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I've been recently in a game shop to choose a gift for my 3 year-old nephew. Although age was indicated on boxes, I was not sure that some games are really suitable for him, some were very hard for his age (like quiz games) and others were unchallenging ( learning colors or numbers .. )
I ended buying games for 4 and 5 years old. It made me wonder about what criteria are used to determine the right game for that age.

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One reason it's hard to use age indicators to chose an appropriate game for very young children is that their development at that age is so rapid. If you think of the capabilities of a child on their 3rd birthday compared to what they can do just before turning 4, it's a pretty dramatic difference. Additionally, kids develop at such different rates that even putting finer-grained age limits on games often won't account for what individual kids can handle.

Having bought a number of children's games, I've noticed that age group assignment is heavily based on one thing: whether or not it requires reading. Most games are labeled as 6+ if a little reading is needed, and 8+ if the games significantly relies on the ability to read or do simple math (like add up the number on dice). Anything with smallish parts that could be a choking hazard will be labeled for 3+ (even if simple enough for some 2 year olds) and anything with very small and complex piece construction will usually be 8+. There are some considerations for theme of the game and rule complexity, but 'ability to physically play the game' seems to be the main thing.

When it comes to picking a game for a 3 year old, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, it's better to aim slightly high (slightly too hard) rather than slightly too 'babyish', since kids do grow fast. Depending on the personality of the child, cooperative games where everyone works as a team may be better handled than competitive games at this age. If you do choose competitive, games that are short duration so you can easily have a rematch are a good choice, and short games in general for the preschool attention span. "Action" games where everyone plays at once (think of Hungry Hungry Hippos and similar style games) are often well liked, but 3 year olds are developing turn taking skills as well. Games which incidentally involve counting, like those with dice or a number spinner, games that teach matching or sorting, and games that involve fine motor skill development (like don't spill the beans) are all educational choices that are appropriate for most kids around 3.

Although it's a classic, I don't prefer games like Snakes and Ladders which involve significant serious setbacks, as that can be more frustration than fun. Games with very large numbers of parts, or very involved setup and cleanup are not as fun at age 3 as those which kids can pull out and start to play in minutes.

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  • I don't know about aiming "too high" versus "too low"; especially for a child you don't know, I feel like "too low" might be safer. And my kids, at least, love playing "lower age" games often - so I feel like that might be more kid by kid (as I certainly know some who do have the opinion you have). – Joe Dec 21 '20 at 19:26
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    @Joe I took the advice of 'better too high than too low' to mean 'if you go to low it might be worthless to the child, worst case when you pick too high they might use it in the future'. – David Mulder Dec 22 '20 at 8:54
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    @Joe I mean more than if the game is too difficult they may still grow into it, although I am sure it must be on an individual child basis. – Meg Dec 22 '20 at 15:40
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    David/Meg, I understood that. However, at least in my experience, it is the opposite; games that are too high are attempted once and then discarded forever most of the time, while games that are too low sometimes are enjoyed anyway, at least for a little while. Again, not for every kid, just something to think about. – Joe Dec 22 '20 at 15:44
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First off, the "age rating" on the box is sometimes, but not always, useful. Sometimes it is related to what kinds of testing they have done; many games have fairly high ratings (13+) due to the need to test games marketed to children below that age for various safety things (such as lead content); see for example this page that goes into some details about how the ratings come to be. Of course, at 3 in particular I'd pay closer attention to those age ratings - at the very least, as there's some mouthing going on still at that age, I'd definitely make sure it was tested for lead content - but don't assume it's a perfect description for what age is mentally appropriate for a game.

Second; it's hard to give "age" ratings because each child is different. But, some details that can be helpful:

  • Reading vs. pre-reading. If a child either cannot read, or is still an early reader and will have to work hard to read anything, it is best to avoid games with words on the pieces/board/etc.
  • Size of pieces. As a child grows, they become more able to handle smaller pieces or smaller board spaces. Board game pieces should be of similar size to the other things the child plays with - if they're still on Duplos, don't play with a game with Lego size pieces!
  • Amount of strategic thought: This is very relevant at every age. Some children can make more complex strategies than others; some children enjoy this part of games, and some either can't do that yet or don't enjoy it. Consider games that are fun to play regardless of success, or games that are cooperative (all players work to a common goal), for children who are less interested or skilled in strategic planning. Cooperative games are good in particular as you can discuss the group strategy, and teach them as a result.
  • Interests: children will always be more willing to play games that follow their interests. A child who is too young might still enjoy, for example, Ticket To Ride, as my boys did, if they're into trains; my boys didn't actually play it effectively at 3, of course, but they played with the train cars and had fun (this was before the "First Journeys" version came out, of course). Now they're old enough to actually play properly, and have fun with it.

All of that though requires knowing the child reasonably well. You might be able to guess, but honestly I don't recommend picking out games for children you don't know well, unless you're picking something you or your children specifically liked at that age (in which case it'll either work or it won't, but you know it's in the ballpark at least).

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Simple games are often best. When I was young, my mother had us play Old Maid(a marching/memory game). I do not know what age we played it at, but it was when I was quite young, I remember enjoying it, and I believe it was beneficial to my growth through training pattern recognition.

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  • That's of course, one of many games that can be played with an ordinary deck of playing cards, which has the advantage that there are thousands of games you can play with them, over a wide range of complexity, meaning that the kid can still use the same cards to play other games as they get older. On the other hand, most people who are into any kind of table top games will likely already have a few regular playing card decks around, as they are pretty common. – Darrel Hoffman Dec 22 '20 at 20:08
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Not sure what is your exact question here. I see three:

  • "How to choose a game for a 3 year-old child?"
  • "what criteria are used by professional to determine the right game for the right age"
  • "what type of games are suitable to each age"

Looks like you are mostly requesting advice about what to choose for your nephew.

Good answers so far here, adding my two cents below.

Games that "grow with the child" are often good bets. I'll give two examples.

For my son we have "invested" in wooden train sets: at the youngest age it's very easy to push the wooden train on carved wooden rail pieces, see how train parts snap together thanks to magnets, then learn how to assemble wooden rail pieces together to make new circuits, then make loops, then use more elaborate pieces (Y junctions etc), then notice that loops with uneven lengths produces skewed tracks, experiment and iterate. As the child grows, interest for such toys renews for several years.

My second example is a specific game that teaches different things depending on the age. As the author puts it: "Why are kid games either pure luck or a frustrating exercise in trying to lose on purpose, without the child noticing?" and he invented "Robot Turtles". This board+cards game starts very simple, provides children an opportunity to imagine, describe and experiment sequences of actions towards a goal, even before they learn to read. You can start simple and "unlock" options as the child grows.

Hope this helps.

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