Picture the scene:
You've had a long day. You're tired, the kids are cranky and you are all desperate to get some food in your bellies.
You know you should use this family dinner time as a way to connect with your kids, find out what's going on in their lives. Help them on the road to becoming good humans.
So you begin,
How was your day?
You try again,
"What did you do in school?
So you give up. I mean you were tired anyway, right?
But what if you could have a meaningful family dinner without feeling like Sisyphus?
Good news! You do not have to have "meaningful" dinner conversations with your kids. Of course that is great when it happens, but it's okay to ban dinner conversation at the family table.
Does that mean everyone should now bring their smart phone or e-reader to the table? Of course not!
But you can engage in family dinner activities—literacy ideas, games, even art! So instead you can picture a scene full of laughter, conversations, connections, and even a bit of learning.
The following are some fun screen-free family dinner activities that you can do at the table. And the bonus is that because there is no pressure, you might actually find out what the kids did in school that day. (See how that works?)
Literary Activities for Family Dinner
Tell jokes. Who doesn't love a good joke? Bring a joke book to the table. Pass it around and take turns reading a joke or riddle. Keep it clean, please.
Silly story. You can try different approaches to telling silly stories. One way is for each dinner guest, in turn, to add a single sentence to the story. Another approach would be for each family member to make up a fantastical story about their day. Or make up stories with a "fact or fiction" approach. One person tells a story about thier day and the family members try and guess which parts of the story are real. (A sneaky way around the "What did you do at school today?" question!) Have fun with it!
Building Words. Bring a set of Scrabble or Bananagram tiles to the table. There are a few different ways you can do play, and you will have fun experimenting with different rules. The following are a few examples:
Try a collaborative version. Each person gets a set number of tiles. One person starts by setting out a letter. Then, each person, in turn, adds a letter, with the group trying to collaboratively create a word. Or, one person creates a word and then others substitute 2-3 of their own tiles to change the word. Or, everyone makes their word and then the family creates a collaborative story with those words.
Alternatively, each person gets a handful a tiles. Set a short time limit, and everyone tries to make as many different words with their letters as they can. If you want to eliminate the competitive aspect, then get rid of the time limit. For added fun, everyone uses their word in a silly sentence.
As you can see, the possibilities of how to use the letter tiles, either collaboratively or individually are endless. I think you will find, after a bit, that the kids have great suggestions for how to switch up the rules. Tip: Learn more about Bananagrams here.
Mad Libs. Doing Mad Libs with my kids is the original idea that sparked this bigger list of how you can make meaningful family connections at the dinner table without asking "What did you do in school today?" I previously wrote about how Mad Libs inspired us to stop trying to have dinner conversations. In a nutshell, Mad Libs promote literacy and laughter; kids absolutely love them. Also, they are cheap, and you could even make up your own.
Mystery Diner. Write down the names of colorful famous people on sticky notes. Without looking, everyone picks a sticky note and places it on their forehead. The other diners begin to talk to each other according to the identity they see. Once someone has guessed his identity, he can begin to address the others in that persona.
Poetry. Write haiku about your food. It might be bad. (The haiku! Hopefully not the food.) That is okay. Or limericks! There was a young man with a noodle.... How many words rhyme with noodle?
Book Club. Start a family book club! Kids of different ages will have very different takes on the same story. The conversation could get super interesting! I have some questions to ask your kids about books here. Or, to have the books and dinner ideas planned out for you, check out Family Dinner Book Club.
Games for Dinner Time
Most board games are too unwieldy for a typical family dinner at the table. However, I would encourage you to give it a try when you are having a simple meal, or even playing on the floor while having a picnic dinner.
When I was a kid one of my favorite dinners was fresh buttered popcorn, slices of cheese, and apples. We ate that while playing a game or watching a movie. Looking back it was probably my mother's favorite dinner to make, since it required very little effort. So give yourself a break and eat popcorn and play games at dinner!
Or, if you prefer the more traditional dinner table route, one of these games will work because you don't need much more than dice!
I have several dice game suggestions.
TIP: It might be best if all the kids with sticky fingers have their own set of dice!
Martinetti. Get the Martinetti instructions, or watch the video below.
Drop Dead. Get the Drop Dead instructions, or watch the video below.
Pig. Get the Pig instructions, or watch the video below.
Artsy-Creative Dinner Activity Idea
Cover the table with butcher paper, set out cups of crayons and pretend you are at a restaurant by drawing on the table.
TIP: If you and/or your kids are "not artistic" let go of the need to do representational drawings. I love drawing mandalas! The kids love zentangles. You can read more how we make groovy zentangles. Other ideas include word art, tracing your hand or simply scribbling to your heart's content.
Dinner Conversation Ideas
Although so far I have emphasized activities. Would you like to go the more traditional route and try to spark more philosophical dinner conversations with your kids? I'm all for that, too. Here are some great resources:
Use these family table topics from Growing Book by Book. Jodie has a set of questions for every month.
Play "Would You Rather?" Kids love to ask their grown-up family members "would you rather" questions. "Would you rather be invisible or have super strength?" "Would you rather live on a mountain or an island?"
More family activities:
Indoor family games (no board necessary!)
Creative family activities (great for large family gatherings)