Once a Pawn a Time

I’ve heard of chess prodigies as young as 6 and have played chess against 6- and 7-year-olds who knew what they were doing and were even able to beat me (although I’m not a great player). So I was eager to introduce chess to our oldest at that age. Once a Pawn a Time was a gift that arrived at the right time, when I was considering buying a set anyway.

The game includes a standard board and pieces as well as two books that explain the rules in a fun, kid-friendly way, by anthropomorphizing the pieces and by introducing the rules slowly, one-at-a-time. I’ve seen kids get overwhelmed by the number of rules and the amount of abstract thinking that chess requires, so this method of explanation seemed good to me. Our older kids took to it right away, choosing to read the books and learn the rules even when the board and pieces were not at hand. And they talked incessantly about chess for many days after.

It turns out that our kids are not quite as precocious as I had assumed they would be and the rules took a while to sink in, and I still have to sometimes remind them of certain details (en passant in particular) but other aspects seem very easy to them, such as visualizing which squares the knights are attacking. All kids are different of course.

We use the board and pieces for lots of inventive play – playing checkers using nickels and pennies, or adding extra pieces such as Star Wars figures or Hot Wheels cars to the board and giving them special abilities. Chess can seem dour and serious, but it can also be lighthearted and silly.

Many months later, we don’t read the Once a Pawn a Time books anymore but we still pull the board and pieces out every other week or so. We keep it on a shelf in the living room, so it benefits from high visibility. I love that we can sometimes take 15 minutes to play a quick game in the morning when there’s time between breakfast and catching the bus.

Even if you don’t buy this particular one, get a chess set if you don’t have one. I feel every home with kids ought to have a chess set. It’s one of those obligatory possessions along with a copy of Goodnight Moon or a teddy bear.

Count Your Chickens

Peaceable Kingdom has something of a corner on the market for ‘cooperative games’. These are games where everyone playing either wins together or loses together. There are no individual winners or losers.

I had a conversation with a friend a while ago and he was saying how important playing sports was for kids. They learn teamwork, reliance on others, etc. I agreed but suggested that playing in a school orchestra or band can be just as good for teaching those concepts. And music has one advantage over sports in that performing is not about winning and losing, which is not how most situations work in life. Instead, everyone in a band contributes and the group’s success is determined by the participation of everyone. These Peaceable Kingdom games are meant to promote that idea. They have lots of similar board games with the same idea.

So, the cooperative game we got was ‘Count your Chickens’. Kids take turns moving chicks into the coop, and if all 20 make it in before mama hen gets home, everyone wins. Otherwise, everyone loses. We have one child who is particularly competitive, overly competitive, and we had hoped this game would offer an alternative to the zero-sum attitude. Whether it has or not, who knows. But everyone likes it regardless.

The pieces are pretty cheaply made – like a dollar’s worth of cardboard and ink – but the game was a hit and the kids continue pulling it out every now and then. The game is so simple, on the level of ‘Candy Land’, but also includes a counting component that makes the game educational even if you don’t care about the collaborative aspect.

Robot Turtles board game

This is a clever game that got a lot of media attention when it came out, touting its ability to teach STEM concepts, specifically logical thinking.

The box says for ages 4 and up but I don’t think 4-year-olds are able to grasp all the rules of the game, which are a bit complicated even for me. However, once we laid out all the pieces, we came up with all sorts of new games to play and had quite a lot of fun building ‘snow forts’ and taking turns trying to move the ‘lasers’ around in order to melt them.

My son got quite obsessed with the game in fact, even though we had yet to actually play it according to the official rules, and every day for about a week he wanted to play again, until he eventually got tired of it. It sits prominently on a shelf in the living room and we’ll get it down again soon. The reason we haven’t yet is because the rules are complex enough that an adult has to sit with the kids and walk them through each step.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! board game

This is based on a book by Mo Willems. None of us were familiar with his stuff until after we got the game, but that didn’t matter.

The box says it’s for ages 3 and up, but the rules are too complicated for our 3-year-old. However, the board and pieces lend themselves to making up new rules and we’ve been able to have fun playing the game even when skipping some of the rules.

The box also says for 2 to 4 players, but it’s not much fun with only 2 players. It’s much better with 4. So I wouldn’t advise this game if it’s just going to be, for example, one parent and one child playing.

The spinner is cheaply made and was sometimes frustrating to spin, but generally the look and feel of the board and pieces are very appealing to children and they wanted to play it as soon as they saw it, even without any understanding of what the rules were.