Published October 2008, Parents, As They Grow: 4–5 years

Bring out your child’s best behavior by adding some zaniness to his daily routines.

You’re making dinner and your kid is having a meltdown—hardly the best time to play a game, right?  Not necessarily.  You can actually diffuse the most trying moments of your day—and still accomplish you need to—by doing something fun.  “At ages 4 and 5, kids are starting to feel things more intensely,” says family therapist Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting.  “Play helps shield them from overwhelming emotions and keeps them connected to their parents, which leads to cooperation.”

We’ve broken the day down into five danger zones and suggested games that can help move everyone along and lighten the mood.  So if you’re ready to leave those out-of-control mornings, conflict-filled days and less-than-idyllic evenings behind, then let the games begin!

Morning Time

The Game: FOLLOW THE LEADER

How to Play:  Tell your child to skip to the bathroom to brush his teeth, hop to the kitchen for breakfast, tiptoe to the bedroom to get dressed, and then race to the front door.

Why It Helps: It encourages your kid to move from one task to the next without wasting much time.  A side benefit:  Your child will also be honing his coordination and balance, key skills to zero in on at this age, says Rebecca Paulson, a senior childlife specialist at Children’s Memorial Hospital, in Chicago.  A couple of times a week, maximize your preschooler’s growing sense of responsibility and make him the leader.

At the Supermarket

The Game: FIVE OF A KIND

How to Play:  As you’re tossing items in the shopping cart, ask your child to let you know when she finds five that match.  They could be the same color, start with the same letter of the alphabet, or even be for the same meal, like breakfast.  Give her hints along the way—for instance, say, “I see three things in the cart that start with the letter C.  What do you think they are?”  When she reaches the gola, give her a sticker (stash some in your purse) or let her pick out a treat from the produce department.

Why It Helps: In addition to the intellectual benefits, you’re fostering the idea of working together, says Anita Gurian, Ph.D., a psychologist at New York University’s Child Study Center. “Children are a lot less likely to melt down when they feel like they’re needed and part of the action.”

Running Errands

The Game: SILLY I SPY

How to Play: When you’re driving from one place to the next, make a game of concocting nonsense words for ordinary objects you pass by.  Suddenly, cars become “vrooms” and street signs “clackle-wogs.”

Why It Helps: All kids love to make up silly words, but 4- and 5-year olds are experts.  Plus, it’s a great outlet for your child’s creativity—and will keep him interested in looking for new things rather than asking “Are we there yet?”

Making Dinner

The Game: MATCHING

How to Play: With paper and a marker, make a place mat that shows where the plate, glass, napkin, and silverware go.  Or print one out at parents.com/fun/games-prinables.  Then give your child the task of matching the dishes to the drawing.  Once she gets the hang of it, ask her to set the table for dinner.  If your child wants something else to do, let her cut the lettuce and herbs for the salad using her kiddie scissors.

Why It Helps: “Preschoolers love to help—and not just watch,” says Dr. Gurian.  “When you give them a fun job, you make them feel proud, so they’re less likely to throw a fit when you’re cooking dinner or eating it.”

Going to Bed

The Game: SIMON SAYS

How to Play: Make requests—like “Simon says, ‘Put on your pajama bottoms,’” or “Simon says, ‘Give Mommy and Daddy a kiss’”—that push your child through the process of getting ready for bed.  Add steps to make the game more challenging, and for fun, throw in a couple of silly directions, like “Simon says, ‘Stick out your tongue.’”

Why It Helps: It’s a relatively quiet game that won’t escalate your child’s energy level before bed.  Plus, kids this age don’t like being told what to do.  Since you’re not giving orders—Simon is—they’re much more likely to comply without complaining.


Rules to Live By

You can help your kid stay calm by taking these five vows.

  1. I will get my kids up earlier so that we can spend a little time together before the day starts.
  2. I won’t talk on my cell phone while grocery shopping with my kids.
  3. I will remember to be at eye level with my child when I need his attention.
  4. After work, I will spend five minutes with my kids before going through the mail or returning phone calls.
  5. I will plan at least one outing or special activity with my kids each week.

Back to Basics

These portable games are classics for good reason: Without bells and whistles and fat price tags, they can keep your kids engaged.

Etch A Sketch Classic

With the twist of two knobs, masterpieces appear, and your kids might even learn something about cause and effect. ($16; areyougame.com)

Hair-Do Harriet, Woolly Willy

Using the magnetic pen, our kids can give Willy or Harriet a new ‘do while practicing fine motor skills. ($2; officeplayground.com)

Lacing boards

The the colorful strings that come with this activity book to lace a spider web, a Ferris wheel, and other cool stuff. ($10; klutz.com)


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