Remember the last time you were greeted with laughter when you arrived at preschool to pick up your child? They were racing around with their friends and playing a game that you recognized from your own childhood. Best of all, they were having a wonderful time—and learning more than you know.
Believe it or not, classic preschool games are much more than just fun for children. They’re actually an essential part of the learning process, helping kids bond with their friends, burn off excess energy and teaching kids skills that will help them later in life.
To help you see the learning potential in the games that just seem fun, we’ve gathered together nine well-loved American preschool games. Read on to discover how each game secretly models real-world situations and helps kids learn how to live and act.
9 Classic Preschool Games That Secretly Teach Life Skills
1. Duck, Duck, Goose
This kid-favorite is an excellent game for teaching strategic thinking. Participants sit in a circle, and one child walks around the outside tapping each head in turn and saying “duck.” Eventually they pick one child to be the “goose” and run around the circle to try to take that child’s place before the “goose” catches them. If they reach the end without getting tagged, the “goose” returns to their own seat and the original player continues around the circle.
As kids play this game more, they start thinking about how to pick a “goose” (such as someone who isn’t paying attention) who will give them a better chance of getting back to their seats without getting tagged. Duck, Duck, Goose teaches children to plan ahead and gives them immediate feedback on the quality of their decisions.
2. Musical Chairs
This game helps teach kids to resolve arguments peacefully, deal with disappointment and practice patience. Set chairs in a circle, one fewer than the number of children in the game, and then play music as kids walk around the circle. Every time the music stops, children must try to sit on a chair. Kids who don’t get a chair are out. Then remove a chair and begin again.
As a game of Musical Chairs progresses, children must learn to deal with the frustration of being out of the game, therefore practicing patience and waiting graciously. They must also learn to use their words to work out arguments about whose chair is whose or who got there “first." Be sure to have an adult on hand specifically to ensure conflicts are settled peacefully and to help kids who are no longer in the game stay cheerful.
3. Simon Says
Simon Says is an excellent game for helping kids learn to pay close attention to instructions, while also giving them a taste of leadership. In Simon Says, one kid asks their peers to do silly actions by saying “Simon says tap your head” or “Simon Says jump like monkeys.” Then the other kids will do the action—but only as long as the leader adds “Simon says” to their instructions.
Kids who don’t pay attention quickly discover that if they don’t listen, they’ll be the only one doing the silly action. That gives them extra motivation to listen closely to the entire set of instructions before getting started.
4. Row Your Boat
Self-awareness is an important skill for children to develop as part of the learning process. That’s one of the reasons we ask children to assess their own learning at Whitby. When children are small, this can start with physical self-awareness. Knowing how to moderate one's body is a very useful skill that prepares kids for later life. The game here is simple: pair children up facing one another with knees bent up in front of them and holding hands. Instruct them to rock back and forth in time to the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” They’ll need to work together and keep an eye on their own movements at all times. It works best to play this game with a CD or a song on YouTube, so you can incorporate a "freeze" element by stopping music abruptly. This helps children focus on auditory cues and match their physical movements to them.
5. Hide and Seek
Hide and Seek is a great game for teaching problem solving. In order to stay hidden for the longest possible amount of time, children have to assess their options so they can pick the best possible hiding spot. This builds spatial awareness, because kids must consider factors such as which hiding places will offer the most cover from the most vantage points. As they gain experience with the game, kids will take an even more in-depth assessment approach, thinking about which spots are frequently used during free play and therefore most likely to be checked first.
6. Parachute Games
Playing with a parachute is a fun way for kids to learn teamwork. Kids stand around a circle, holding a parachute (or large sheet) between them. When a ball or other object is placed on the parachute, kids toss the ball up and down. Kids must move in sync or the ball will fall off the side of the parachute. If playing with a big parachute, kids have to work together to keep multiple balls in play at the same time, or learn how to throw the parachute up so one child can run underneath before the parachute falls.
This classic sidewalk game is perfect for developing critical thinking skills. Kids draw the hopscotch shape on the sidewalk, then take turns tossing a rock underhand at the hopscotch shape. They then must navigate the hopscotch course while avoiding the square the rock landed on. Since it’s often difficult to avoid the square with the rock while hopping on one foot, kids will need to plan ahead to find the best “route” through the course.
8. Red Light, Green Light
Red Light, Green Light is great for teaching patience. After all, children don’t love to stand still. To play, one kid stands facing away at the other side of the field. The goal is to be the first to touch that person, without getting caught moving. When the person is facing away, that’s a green light and kids can move toward them. When the leader turns around to face the group, that’s a red light, and kids must stop moving. Anyone the leader catches still in motion has to go back to the starting line. To win at Red Light, Green Light, kids need to rein in their impulse to run forward, instead choosing a pace where they can stop instantly if the leader starts to turn. As they near the leader, they’ll also have to learn how to wait for the exact right moment to rush forward. If they misjudge and go too soon, they’ll have to start over from the beginning.
9. Sleeping Lions
It’s important for kids to learn how to stay focused despite distractions. Sleeping Lions is a fun way for kids to learn this important life skill. During this preschool game, all the children lie down and pretend to be asleep. Then one person walks among the group (without touching anyone, trying to convince kids into reacting and opening their eyes. The last kid to still look like they’re “sleeping” is the winner.
Sleeping lions encourages kids to be silly as they try to wake up their peers. To stay “asleep,” kids have to keep themselves focused on not moving a muscle—no matter how their peers try to distract them. That’s extremely hard for young children to do, and the focusing they practice during Sleeping Lions will help a child later on when they’re trying to learn in boisterous environments.
More Than Just Fun and Games
If you’re like most parents, you want to know your child is in the best possible learning environment at all times. The good news? Many preschool games that seem like they’re just plain fun actually teach life skills. So while your kids might seem like they’re just having fun playing with friends, they’re actually learning skills that will help them succeed later in life.