Note: Affiliate links are used in this article, but don’t feel restricted to using them! Local game shops are often great places to buy these as well.
One of my favorite parts of being an occupational therapist is thinking of creative and meaningful interventions for my clients. Luckily, board games are a preferred occupation for me as well as about a million kids I know – so it’s a pretty natural treatment tool to turn to. Using tabletop games in occupational therapy is not uncommon – pretty much all board games work on lots of good social/emotional skills, and almost all have a fine motor component. But the games I find most OTs using are a bit…lacking, to say the least. No shade on all the classic board games of our childhood, but how many times can you get sent back to home in Sorry before you flip the table over? How many turns can you lose in Candyland before the box gets put up on a high shelf, never to be seen again? While these games are great for a burst of warm, fuzzy nostalgia, most of them aren’t the most satisfying experiences – for us OR our patients. Thankfully, there is a whole world of modern games out there that are fun for both kids and adults. But what I find is that people often have some hesitancy in trying a new game – they’re scared it will be too hard for their kids, or that the rules will be annoying to learn, or that it will fall flat and be a waste of $20. So to make it a little less intimidating, I’ve created a quick list of 5 games to try with your patients that are both fun and have great therapeutic outcomes. I tried to pick games that are quick (or at least can be modified to be), can be played with only 2 players or more, and address a good variety of skills. I also have a personal rule that I suggest other therapists adopt as well – never let kids win. Losing a game is a great natural experience for kids to have, and denying them that is robbing them of opportunities to practice emotional regulation. But on the other side of the coin, it can be disheartening to lose a game over and over again, so I’ve focused on games that don’t rely heavily on pure cognitive skills/intelligence. Instead, these games utilize dexterity, creativity, and most importantly, luck. Lastly, I made this list with pediatric occupational therapists in mind – but it can totally be applicable to OTs that work with adults, other professionals like teachers or counselors, or even just parents looking for a new game for their kids.
Klask took me and my friend group by storm when we first discovered it at a board game convention – and for good reason. It perfectly hits the note of “simple to learn/difficult to master.” The easiest way to describe it is that it’s kind of like a tabletop air hockey game – play focuses on hitting a small yellow ball into your opponent’s goal by using a magnetic striker that is controlled under the table. Sounds easy enough, right? But other white magnets called biscuits abound, which you must avoid lest you give your opponent an easy point. Be deft and quick and you’ll reach 6 points in no time – just make sure you don’t pull your striker into your own goal and Klask yourself. This is one that is contagious to watch – after observing a round or two most of the people I’ve shown it to want to play. It’s easy to learn and rounds go quickly – perfect for a short therapy session with a student.
Players: 2, but rounds are quick and spectating can be just as fun
Time: Rounds are ~1-5 minutes long; a full game can be as quick as 5 minutes or as long as 15 depending on the skill of the players
Ages: I’ve played this with kids as young as 4 with some modification of the rules, but it really starts to sing once kids hit 7 or 8. Adults (myself included!) love this game too and will play for hours.
Skills Targeted: Lots of fine motor and visual perceptual skills including dexterity, grasp, tracking, motor planning, and speed and grading of movements; opportunities for connections to math (score tracking) and science (magnets); quick rounds allow for lots of practice with learning to win or lose gracefully
2. Junk Art
Junk Art is one of those games that I thought “OT!” as soon as I saw it. In general, it involves stacking a variety of super-colorful wood and plastic pieces to create a towering structure. There are multiple game modes, but one of my favorites is where everyone draws a card and must quickly race to find the specific piece depicted to add to their sculpture (hello, visual discrimination). Not all of the game modes rely on speed, but building the tallest structure – without it falling down – is usually a goal. One of the nice things about the game is that there are 10 different game modes, which is great if you have kids with short attention spans.
Players: 2 – 6 players
Ages: 8 and up, though appropriate for younger children if you modify the rules
Time: A whole game takes about 30 minutes, but can be modified to go more quickly as needed
Skills Targeted: Fine motor and visual perceptual skills like grasp, dexterity, visual discrimination, in-hand manipulation, hand-eye coordination, speed, and visual attention; turn-taking; opportunities for connections to math (measuring tape included!)
