Playing board games with your child is great. There are a ton of skills kids can develop from playing board games. And it can be fun and a great bonding experience. But how should you, the adult, play the game? Do you let your child “cheat” so they win or do you play by the rules and try to win, yourself? It really depends on their age and maturity. Focusing on what is developmentally appropriate, I’ve actually done both.


Three-year-olds are just starting to develop the most basic skills needed to play a board or card game. A great first game is Candy Land. The rules are simple and there is no reading. The child just needs to be able to match colors and grasp the concept of moving from the starting line to the end of the board to be able to play.

I’ll tell you a little secret. I hate playing Candy Land. And it was the first game all of my kids learned to play.  However, I disliked it so much I happily let my kids cheat so we could get the game done faster.  Why was this okay? Let me explain.

Cheating at Candy Land

When a preschooler first learns a game like Candy Land, they don’t really understand all the rules. The first step is learning that when you turn over a purple card, you move your gingerbread man to a purple square. Then you wait while the person you are playing with takes a turn.

When we first start playing games for the first time, I focus just on making sure my child understands the turn-taking and moving to the right color. Waiting to take a turn is often hard at this age and important to reinforce.

Often, my kids skipped the very next purple on the path and put their little man too many squares ahead. Did I correct them? No. I just moved my own pieces the “right” way on my turns. The best part of them moving faster was the game was over faster. Hooray! They got to see what happens when the game ends, they get to the castle!

I also often cheated with this game by stacking the deck. There are little cards that send you to certain squares on the board, like the Peppermint Forest. Drawing one of these cards when the game is almost over can make it take a lot longer by sending you backward on the path.  Instead, I would find those cards and either remove them or put them in the general order they appear on the board with just a few color cards between. This also could speed up the game if done correctly and it gave my child something else to look for on the board. Hunting for those unique squares among all the colors was another opportunity to strengthen their visual scanning skills.

Will they Always Cheat?

If you want your child to be able to play Candy Land with other kids, eventually you will need to introduce them to the actual rules. Around age 4, or after playing enough to get the hang of it, kids naturally notice those color squares they were jumping past. They notice you aren’t going as fast. You can gently explain if they are still trying to move too many spaces.

Cheating as a preschooler in no way has to do with a desire to be a cheater, but it can be related to emotional maturity. It can also be a sign you made too big a deal of being a “winner.”

At age 3-5 many kids don’t have the maturity needed for winning and losing. They think that if they win, they are a winner, and if they lose they themselves are a loser. This is why they get overly upset about losing. They think it reflects poorly on them and their character. They don’t understand that the game is just a game. Playing cooperative games at this age is ideal so that kids can all win or lose together. It softens the losses to see that everyone lost together.

Once they really understand the rules and are okay with losing, most kids don’t even want to cheat at games. It was just the result of being so young.

Changing the Game

By age six or seven, your child should be mature enough to now win or lose with grace and play games that take some planning or skill. So now you can introduce more complex games. Be sure you demonstrate winning and losing with grace, so your child can mimic your behavior. This means you should both win and lose when playing with your child. Remember, no one wants to lose all the time, so you may need to occasionally throw a match.

Remember to focus on why you are playing with your child. Do you want them to learn the skills the game has? Then you may want to let them win at that math game you are playing. They are more likely to play again if they win often. With certain educational board games, my kids win about two-thirds of the time. I find that is the right ratio to make them want to play but not think I am letting them win. The value of the game is more important than winning or losing, so I focus on that.

Beating them Soundly

Sometimes, you may find you are teaching your child a game and you don’t want to let them win until they can actually beat you for real. Games of skills like chess or checkers may be ones you feel this way about. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having one game you play for real against your child. It isn’t healthy to beat them at every game every time, they won’t want to play with you if you do. But making it clear that when you play chess you won’t be easy to beat, is fine.

For my family, the game I made them learn to actually beat me at is called Gobblet Gobblers. It’s a tic-tac-toe game, but the game pieces can sit on top of other pieces, making the game much more complex. It is a tricky game of skill but also plays pretty quickly. We could play many rounds in just half an hour. It takes reasoning and logic, and I knew that my child would keep playing until she was better than me. The lesson of persistence was the one I chose to teach her with that game. Eventually, we came to be pretty evenly matched so this game was actually fun for both of us.

Family Game Night

If you are trying to play games with a range of ages, be sure your older kids are on board for finding a way that is fair for everyone to play. Focus on having fun and choose games that are low stress or based more on luck than skill. Games like Hungry Hungry Hippos, for example, are fun for all ages. You may also want to pair a younger player with an older one to be fairer in games requiring skill.

Whatever you do, remember that you want your kids to grow up able to play games with friends and family. What you teach them now is critical for how they enjoy games in the future.

P.S. Here are the links to the card games I’ve recommended today.

Candy Land

by Hasbro

Gobblet Gobblers

by Blue Orange Games

About the Author

Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

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