Pen and paper games are just great, as they’re fun & super useful. Just think about the times they would come in handy:
- Traveling: road trips, train rides, flights
- On holidays
- Waiting in a restaurant
- Waiting rooms (dentist, GP, hospital)
- Play dates, after school play
- Rainy days
Can you hear “Mommmm, I’m boooored..”?!! You don’t like the sound of it, but you get it. Sometimes it is boring. And you have a choice. You can give up your iPhone or… offer them something that they will love to do, will gain their attention and will keep them happily occupied and (big bonus) will involve a great brain workout.. Games!
What are pen and paper games ?
For the sake of definition: any game that you can play with a piece of paper and a pen or pencil would qualify (duh!). No screens. I’d say they include strategic games, word games and spy/spotting games. As they’re easy to take with you and they’re not noisy, they’re your perfect travel companion, making them very suitable as restaurant games, waiting games, or road trip games.
Of course there are other types of waiting games that you can play when waiting in line, or outside (waiting for the train, waiting in queue or waiting for an event to start) that allow a bit more freedom, movement or noise. I’ll soon make a nice list of waiting games that make time fly!
Advantages of pen and paper games
Simply put, you don’t need much, while you keep the kids happily occupied. And it’ll keep you sane on the road/restaurant/etc. You can either join the fun, which the kids will surely appreciate, or you can enjoy a glass of wine and a conversation! Or just some peace and quiet..
As they’re compact & lightweight they really are your perfect travel companion!
And as a bonus, they will:
- improve social skills: waiting for their turn, negotiate, help
- brain workout: understand and apply the rules of the game
- intellectual workout: apply some sort of strategy (as with any game)
- control temper. Whether winning or loosing, the player must learn to control their behaviour
It’s even better. The games and drawing prompts will keep the kids engaged and happily occupied. Plus, they’re fun to play (otherwise they would be called ‘exercises’ or ‘worksheets’), which is an absolute prerequisite for learning! It goes without saying that kids learn best when they have fun. No excuses, it’s time to play!
Make your own games or print templates
Any of these games you can make yourself. Really, all you need is a piece of paper and a pencil. Sometimes coloured pencils or crayons come in handy, but you can always find a way around it by drawing different shapes (one player circles, the the player triangles, for example).
I tend to use templates, because they’re a great time saver. When well designed, you can play multiple games on a single sheet. Just print and play!
Right. Enough talk. Here are the ideas:
Strategic pen and paper games
These are my favourites, I admit! You’re probably familiar with the classics, such as ‘hangman’, ‘dots and boxes’ and ‘tic tac toe’. And have you looked a bit further, and played ‘sprouts’, or ‘paper soccer’ for example? There are plenty of ‘pen and paper’ games available. Most are strategic games that are easy to learn. As you (and your child) progress, you can move on to the more abstract games that are (still easy to learn but) harder to master.
// Dots and boxes [age 6+ for 2 players]
A classic strategic pen-and-paper game, played on a grid. Players take turns drawing a ‘wall’ of a box. When you complete a box (or a ‘room’) it’s yours! It also gains you another turn. You (and your kid) will soon figure out a strategy to stop loosing a whole bunch of boxes.. Just play, you’ll find out!
// Sprouts [age 6+ for 2 players]
Players take turns drawing a LINE (straight, curved or loop) from one dot to another dot, and drawing a DOT on that line. Rules: (1) the line may not cross other lines or dots (2) each dot may have 1, 2 or 3 lines, but not more (3) the new dot may not overlap with existing dots. The last player to successfully draw a line, wins the game.
You will find detailed instructions on how to play, here. If you’re interested in the strategy (in case you can beat your kids), check this out. If you’re into maths, you may want to check out this site or this explanation, or this one, or this.. My goodness, mathematicians are basically tumbling over each other to explain their theorems. I suppose there’s more to this little game than we thought, no?
// Train Connections [age 5+ for 2 players]
In this game you add wagons to a train, making sure there is no crash! It’s a strategic game, but its simplicity makes it suitable for young players. You’ll find it in the printable handouts when you sign up.
// Battleship [age 6+ for 2 players]
In Battleship you have to find the locations of the battleships of your opponent. It takes somewhat longer to play, but it’s a good game. Find instructions here.
// Tic Tac Toe [age 4+ for 2 players]
Nope. I’m not going to talk about tic tac toe, because I don’t like it.. My son rolls his eyes when I suggest it.. There are plenty of friendly webpages that cover it, just google/Ecosia.. There are a few interesting variants on the game, while I may cover later, but for now I refer you to this site.
// Tic Tac Toe variations [age 7+ for 2 players]
The good news is, there are a few more interesting variations, such as ‘Wild tic tac toe‘ and ‘Ultimate Tic Tac Toe’, that are more strategic (read: fun) and are definitely worth a look (no more eye rolling)!
Word games or language games
Word games prompt kids search, use and improve their vocabulary. I suppose hangman falls in this category, but also ‘word composing’ games such as boggle.
// Hangman [age 6+ for 2 players]
Hangman is a word game, a classic for a good reason.You must guess the word that your opponent has in mind within a number of turns. Great for kids who are starting to read, to have fun with words and to improve their vocabulary.
