1. Mystery box. Cut two fist-sized holes into opposite sides of a cardboard box. On your side, put an object into the box (like a ball or a banana) and then have your child put her hand through the hole on her side and guess what she’s touching. “Preschool children tend to be more visual and this game helps them understand their sense of touch,” says Sallee Beneke, associate professor and director of the master’s program in early childhood education at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.
2. Hunt for shapes. To play this game, which builds both visual and attention skills, ask your child to walk around your house looking for circles. See who can find a variety of them like the biggest one, the smallest one, a red one, and so on. Move on to other shapes like squares and triangles.
3. Flipping nickels. Each player lines up five to 10 nickels that are face up and in a row. After someone says, “Go!” the first person to turn over all her nickels wins. The game-which isn’t for kids under age three as coins are a choking hazard-builds the finger strength and pincer grip needed for writing.
4. Name that theme. Name five related things and ask your child what they have in common. For example: refrigerator, oven, sink, dishes, and food. (Answer: things in the kitchen.) Take turns giving the clues and guessing. The game helps develop listening skills, the concept of categorization, and memory.
5. Point and jump. Challenge your child to jump from one spot to another in a certain number of steps-say, across the hall in three jumps or by using five pillows to get across the living room without touching the floor. The game boosts listening skills and helps kids practice counting.
6. Scout about. Both players close their eyes and one person chooses a location, such the jungle, Mars, or the bottom of the ocean. Then, both of you open your eyes and take turns saying what you see or feel and what you are doing. “This is ideal for the early morning when your child is awake but you’re not quite there yet,” says Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, director of Temple University’s Infant and Child Laboratory and author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Teaches Us about Raising Successful Kids. It builds skills that help with reading later on, like imagination, vocabulary, and narrative skills, Hirsh-Pasek says.
7.“What’s missing?” To play this memory game, start with four objects and put them on a tray. Let your child look at it for a minute, and then have him close his eyes. Remove one object. Tell him to open his eyes again and to determine what is missing. With each round, swap out some of the objects for different ones.
8. Roll the dice. Using the kind with dots (and not numerals), see who throws the highest number. “Playing with dice helps kids learn the number of dots without counting them,” Beneke says. “It’s an important math skill.” Another way to play: Draw one to six circles on index cards and shuffle the deck (or roll the dice). Have your child choose a card and then put down that many crayons, cars, or other small toys. “This version helps children understand that numbers represent a quantity and can correspond with objects,” Beneke says.
9. Sort it out. First, encourage your child to collect objects such as rocks, shells, or leaves-and ask her to help you sort them into big and small piles. Then ask her to sort them without telling you how, and when she’s done, try to guess what her process was. The game helps kids recognize patterns and develops pre-math skills.
10. Mixed-up nursery rhymes. To play this listening game, recite a nursery rhyme or song that your child knows, but change one of the lines and see if your child catches the error. For example: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great ball.” This one is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser if you belt out the lyrics to her favorite song and pretend that you don’t know that you’ve made a mistake.
Games with small pieces are not suitable for children under three.