When Kids Show Up at Your Demo

I wrote this article in 1999, when I was not yet a parent but was noticing that many adults I knew were very awkward when relating to children or actually tried to exclude children from fun activities rather than figure out how the kids could fit in.  I mentioned this to Kristin Looney, whose company makes games that are fun for both children and adults but focuses its marketing on adults, and she immediately appointed me to write an article for their Mad Lab Rabbits (the name used at that time for fans who promote the games) suggesting ways to appeal to kids when demonstrating the games at trade shows, in stores, at parties, or in public places where people stop to ask what you’re playing.  Many Rabbits told me it was helpful to them.

When I started writing about playing games with my own child, I wanted to link to this article…and I couldn’t find it!  Searching for the topic got me nowhere.  It was when I recently Googled my own name that I found it in two places: deep in the Looney Labs site where their search couldn’t find it, and in the Rabbit Wiki.  In hopes of making it more find-able to people seeking help on this topic (rather than seeking the wisdom of the great Becca Stallings), I am “reprinting” it on my own site.  (I added links to all the games.  This was a really annoying process, due to slow-loading pages, lots of errors, and pages being located in less-than-intuitive relationships to one another.  You’re welcome!)

UPDATE: In 2011, safety testing for the European Union forced Looney Labs to make an official policy that their pyramid games are only for people age 14 and up.  Therefore, if you are promoting their games to strangers, do not recommend pyramid games to children.  When playing games with your own family and friends, use good judgment and the safety rules noted in my Real-Life Example below, and always supervise children.

Looney Labs games are designed by and for adults, but most of them also appeal to kids. If kids show up at your demo, you might feel unprepared to teach them the game. Maybe you don’t spend much time around kids in your daily life, so you don’t have a sense of what they understand at a particular age. Maybe you avoid being around kids because you tend to find them annoying or disruptive. Whatever your situation, part of being a good Rabbit is doing your best to sell the games to every interested person, even those who are younger than the age limit printed on the games. Here are some tips to help you demo to kids:

  • Remember, they’re just people. Unless an individual has shown himself to be obnoxious or dim-witted, don’t assume that he is.
  • Kids naturally want to do what adults are doing. They appreciate having clear guidelines about what’s expected of them. Explain the rules and abide by them yourself, and they generally will cooperate. If you’re worried that a kid won’t handle the pieces appropriately, explain that it’s important to pick up what we drop so nothing gets lost, that pointy things should not be put near your face, that it’s against the rules to wipe your nose on the cards, or whatever is your concern.
  • It is not necessary for a kid to have a fair shot at winning in a game with adults. In Zendo, for example, a player who doesn’t understand all the complexities of formal logic can nonetheless have a good time making koans and guessing, and her making poor guesses won’t significantly hamper the other players. If she’s able to follow the rules, let her play.
  • With a really young child, consider simplifying the rules. (See examples below.) Another option is to let the kid just play with the pieces as he chooses, or say, “What game do you think we should play with these?” You might come up with an idea for some really cool new game!
  • If a kid can’t read well enough to play independently, she can play as a team with a parent or other cooperative adult. In Fluxx, especially, this should not be a problem even if other players can hear them conferring.
  • When modifying the rules to make a game more kid-friendly, be careful how you spin it. Don’t say, “You’re not old enough to learn the real rules.” Say, “Let’s play with special kid rules!” or don’t mention the modification until you’re done playing. (You do need to mention it so that the kid won’t go up to someone else asking to play that game and get ambushed by a bunch of unexpected rules.)
  • If you’re having trouble figuring out how to deal with a child in a game, try thinking of him as a stoned adult. It’s not polite to draw attention to his being stoned, so just explain patiently and expect some weird lapses of judgment and the occasional flash of surprising insight.
  • Recall your own childhood. Treat kids the way you wish the cool grownups had treated you.

