You need to engage enthusiastically with your child as much as possible.  Talk to them, play music and sing to them, play silly games (“Boo!”) with them and treat them as if they really understand what you’re saying.  The more you interact with them, the more their brain physically grows pathways!

This forms the foundation of all your other educational efforts.  One of your key early barriers to effective gaming though will be concentration span.  Like most things in life, this can be developed with practice.  Spend time trying to get your child to focus on one activity at a time.  This could be anything from learning to walk to reading a story.

Make an effort to re-engage them when they start to become distracted.  After a while, they will lose interest and want to do something else.  Try to retain their interest in the activity just a little bit longer when this happens.  Push them slightly.  When they start to become annoyed or irritable, then you can leave it.  Each time you do this, their attention span will grow ever so slightly.

Reading and Counting

Your single biggest barrier to playing games with children at this age is their inability to read.  To this end, I highly recommend you teach them to read as soon as they can concentrate for more than 10 minutes at a time.

This is most-effectively done with flashcards.  I’ve linked to the set that I used with my son, but any set designed to teach reading (well, phonics specifically) will do.  Follow the instructions carefully and it will gradually build up the number of letters that your child can read.

Learning to read obviously takes a lot of time, but if you persevere, it will rapidly accelerate their learning and allow you to play much more interesting boardgames much earlier.

Only slightly less important than reading is counting.  Any book on counting will do, but get your child to count everything and anything you come across.  Treat it like a game and do it with enthusiasm – your child will really enjoy this.

They will learn to count before they learn to read, but just keep building on these skills.  Introduce basic arithmetic once they can count and take every opportunity to add or subtract that you come across.

Why We Play Games

It is important to stress at this age, to the child, that the reason we play games is to have fun, not to win!  They will naturally get upset if they are losing.  I give no quarter here!  I would make it clear that we’re not going to play if we’re not having fun.  Their desire to play the game will usually override their desire to wallow in self-pity so taking this approach frequently changes their attitude immediately.

Emphasising this as soon as possible will make gaming with your child much more enjoyable for both of you for years to come.


They will learn much more in a year than you would expect.

You obviously need to set your sights fairly low at this point.  They’re not going to manage any boardgame that you will actually be interested in playing for a couple of years yet, but be patient!  They will learn less in a week than you would hope for, but they will learn much more in a year than you would expect.

There is actually a pretty decent boardgames market at this age.  Parents perceive boardgames as a good activity for children to be involved in so many parents will buy boardgames from high street shops that look appealing to their children.

Markets tend to be much more localised though.  The games for this age group that you are likely to see in US shops will often be completely different from the games you are likely to see in UK shops, for example.

This makes it difficult for me to make recommendations that you can buy locally (unless you live in the UK).  In all honesty though, I don’t think it makes a great deal of difference which games you buy.  Boardgame design isn’t stellar at this age: you’re just looking for an activity to prepare them for the much more interesting boardgames that you’ll be able to play with them later.

That being said, I think the Orchard Toys series of games are excellent.  Orchard Toys have expanded a lot in recent years (they now sell in over 50 countries), so you may be able to find them locally.  They are very easy to find in the UK though.  All my recommendations below are made by Orchard Toys.


The Orchard Toys series are all very colourful and engaging for children.  Some of their games are much better than others though, so I wouldn’t buy indiscriminately.  These are my recommendations in the order that you should introduce them.

Be aware that there are much more fun games that you can play with pre-schoolers than the ones I’m recommending here (eg. Loopin’ Louie).  However, they won’t learn very much playing those games.  These games are designed to teach them.  You may need to grin and bear it for some of these!

Bus StopBus Stop

In Bus Stop, each player takes a bus and travels around the board picking up and dropping off passengers.  It is a simple adding and subtracting game.  There is no strategy (like so many games in this age group unfortunately), but it is great for moving from counting to arithmetic.

Players want to have as many people on their bus as possible by the end (for some strange reason!) so you can encourage them to work out their new passenger total each time people get on or off the bus.  It slows down horribly with more than two players, so I would just play this with one child at a time.  Older children will find it incredibly dull in any case.

Pop to the ShopsPop to the Shops

Roll-and-move rears its ugly head again, but as the name suggests, Pop to the Shops is a shopping game that will teach your child how to handle money.  It is more advanced than Bus Stop as they will need to select the right coins to pay for items.

Each player is a given a shopping list (which teaches… contract fulfilment!) and they have to travel to the right shops to buy the right items.  A loaf of bread might cost 80p so the child would have to select a 50p coin and three 10p coins, for example.  They will find this tricky at first, but you can help them with the calculations until they get the hang of it.

Tell the TimeTell the Time

Telling the time is an important skill that is remarkably difficult to learn.  It will take time (if you pardon the pun) and effort on many occasions.  It combines reading with arithmetic and spatial awareness, and has a dizzying array of options for expressing any given time.

For these very reasons though, it is incredibly valuable educationally and it is well worth spending the time (sorry!) to do it properly.


I could have recommended many more of these games, but I suspect you get the gist at this point and will be quite capable of selecting appropriate games yourself for this age group.

Are there any games that you have played with your children that you would recommend (from an educational point of view!) for this age group?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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[…] the previous post, we looked at educational games for pre-schoolers.  Once your child can read reasonably confidently, it opens up a slew of new possibilities for […]

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