It’s fun to think of a word that your opponent will neeeever guess. Are long words harder than short words? Do you start guessing vowels or consonants? It’s fun to see kids starting to develop a strategy. My 8yo noticed that I started the gane by asking the same letters, so he was choosing very unusual words.
You can find the rules here and super easy ready-to-print templates here (6 hangman games per page, a dashed hangman figure for guidance and the alphabet to remind which letters have already been asked), when you sign up for my newsletter ; )
// Paper Boggle [age 6+ for 2 or more players]
Like the original game, you have to make as many words as you can with a set of letters. The paper version differs in the sense that you don’t use dice to find letters to play with, but you choose them yourselves. This gives you the opportunity to select a certain subset of letters that you can easily create words with. Is that cheating or strategy? You tell me! In any case, your child will do the same, which is great! Will you make it easy or hard for yourself and your opponent? And will he do the same?
It’s great for active word play. You can show your child how easily you can make variations on a word, making new words from only a few letters.
You’ll receive a template when you sign up! ; )
// Make your own word search
Kids love doing word searches, but have they ever considered making one? If you draw a reasonably large grid (say, 20×20 squares) or use checkered paper, encourage your child to fill it with letters. You can suggest a theme to make it more appealing (‘summer holidays’: camping, marshmallows, sunset, popsicle, or ‘Pokemon’ (a local favourite)”: pikachu, trainer, eevee, greninja).
Show them how they can ‘weave’ words together, using the same letter twice, just like cross word puzzles. My 8yo son did this at school for a language class and he was so proud of the result that nobody was allowed to actually play it – ha ha! Anyway, I hope your kids enjoy this as well!
Fictionairy [age 6+ for 2 or more players]
It’s in all the name! Fictionary, an obvious contraction of fiction and dictionary is a game of imagination. The good thing is: it required a wide imagination and good bluff. But: you need a dictionary (or a vast vocabulary).
Essentially, you look up a word and think about 2 fictional meanings. Try to make them as bold and outrageous as you can, while keeping them believable! The other team must guess the correct meaning.
Good game for small groups. Play for points or laughs..!
Sometimes you or your kids don’t feel like ‘doing letters or numbers’. No worries – drawing prompts to the rescue!
// Paper Telephone [age 4+ for 4 or more players]
Remember the game you used to play at school, when you sat in a circle and the teacher whispered a sentence into the ear of one pupil, who has to pass it on? The last pupil in line had to say out loud what he heard and it was nothing like the original sentence..
There’s a pen and paper version of this, and it’s better (phew!), where players alternate between writing and drawing an original sentence or statement. No peeking in-between turns!!
You can find step-by-step instructions and a free printable template.
// Pictionary [age 4+ for 2 or more players]
Pictionary is fun in its simplicity. At first players should agree on a category, for example: food, animals, countries, movies, books, songs.. You can already feel that the type of category defines the level of difficulty of the game! One player, ‘the artist’, starts to draw a topic (for example, a giraffe) and the others guess. One important rule: the artist must not talk!
When the topic is guessed correctly another artist is chosen. Depending on the group you can decide to make the ‘correct guesser’ the new artist, or simply rotate turns to keep it fair (this works best with young kids).
Good to playing in small groups.
Printable board games
Travel games are your friend. Just walk into a shop and you’ll find a bunch of miniature games to play, either alone or with several players. Printable games are possibly even better. Why? You can simply print them at home (as often as you wish, and you’re good to go).
Miniature travel games
Small physical travel games are fantastic. Many classic games have ‘a little sister’ and any toy store will sell them. Or, when you search Pinterest, you can find really nice examples of DIY travel games, such as memory, checkers, and much more. Or print them from here ; )
If you prefer to encourage a little creativity, but tired of colouring sheets? You cannot go wrong with fun drawing prompts and simple paper crafts. Bring along a few sheets of paper and a set of crayons and you’re good to go! I made a special list of super fun & creative drawing prompts. You’ll find it here.
Environment conscious play
I would argue that pen and paper games have much less of an impact on the environment than store bought games that usually contain plastic playing pieces. Add raw material, energy and waste from the production & shipping and you can see my point. Read more about printables here.
Still, I kindly request to only print the page that you need, and not more. And, when finished, have a final play with the paper (e.g. fold an aeroplane) and throw it into the recycling bin. Cheers!
More free printables
Here’s an overview of my free printable downloads!
More screen-free travel games for kids
Games are good! Especially without screens. Try telling that to my 8yo Super Mario-obsessed boy.. Fortunately he likes unplugged games as well. Phew!
More games like these? Check out this booklet that contains 5 strategic games for never-ending game battles!
Spoiler: the popsicle game is the local favourite, getting a 5* rating from the local players/judges ; ) Perhaps the triangular tiles have something to do with it. Or the popsicles!
More screen-free activities for kids
Please have a look around my site and you’ll find more ideas for hand-on perfectly doable activities for kids. Without screens.
- Learn to make a maze yourself. No, not to solve, to create a maze!
- Learn about symmetry: finish the other half (OK, it’s xmas themed, but I’ll make another theme some time soon-is)
- Make your own birthday calendar: a really nice project that you’ll keep for years! Bonus: you’ll never forget a birthday!
- Make your own banner to brighten the kid’s bedroom
- Decorate a paper animal mask
- Count down until your birthday using a count down calendar