Top 10 Table Games for Eating out with Kids (or on the road)

(I’m gonna’ go ahead and publish these lists in case you need some ideas for your spring break week, AND because we are hitting the road for a long car trip to Chicago, and lots of these games will help me out there, as well!)

These games are FREE, FUN, and great for building brain and family connections at any age! (Did you know that’s the mission statement for “Mommy Manders” seminars?) Most of these “take anywhere” games work great for waiting in lines, long car trips, and even getting your kids to sit a while on the potty (hoping my children will learn that “poop” time is not actually “social” time before they go off to college.) They are some of the same simple, old games we played growing up (before iphones and ipads), and they are better for brains and families! Instead of batteries, they require talking, thinking, eye contact, attention span, and authentic connection. Good luck, and have fun!

1. 20 Questions: I grew up playing this game with my family on car trips and in long lines at Six Flags. It teaches critical thinking skills, logical reasoning, how to categorize (ooh, categories – that’s another fun game you could play at the table), the internal control to  think ahead to ask yes/ no questions (you have to help your little ones out with this, but they’ll get the hang of it), and it gives you a chance to focus on beloved friends and family members, favorite storybook characters, or historical figures. I usually give my little ones some clues along the way, and help them think through the information that they have gathered to guide their questions and guesses. (Oh, not to mention the counting…)

2. Pictionary: Got scrap paper and a pen? Or crayons and a kid’s menu? Don’t have anything to write with? No worries – ask them what color they want you to use, dip your finger in imaginary ink, and draw on the palm of their hand or in the air. For Ellie who’s almost 3 (and because I’m not a great artist), I keep it simple, like a tree or a cow. And I start her off with clue to get her little brain thinking in critically, like “This is something that stays in one place” or “This is an animal you might see on a farm.” With your older kids, you could try drawing nouns, proper nouns, verbs, even prepositions. Or you could make the puzzle a little more complex by saying, I’m thinking of a place, and I’m going to draw some things that you might see there. (Now their brains have to process and express the information in a more indirect way.)

3. Guess the emotion. (happy, sad, angry, sleepy, bored, peaceful, surprised, frightened, excited, pensive). Your face is always a favorite toy, and it’s always with you! You can challenge even babies to play “mirror” with you, and label the facial expressions for them. Get your tot and pre-schooler to “mirror” and name them for you, and they can give you some as well. Finally, try drawing and guessing the emotions on paper. Take it one step further, and have them describe a time they felt that way.

4. “I wonder...” This is a great game for stimulating creativity, imagination, and curiosity, and for gaining new perspectives (and thus, brain pathways). I play it sometimes at the close of my music classes with pre-school kids as I’m putting stickers on little hands or shirts. Say we’ve been singing rainy day songs and I’m handing out animal stickers…”I wonder what it’s like to be a fish in the rain.” Or we were pretending we were at the park, and I’m handing out zoo stickers…”I wonder what a monkey the would do at the park…an elephant?” I just get their little minds cranking, and then send them home, hoping that it makes for an interesting conversation in the car. This is also a good one for bedtime, to set them up for interesting dreams. (Often based on whatever story-book you’ve just read….”I wonder what it’s like to be an Oompa Loompa in the chocolate factory.”)

5. Build a Story. Speaking of building creativity and imagination, how about building narrative skills, too? One person begins a story with a sentence or even just a word, then you go around and add on to it. “Once upon a time there was a little mouse.” or just “Once…” You never know where this will go! Try to recall it later and write it down or tell it at bed-time.

6. Whisper a Question – I made up this game recently while trying to keep my 2 young children plus 2 more at the table for dinner. I went around whispering a simple question like “What is your favorite vegetable?” to each person, and then they took turns answering. You could leave one person out, and then based on hearing the answers, let them try to guess what the whispered question was.

7. “I Spy with My Little Eye…” We all know this one. You can make it simple for babies by just spying colors, or you can make it more challenging by spying shapes, items that start with the sound “b”, patterns, even textures (something rough).

8. Tic Tac Toe, of course! And remember “The Dot Game“? The one where you start with a little diagram of dots, and take turns  connecting 2 dots to make lines, with the goal of completing a square which you claim by putting your initial in. Then, the person with the most squares at the end is the winner. I used to play this game quietly sitting in church, next to a friend or a friends’s mom in the pew while my parents were up in the choir loft.

9. Hangman! Your child doesn’t have to be a reader to guess the letters, and when the simple word is complete you help them sound it out, like “mop.” Neither do they have to know the origin of the title, “hangman”.

10. Who Am I?  Choose a category, and begin to describe yourself in first person (as an animal, a famous person, a family member, a story book character, a toy on the toy shelf, an item from the pantry – ANYTHING!) Other guessing games: guess the animal sound, guess the opposite.

*Bonus Game! “Rock, Paper, Scissors”  MJ and I like to play this when we arrive a little early to school, and are waiting for them to open the doors. We have added a fun element of further physical connection. If we both do paper, we high five. If we both do scissors, we “scissor hug” (squeeze-snip our scissor-fingers together). If we both choose rock, we fist bump. When you’re out at a restaurant, you can keep score by teaching your child how to tally up the points using tally marks. (Grouping by 5’s – Ta-dah! – you’re doing multiplication!)




  1. Melanie says:

    Love these ideas. We could start playing “I Wonder” with AM! She’s not verbal enough for some of the games, but her mind travels a million miles per minute!


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