Cooperative board games for kids

© 2009 - 2014, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

In cooperative board games, players take turns, but everyone is on the same team, working together toward the same goal.

What are the advantages of such games?


A study of 70 preschoolers found that kids assigned to play Max (see below) and other cooperative games tended to show less aggression and more cooperation compared with kids assigned to play competitive games (Bay-Hinitz 1994).

That's consistent with observations of grade school children during cooperative versus competitive school tasks (Gelb and Jacobson 1988). It's also consistent with the results of an experiment on young adults, in which players who engaged in cooperative video games demonstrated more cooperative tendencies immediately afterwards (Ewoldsen et al 2012).

But it's not clear if cooperative games have a lasting impact on behavior, and a study of first graders reports that playing competitive board games had no negative effects on kids--not if kids attended schools where teachers encourage kids to cooperate and resolve their own peer conflicts (Zan and Hildebrandt 2005).

The real advantage, I think, is that cooperative board games are better suited to the abilities of young children.

Evidence that young children don't understand competitive games

When Beate Priewasser and her colleagues at the University of Saltzburg asked preschoolers to play a simple, competitive dice game (which I discuss here), many children failed to employ a key competitive tactic:

They didn't seize opportunities to impose penalties on other players.

Perhaps this failure merely reflects kids' reluctance to sabotage another person's efforts. After all, young children are often coached by adults to "be nice."

But kids often failed to impose penalties even after other players used this same tactic against them, and the lack of competitive behavior was linked with mental perspective-taking skills:The worse children were at perspective-taking, the less likely they were to use competitive tactics.

Kids tended to make the transition to competitive play around age 4, but only if they had showed signs of understanding that different people can have divergent, and even mistaken, views about the world.

The researchers infer that young children didn't really "get" competitive games because they had trouble understanding that they and their opponents were motivated by conflicting goals (Priewasser et al 2013).

If true, then its unlikely that any but the simplest competitive games--like games where players race each other to a finish line--are going to be understood by children under the age of 4. And that implies that some of the benefits of game-play--cognitive benefits that arise when players consider and discuss different tactics--might be lost on young children.

These problems are sidestepped when kids play cooperative board games. Children can have meaningful and stimulating discussions with their allies about how to reach a common goal.

But what do competitive board games look like? Here are two I've played myself.

Max: A cooperative game of consultation, decision-making, and natural selection (Family pastime games)

Ages 3 to 7. Excellent entry-level game; no reading or advanced counting skills required. Game pieces made from thin card stock.

In this cooperative board game, players work together against a common foe.

The enemy is Max, a cat who longs to catch three creatures living in his backyard: A bird, a squirrel, and a chipmunk. During the course of the game, all four characters move along the winding game board. If Max lands on the same space as one of the prey animals, that animal is removed from the game.

The object of the game is to get as many of the prey animals to safety as possible. Players take turns rolling the dice, which are especially designed for the game. There is only one dot—either black or green—on each side, so there are only three possible rolls:

• Two black dots (meaning Max advances two spaces)

• One black dot and one green dot (meaning Max advances one space and a prey animal gets to advance one space)

• Two green dots (meaning that one prey animal gets to advance two spaces OR two prey animals get to advance one space each)

Why I like this game

Players get to make meaningful decisions. With every turn, players discuss their preferences and decide together which prey animal(s) to move. In addition, players can choose to take shortcuts (which may backfire if Max follows). And players can invoke a special handicap--sending Max back to the beginning of the game--up to four times during play.

The Secret Door (Family Pastime games)

Ages 3 to 8. A cooperative game that provokes conversation about memory strategies and simple deductions. No counting or reading required. Game pieces made from thin card stock.

The Secret Door combines elements of two other good games: Memory (in which players turn over cards one at a time and try to find pictures that match) and Clue (in which players ask questions and make deductions to determine the identity of several hidden cards).

The game includes a board (depicting the interior of a multi-roomed house) and a set of small cards (depicting various treasures). Each card has an exact match--another card with the same picture on it. The cards are distributed face down on the board, and players work as a team to find as many matches as possible.

But there’s a twist: Before the game begins, three cards are randomly selected and hidden behind the Secret Door. When time runs out, players must guess what those cards are.

Why I like this game

The game is cooperative, so younger kids don’t feel pressured. Team play also offers older players with the opportunity to share mnemonic strategies with younger kids. And, at the end of the game, everybody gets to discuss their guesses and explain why their guess is likely to be correct.

References: Cooperative board games

Bay-Hinitz AK, Peterson RF, and Quilitch HR. 1994. Cooperative games: a way to modify aggressive and cooperative behaviors in young children. J Appl Behav Anal. 1994 Fall;27(3):435-46.

Ewoldsen DR, Eno CA, Okdie BM, Velez JA, Guadagno RE, and DeCoster J. 2012. Effect of playing violent video games cooperatively or competitively on subsequent cooperative behavior. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 15(5):277-80.

Priewasser B, Roessler J, and Perner J. 2013. Competition as rational action: why young children cannot appreciate competitive games. J Exp Child Psychol. 116(2):545-59.

Zan B. and Hildebrandt C. 2005. Cooperative and competitive games in constructivist classrooms. The Constructivist, 16(1):1-13.

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Content of "Cooperative board games for kids" last modified 3/2014