Gaming With the Pre-Literate

Just because your kid cannot read does not mean that they cannot play tabletop games.

Fear not!  You are not stuck with Candyland.  Or it’s demonic cousin, Chutes and Ladders. Here are our top non-children’s games to play with preschoolers or children who are not secure, independent readers–



If your kids can and will sit still, War is an excellent early game.  It encourages pattern and number recognition and chances are you won’t have to buy anything to play this game because it uses a standard deck of cards.  For a fast play variation, play through the deck only once and then count the score.  For agile children, try a slapjack variation where ties are decided by slapping the pile rather than playing additional cards.  For a long play version, give each person a full deck to play (with different backs so they can be separated later).  For a mega-game variation, play up to four players with1-4 decks.



The big thing one needs to know to play Blokus is how to legally place a tile, which is corner to corner and not side to side.  After that it is all strategy.  The beauty of this game is how much a 3-year-old can screw you up with their completely random choices of what piece they play and where they play it.


Okay, maybe you groaned when you saw that one.  Parcheesi is not the most mentally stimulating game for adults, but the rules are straightforward and kids like the repetition and sense of completion.  You will be able to see their math brains growing before your eyes with all that counting.  And this is an easy game to end at any point and declare whomever has made the most progress the winner.  A preschooler may need your help counting the spaces, but as long as they are engaged, keep on playing!


Set is, of course, the ultimate in matching games.  If your child is not at the level where they can see the sets themselves, you can play this game cooperatively instead.  As their ability grows, you can switch to competitive play, but add more cards (16 instead of 12) to give them more possibilities to bring together.  If your kid is ready for competitive play, do not pull all your punches, but go slowly and make sure you show each other what combinations you are putting together before they go into the score pile.  Seeing the combinations you come up with can help your child look at the cards in a new way.

Forbidden Island

As a cooperative game that does not rely heavily on text, Forbidden Island lends itself naturally to family gaming with the younger set.  Depending on the initial island set up, Forbidden Island can be difficult to win, even with experienced players.  As in all cooperative games, be careful not to let experienced players direct the actions of the other players, who will then feel like a pawn or spectator.  If your child is unsure of what to do, you could suggest 2-3 possible actions that you see and let them choose.

King of Tokyo

Iello suggests 8+ for King of Tokyo, but it has been the family game of choice and played several times a week this past summer.  Kids who are engaged with playing do not need to be able to read, although they will need help reading cards if they want to buy them, and perhaps also keeping track of life points and victory points.  But rolling dice?  That’s the best part and the symbols are clear so our 4-year-old has no problem playing through to the end.

What Not To Play

Some children’s games will tempt you because they are classics or are on sale or you remember playing and enjoying them as a child.  Not all game mechanics are suitable for the youngest dungeon crawlers among us.  Take a deep breath.  There’s no rush; they will be reading soon and have many years of gaming ahead of them.

Guess Who?

This game really is fun for all ages, but because it relies on secrecy and accurately naming the characters, it quickly loses its shine if your child cannot hold his or her side of the table alone.

Apple to Apples Junior

We have watched preschoolers playing this game and having fun, but we’re not really sure what they were doing.  This game depends on reading and is most fun if the kids involved can read most of their cards without help.

Stone Soup

This Gamewright offering tempted us because of its clear pictures and lack of text, but we learned the hard way that 4-year-olds really are no good at lying (we clearly didn’t learn our lesson with Guess Who?).  This game really is best starting around 7 or 8 years old, when kids learn how to bluff.

When it comes to playing games with kids who are not yet secure readers, we have generally had a lot of success in our house by looking through our collection and pulling out games that do not employ a lot of text in the game play.  Games that rely on numbers and colors are a good start.  If your child is really attracted to a particular game (or, probably, the game box) and the pieces are not fragile, pull it out and look through it together.  They might want to tell their own story or play their own made-up game with the pieces.  Perhaps together you will discover a new way to play an old favorite.  Let your child be your guide.

About Carol

Carol has finally got the hang of Agricola.

5 thoughts on “Gaming With the Pre-Literate

  1. Terry Ullmann
    November 24, 2013 at 3:56 am

    All I know is Zander won King of Tokyo and I still have no idea how he did it!!!! :)

  2. December 27, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    Some other games that are good: Tri-ominos, at heart its a matching game of numbers. Like dominos only a bit more complex. Also like this is Quirkle (instead of numbers, it uses patterns and colors). Any of the Monopoly Jr’s (we love the dinosaur one) cards have images and its a short version. SNAP – who can make the longest and most complete dragons. Creatures a newer game that is part creation of animals and part war (when you compare them to each other). GET BIT, cards numbered 1-5 and you need to change position to not get eaten by the shark and last, one of my FAVORITE games…SURVIVE (or Escape from Atlantis now) this game has no reading and very little numbers. Each player has people on the island and you have to get off to a safe island. The one with the most points at the end wins. You can also do this cooperatively (well…sort of).

    1. January 18, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Thank you, Tiff!

  3. Megan Owens
    January 19, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    There’s also a kids version of SET, called SET Jr, which is great. It’s got a two-sided board, one side is more of a bingo type of board where young kids just need to match their card to a spot on the board. It’s a great one.

    1. January 20, 2014 at 7:07 pm

      Thanks, Megan! We’ll have to try out Set Jr. sometime — those sound like great adaptations.

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