A Brief Guide to Basic Stages in Cognitive Development (Becca’s Field Guide to Children)

Sensorimotor stage. Until about 2 years old, a baby is mainly focused on seeking stimulation from her environment and learning basic motor skills. She may enjoy looking at and handling game pieces, but she can’t “play a game” following rules. Anything she can reach is very likely to go into her mouth!

Pre-operational stage. Beginning around 2 years old (i.e. when he can talk and looks more like a kid than a baby), a kid is able to think in classes, see basic relationships between objects, understand small numbers, and think one step ahead (but not much more) in problem-solving. He can count at least to 5, identify colors, distinguish “small, medium, large” or “big, bigger, biggest”, and recognize when two pictures match. He can play simple games that have 1-2 actions per turn and rely more on chance than strategy.

Concrete operational stage. Beginning around age 7 (i.e. when she’s lost her front baby teeth and is about 4 feet tall), a kid has a pretty good understanding of how symbols represent ideas and is able to follow more complex rules. This enables her to play any Looney Labs card game and the simpler pyramid games. She’s able to see things from other people’s perspectives and think about what they might do in response to her actions. She can plan farther ahead but has trouble focusing on multiple aspects of a situation at once–like size AND color AND number AND position. She’s good at thinking of strategies but not so good at testing whether or not they work, so she’s likely to stick with something that isn’t quite working. If a game is frustrating her and you can see where she’s “stuck”, a polite hint is likely to help.

Formal operational stage. Beginning around age 11 or 12 (i.e. when he’s beginning puberty and is about 5 feet tall), a kid becomes capable of more elaborate strategy and holding more ideas in his conscious mind at once. He’s better able to test a hypothesis and more willing to admit it’s not working. Basically, a kid at this stage has the cognitive capabilities of an adult without the benefits of experience. For example, he may not have enough practice doing mental arithmetic to excel in a game that involves quickly calculating the points gained by each possible move.

Some Tips for Specific Games

Pyramid games:

  • Kids 2-6 will enjoy just stacking and arranging pyramids. (They’ll need supervision for safety and to avoid losing pieces, so don’t offer them free reign unless you have some spare pieces and an adult is willing to watch them instead of learning a game.) They may set up imaginative scenarios in which pieces represent trees, people, cars, etc. Let them guide the activity and play along. Don’t quiz them about colors or numbers, but use color and number and size words freely while you play.
  • Try CrackeD Ice or Thin Ice with kids as young as 3 if you see that they have good hand coordination.
  • At 5-6 years old, they’ll be more interested in learning rules, but you may need to simplify: Try teaching just the capping rules for IceTowers (no mining or splitting) and having the person with the tallest total towers win instead of counting up points. Try setting up several Zendo koans that all have the Buddha nature and seeing if they can guess the rule, adding a koan each time they can’t guess–then have them make some for you.
  • Kids 7-11 may like IceTowers, especially if you play kind of slowly for their first few games. They’ll probably like Zendo, starting with a very simple rule. Volcano and Pikemen also are good games for this age group.
  • As in demo-ing to adults, try a simple game first and observe the player’s skill level and strategy ability. If they seem ready for a more complex game, choose one that uses the strengths they’ve demonstrated.


  • Anyone who can read can play. Kids who can’t read but want to play can form a team with a parent or older kid. Expect to do some extra prompting to get players through their turns as the rules become more complex.
  • Consider Fluxxentration, another easy game played with the same cards. Even kids who can’t read can match the pictures.
  • For kids under 8, try spreading out all the Keepers on the table, turning up a Goal, and seeing who can find the matching Keepers first.


  • UPDATE: Looney Labs released a new edition of Aquarius in August 2009, with new progressive rules for preschoolers, using my input!
  • Kids 2-6 will like the pictures and enjoy spreading out the cards. They may want to match patterns. They may want to find pairs. They may want to use the cards to make terrain for imaginative play with pyramids or other small toys. Again, follow their lead.
  • Keep a lone kid (5 or older) busy with this puzzle: “Can you line up all the cards so the pictures match on every edge?”
  • Deal out the element cards evenly among 2 or more kids (5 or older) and have them race to see who can be first to place his cards so that they all match on every edge.
  • Kids who can read can play by the adult rules.


