The Under-$5 Activity My Son Calls “Better Than a Video Game!”

published Nov 3, 2021
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Family of four playing cards in kitchen
Credit: Sara Monika/Getty Images

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My mom started playing cards with my son Luke when he was 3. She noticed how interested he was in her solitaire phone app and started playing with real cards with Luke before bed time. At first, it seemed strange — or even seedy — to see playing cards in the hands of a kid still in footie pajamas.

Turns out, grandma knows best. While my husband and I have introduced Luke, now 5 years old, to a cabinet full of board games from Candy Land to Twister, games we play with a standard deck of 52 cards are always our favorites. Best of all: games that only rely on playing cards are simple to set up and store, and you don’t have to worry about losing pieces.

As my son heads to first grade and the pandemic restrictions ease, our world is getting bigger again. Playing cards helps us to stay connected as dad and son. Card games don’t ask too much of us. Not too much set up time, not too much thought. They also give us a way to talk about risk-taking, strategy, and being a good sport. 

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I love getting home from work and finding that Luke has already set up a game for us. I see that hopeful game sitting on our kitchen table and feel the cards connect us through generations and time. When I was about my son’s age, I watched our huge Irish family gather after a holiday meal to play Pitch and I hope I’m passing Luke a piece of that tradition. 

Luke and I have three favorites: Solitaire, War, and Thirty One. This first-grader version of Thirty One teaches early math skills and probability — while a whiff of Blackjack is enough to keep the adults in the room engaged. For these games, kids don’t need to manage cards with their own hand or keep their cards secret.  

I start every game by letting our son pick the deck we play with. Playing cards are available in a just about infinite variety of kid-friendly themes, from The Great Pumpkin to fairies, animals to Star Wars. Luke’s first favorite is a deck of $4.99 purple unicorn cards from Bicycle. These standard, easy-to-see cards are great for kids just learning how to play cards.  

“Daddy, Daddy, will you play a quick card game with me?” Luke asks.

“Which cards do you want to use? Waves or animals?” I reply. 

“Waves because grandma likes blue,” he tells me and our game begins. 

Lately we’re playing Solitaire. I start laying down the seven piles to make the tableau.

My son loves when we get an ace card right at the start of the game. “Ace!” we both yell as the ace sails to the top. Luke and I call that part of the game play sending the card home, but I recently discovered that technically the top of a Solitaire game is called the foundation. 

“I think I like cards better than video games,” Luke told me during our game.

“Oh yeah?” I asked.

“You always work all the time. Now you might wanna play cards all the time,” he said. 

My little card sharp is right. I do want to pull myself away from work and get us both off of our screens. I want to keep him close and keep playing cards.