Okay, I'm going crazy posting, I know!
I want to first mention that the recipe here for Rosemary Maple Popcorn is so insanely addictive, and would make such an amazing holiday gift, that I practically want to guarantee it. Not that I know how that would work exactly. But seriously. Please try it.
And next up, because you spoke and I listened (I'm talking to you, Jed), here is Recommended Games Part II: The Younger Years. I do understand that you are not all quite ready for The Strategy, and that you have younger children in the house still (sigh), and that Sorry and Guess Who from the previous edition of Recommended Games really might not fulfill all your gaming needs. (I'm assuming you have Uno already. And a deck of cards.) Plus, we had such a good time reminiscing about our favorite old games (some of which we still play). I spared you Mousetrap, despite my children's hearty nostalgia for it, because it is simply to significant a pain in the ass to deal with. It just is. But these are all great, in their own special ways:
If the idea of a "cooperative board game," makes you want to weep with boredom, well. . . weep away. But we got this game when Ben was very small and very panicky over the idea of "winning games." We played it hundreds of times then, and hundreds more times when Birdy was the same age, with the same panic (and we still play it when our littlest friends are over). It's a sweet little game where you work together to get the harvest in before winter comes--but I'm warning you: you have to put out a lot--a lot of drama and enthusiasm and suspensified horror--or else it is deadly dull. When it's over, you can offer each other the products of your harvest ("Who wants a jar of my famous carrot pickles?") even though you won't find this detail in the rules.
This is a sweet little German tile game, where you roll the dice and race to spot the dwarf dressed in that same trio of colors. It's pretty and simple, and also Birdy always called it "Gorvin Dice," which we loved for no particular reason. "Dwarf" turns out to be a tricky word for her, given that just yesterday she asked if it was only his helpers, or of Santa himself was a "dorf." That website seems to have lots of lovely little German games. For instance, Orchard, which looks to be a pleasanter version of this old favorite:
This was another favorite of the early years, and we played and played until I poked a hole in my head with a fork and my liquefied brain dripped out onto the floor. Did I ever tell you how once, when I was doing some consulting for Hasbro, they showed me all their games, and when we got to this one, I announced, "Oh! Hi Hi Boring-O! Believe me, I've played it." Always a class act. Still, this game is all about the little plastic cherries. That's, like, the most exciting thing ever, and so your small children will love it.
Now this, on the other hand, is an unboring game. It is similar to--but easier than--the regular version of Mastermind, and it requires the same process-of-elimination strategy. It is probably the first strategy game we ever played with either kids, and they loved it mostly because the pieces are shaped like animals and the colors are great.
I love Gamewright games (Rat-a-tat Cat is another good one, as is Zeus on the Loose) and this one might be the one we played the most when the kids were younger. It's got a little bit of memory, a little bit of strategy, some silliness, and great art. Plus, it only takes about 20 minutes to play, which makes it good for those useless little windows of time that my life seems to be pocked with.
Mancala is a beautiful, beautifully simple game that grows with kids: they can play it before they understand about strategy, but they will play it differently after. Plus, the glass pieces are so pretty, as is the wooden board, and it all has such a lovely, classic feel to it--like it could be a million years ago, and there you are in your cave playing mancala. If you know what I mean. Obviously, don't get this if anyone in your house will be tempted to put the marbles in their mouth or nose.
Speaking of classics: right? Oh, Jenga. Michael and I used to babysit kids in Santa Cruz, for whom "Jenga!" was their all-purpose exclamatory swear. And boy did we play a lot of Jenga with them. It's a totally physical game--you need some dexterity, a little bit of a steady hand and common sense--but it's not a heavy strategy one or anything. And it's fun for everyone when all the pieces fall down (Ben and I played just last week at a family gathering, and it was as much fun as ever.) Plus, the pieces double as great, all-purpose building blocks, and get tons of use.
Speaking of classic dexterity games. . . we have this exact set, and love it. And the only thing I would say about this game is that very young children can become incredibly frustrated when other very young children insist that this or that stick moved some imperceptible amount. What I'm saying is: I think an adult needs to play to keep things humming along peacefully, and this works for me, since I love pick-up sticks and happen to be incredibly good at it (kidding, though not about liking it)--but if you're looking to lock your kids alone in a room with a game, don't make it this one.
Aka Booby Trap. This is a lovely version of this game, and looks very much like my childhood one that I still have and that, in fact, Ben and I just played, given that he's home sick today. You try to extract pieces without the spring moving, and if you pick a truly bad one, then they all fly up, and it's very exciting. Again, not for the extremely faint of heart (it was too much for Ben until he was about 5 or so), given the suspense factor and the possibility of losing somewhat dramatically.
Speaking of the suspense factor: we spent years playing Operation with the batteries removed, as it was simply too nerve-wracking for the kids to anticipate the awful buzz of their own clumsiness. But later, when they were maybe 8 and 5--or 7 and 4--they played a ton, and enjoyed it. We have the Homer Simpson edition (I'm not sure why, and it appears to be $90 now!), and the buzz is accompanied by "Doh!" along with other classic Homeric exclamations, which is a good or bad thing, depending. If dexterity completely eludes your child still, maybe hold off on this one (or remove the batteries).
As always, please chime in in the comments about your own favorites--or if you have questions.