Forget the screens, parents. Try one of these old-school games to connect with your kids.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock 

It is a familiar drill. Exhausted after a harried day, we all - parent, tot, tween and teen alike - melt in cosy, but lonely heaps, often in front of electronic screens. Parents carry some collective guilt about allowing this to happen.

"Without some intentional assertiveness, the pattern is likely to erode into grazing eating, isolated social media, or binge-watching moderately interesting shows while double-screening and having no meaningful interaction," Chris Gonzalez, the director of marriage and family therapy at Lipscomb University in Nashville, writes in an email.

But Gonzalez offers an alternative: "Family game night can help to break up the monotony."

"Playing games with the family is a true bonding and memory building experience," Richard Peterson, vice president of education at Kiddie Academy, writes in an email. Think Checkers, Chess, UNO, Scrabble, Memory, Pictionary and of course, a deck of cards. (You all have those, yes?)

Games, too, often tap into little-used skill sets of both parents and children. "The left brain is the master of expressing itself logically, verbally and in written words. The right side expresses itself randomly, through rhythms, patterns and pictures," Susan Smith Kuczmarski, author of "Becoming a Happy Family," writes in an email. "Parenting, at least within our Western society, has ignored this 'right-brained' way of thinking. But parenting is a whole-brain activity. Play that uses your whole brain draws your family together."

I spoke with several family psychologists and kid experts and consulted the internet and several friends to find games that come in a box, can be played with stuff you have at home, or that require little but your imagination.

Here are their suggestions:

- Apples to Apples: Players match their red "noun" cards to the green "adjective" cards chosen by the judge, who then determines who has the best match. For four to 10 players. Option: Play with each player making a case for why their card is the best match.

- Beat the Parents: Appropriate trivia for two or more kids and adults, often revealing how little parents know about their children's world.

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- Blank Slate: Write the word you think best completes the blank in a phrase - and try to get the same word as just one other player. For three to eight players (or as many people as you want if you scrounge up extra paper).

- Catan: Establish a settlement on an island with this game that is simple to learn but requires lots of strategic thinking. Created in Germany in 1995, Catan now has other editions, spin offs and expansions to involve more than three to four players.

- CatchPhrase: There are whiffs here of $100,000 Pyramid; two teams of two or more players vie to guess a word described by one of their own players, who cannot use any gestures or parts of the word as hints.

- Life: Two to six players travel around a colourful "road" that simulates life's major events: marriage, jobs, kids, retirement. Featured in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Life has been around since 1860, so if you have an older version, prepare to answer questions about why one has to choose between business and college, or to explain what the Poor Farm is.

- Qwirkle: The tile-based game for two to four players requires a quick mind and strategic thinking to build columns of shapes and colours.

- Wits and Wagers: Four or more players place bets on answers to questions no one knows (what is the average number of pizza slices Americans eat each year?) on a Vegas-style felt mat.

If you want to combine words and cards, try Pit. So many different sources suggested this frenzied, fast-paced card game. Three to eight people play at once, vying for commodities and mimicking trading floor chaos.

Or Utter Nonsense, a game for the slightly older crowd (18 and above) in which four to 20 players say ridiculous things in silly accents, and invent new phrases in the process.

And a deck of cards works, too. You could spend the entire holiday break playing different games: Gin Rummy, Hand and Foot, Hearts, Phase 10, and Spades just to name a handful.

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If your family is the competitive sort, turn the tables and harness all those type-A-tendencies in a joint project. "Playing . . . together, rather than against each other, can remove the stress of winning or losing," Gonzalez says. "Think puzzles, Legos or Lincoln Logs."

Kuczmarski suggests getting a large blank canvas at a local art supply store or a large sheet of paper and having each member of the family illustrate or paint on a portion of the canvas. "Hang the work of art in a visible location, such as near the kitchen table. Do this every new year." Oh, and be sure to date it, too.

Erin Croyle, mother of three in Ithaca, New York, has had great success with Outfoxed, where two to four players ages 5 and up work together gathering clues around a board to find a suspect before the fox gets it. "You all win or lose together," Croyle says. "And no one cries about losing to a sibling."

Perhaps no game breeds teamwork like the escape-the-room challenges - and the game now comes in a box. Participants have an hour to work together to solve a mystery surrounding a locked room. And the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons is still going strong.

And it is possible to create family fun without any boards, material, or pieces.

"Spontaneous trivia is so underrated," says Hillel Hoffmann, a dad in Philadelphia who has played it with his now 17-year-old son for years. "It's also been a subversive way to get a non-cranky window on what he's doing at school as he smugly stumps us with what he's learning."

It is easy to tailor many games to your players. Think Charades for small people, or play Find the Alphabet using book titles in your house. I Spy can also get extremely detailed - the purple button on Aunt Harriet's cuff in the portrait above the fireplace - if adults are playing. And Would You Rather can yield even more family information than trivia contests.

My family of four made up something we call The Straw Game, though I am sure many variations exist on the idea.

One player names a category (desserts with chocolate, countries, songs on the radio, dog breeds, state capitals, etc). Each player has five seconds to provide an example. Failure to answer, or a bad answer, earns a straw. (We first played at a restaurant; you can use anything. Even fingers.) The fun really starts when you personalise the categories: Our relatives, things we like to do in winter, favourite holiday traditions, places we have gone on vacation, nicknames. The winner is the person with the fewest straws.

The Washington Post