Published in 1990, Set doesn’t technically meet the description of “modern” I set out in my title. But for some reason, it’s not a game a lot of people grew up with, which is crazy because for me it was an instant classic. Originally conceived in 1974, Set was actually a method that geneticist Marsha Jean Falco used to organize data when studying canine epilepsy. What resulted was a super-fun, math-y puzzle that Falco eventually refined into the game we play today. Set involves cards that have a few different symbols and shapes printed on them – diamonds, ovals, and squiggly lines. Sometimes these cards will have one symbol on them, or sometimes they’ll have three. Sometimes the shapes will be purple, and sometimes they’ll be green. Sometimes the object will be filled in solid, and sometimes it will just be an outline. The trick is finding 3 cards in the array that form a “set,” which is a grouping of cards that in each attribute are either all alike or all different. It sounds more complicated than it is in practice – learning it is easy and addictive. Turns are simultaneous which means that you race against other players to see who can call “Set!” first. This is a game that is fun because you can get better at it quickly – but I’ve also known some kids who are simply savants at it. In any case, I’ve met very few kids or adults who weren’t ready to play again as soon as the first game ended. Another cool thing about Set is that the publishers realize the educational and therapeutic potential of their game – check out this guide on how to use Set for occupational therapy & speech-language pathology.
Players: This game could honestly be played solo by racing against a clock or in a slow, meditative fashion, but I like it best when playing with at least one other person. Numbers are only limited by how many you can fit around the table – I’ve played with as many as 10.
Ages: 6 and up
Time: 15-30 minutes, but can be modified to go more quickly as needed by removing cards
Skills Targeted: My absolute favorite for visual perceptual skills like form constancy, visual discrimination, spatial reasoning, and speed; opportunity for fine motor skills as well when manipulating cards; cognitive skills like attention, logic, and memory
4. Codenames Pictures
The Codenames series has really picked up popularity in the past few years, so much so that even people who don’t typically play games have heard of it when I ask. While the original version of Codenames is still my favorite, I also really like Codenames Pictures for kids who may not be readers. Play involves arranging picture cards in a grid and then drawing a card that assigns some of these pictures to the blue team, some to the red team, some as neutral, and one as the “assassin” which ends the whole game if selected. Players must then come up with clever clues that relate to 2 or more pictures on the board. But careful – if the clue is too broad, it may result in the other team’s cards getting picked! Too specific, and your team may not find all of your pictures in time. I love this one because I love seeing how creative kids can be – it’s really fun to see how other people’s brains work. I also love that it involves cooperating with other players – great for kids who need a little practice working on a team.
Players: This game will work with 2, though the rules are a little wonky. It’s best to have at least 4 (2 per team). There’s another version of this game called Codenames Duet that works better for 2 players – and you can always use the picture cards from this version in Duet if you would like to make the game more friendly to non-readers or English language learners.
Ages: I’ve played with kids as young as 6 with some flexibility on the rules, but most kids 8 and up should be able to play with no problem.
Time: 15-20 minutes
Skills Targeted: Opportunities for in-hand manipulation and other fine motor skills when shuffling and placing cards; visual scanning; cognitive flexibility and creativity; attention; teamwork and cooperation; functional communication and vocabulary
5. Ice Cool
Ice Cool is a game about cute little penguins trying to ditch class early to get to lunch first – something very relatable for some of my students. Help your penguin quickly get the fish by flicking his piece through the doors of the 3D board. Players also take turns being the hall monitor who tries to prevent the delinquent penguins from eating all of the fish before the bell rings. This game is really visually engaging to watch – the wobbly pieces are weighted in the perfect way to slide and ricochet around the halls of the penguin school, or even jump over walls! This game has one of my favorite themes and is so cute and charming to kids and adults alike. My one caution is to be careful with flicking the pieces – if done too hard, it might hurt tiny fingertips. However, this is easily remedied by using a different motion to move the penguin such as jabbing with an index finger.
Players: 2-4 players
Ages: 6 and up
Skills Targeted: Fine and visual motor skills like dexterity, motor planning, hand-eye coordination, and tracking, as well as some opportunities to manipulate cards and grasp small fish pieces; attention; turn-taking
I hope this list encourages you to add something new and fun to your pediatric practice! I really do love these games for their ability to transcend age and provide a meaningful occupation for both kids and adults. Also, a quick note on the suggested age ranges – I’ve given numbers as a starting point, but more consideration should be given for children with cognitive impairments. However, I have played these games with kids with all different kinds of disabilities – from mild to severe – and have found that kids surprise you more often than you’d think. So my advice would be to give them a try, and use your awesome OT skills to grade them up and down as needed in the moment. After all, games aren’t an exercise in following rules exactly – they’re a human experience meant to elicit fun and friendship.
Do you use board games in your practice? What are your favorites?