  • Kids who want to play but are having trouble understanding the rules or reading the cards can play as a team with an adult. (The cards are written at about “fifth grade reading level”, but bright kids–the type you’re likely to meet at cons and game stores–may be reading that well at a much earlier age. Try, “Do you read chapter books?” as a screening question.)
  • Try Artifaxx with kids 5-11 years old who can read the cards. The rules for this little game are in the back of the rule booklet.


  • Kids who can’t read may enjoy putting pictures together and telling a story. Try dealing out the deck evenly to the players and letting each choose which of her cards she wants to use in her story.
  • Kids 7-11 will understand the different types of story elements, the process of collecting cards in your hand, and the scoring, but they may get confused by the action cards. Use the Anthology rules (in the back of the booklet), or try this: Deal each player a hand of 8 cards. Draw a card, look at it, and either pass it to the next player or exchange it with one in your hand and pass the discard to the next player. Continue until you have a story with at least one of each element, then draw a number and keep passing cards until all players are ready to tell their stories.

[Editor’s note: Nanofictionary is currently out of print and undergoing rules revision.  I never have liked the rules, but I love the story element cards!  I’ve now used them this way several times with my Girl Scouts, ages 9-12: Give each player or team a stack of cards including several of each story element: Character, Setting, Problem, and Resolution.  Players may use as many of their cards as they like but must include at least one of each element.]


  • Kids as young as 5 can play by the adult rules.
  • Kids as young as 3 will understand the arrows and enjoy using the discs to make paths for a playing piece to follow. Try putting obstacles on the table and having them figure out how to lay paths around them.
  • Kids 3-5 years old, who are just learning pattern-matching, may enjoy putting all the discs face down and turning up 2 to find a pair. (Same rules as Memory or Concentration, but very easy!)

A Real-Life Example

For those who are skeptical or need some more encouragement, here’s an example of how I entertained some very young kids with Looney Labs games:

I was visiting my cousin Tiffany and her kids. Alyssa was 4, and Chris was almost 2. After settling Chris in Tiffany’s lap and reminding the kids that pointy objects are not to be put into anyone’s eyes, nose, or ears or left on the floor, we set out the Icehouse pieces. Simply stacking them in different configurations occupied both kids for over an hour!

Chris’s main interest was stacking pyramids in random order until they fell over (he picked them all up and didn’t lose a single one!) and then trying it again a different way. Tiffany encouraged him to name colors and sizes as he played.

Alyssa was interested in stacking each color by size, then each size by color, then each possible configuration of red-blue-yellow, then giving each three-pointer a “hat” of a different color, etc., etc. I showed her how to make a “Christmas tree” by stacking greens by decreasing size, and she really liked that–built a whole forest and had some one-pointers and their two-pointer Mommy hike through it.

After showing Alyssa the element cards of Aquarius, I asked her what game we should play with them. First, we dealt out all the cards and took turns placing them on the table with one element matching–as in standard Aquarius, but without worrying about goals. Then, when all the cards were face-up on the table, we took turns picking up pairs. (Tiffany said they’d been playing Memory recently.) Alyssa was able to match even the four-element cards once I pointed out that it’s easier to look for “no fish” than for “star, rainbow, flower, and fire.”

3 thoughts on “When Kids Show Up at Your Demo

  1. Pingback: Growing a Gamer Geek « The Earthling's Handbook

  2. Pingback: My kid can play IceTowers!!! « The Earthling's Handbook

  3. Reblogged this on Laurie Menke Educational Services and commented:
    This is my first reblog… I hope it works right! I just read this great article by a friend of the Looneys of Looney Labs. It’s about the how the stages of cognitive development all kids go through apply to their ability to play games at different ages. It also gives great tips for how to include kids in gaming! Thanks for the great information, ‘Becca!

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