Out of ideas for new things to do? Go old-school instead

Dust off those retro board games and analog activities—playtimes of yesteryear fuel new connections today.

Thanks to pandemic-caused stay-at-home orders, families across the country have been enjoying an abundance of together-time. (So. Much. Time.) School—even from a distance—at least provided some structure. But with summer options like camp and overnight visits to friends’ houses too risky, parents are wondering, now what?

More and more, moms and dads are answering that question by reaching into their own childhood memories for ideas. Whether out of resourcefulness, nostalgia, or a little desperation, they’re disconnecting kids from digital devices and plugging them into old-school playtime—think retro board games, jigsaw puzzles, fort building, and roller skating.

James Zahn, senior editor of The Toy Insider, sees this trend toward retro play reflected in the uptick in industry sales figures. Jigsaw puzzles have famously been in high demand ever since the pandemic first sent families sheltering in March. Classic board games like Risk, Sorry!, Pictionary, and Monopoly “are selling as if they’re brand new,” he says. Bicycle sales have sped up, with skateboards and roller skates also seeing huge spikes.

And what might seem old-school to parents is actually a novelty for the young generation raised with smart phones, tablets, and computers. “Believe it or not, hands-on play is a new thing for kids,” Zahn says.

It also can be a healthy thing. Parenting experts cite many benefits for today’s youth, like bonding with their parents, learning resourcefulness, and feeling joy from simple adventures.

“Parents are so used to structuring their kids’ days and taking them to activities,” says Erin Leyba, author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents. The Illinois-based counselor is also the mother of four children, ages 10, 9, 7, and 2. “Kids’ lives are so complex, with so much going on at all different levels. Just simplifying childhood could be really healthy for them.”

Making connections

Retro activities aren’t just a fresh way to keep kids busy—they’re also a way for children to make connections with their parents. “Kids love hearing stories from their parents,” says Sushi Frausto, a marriage and family therapist who works at the Southern California-based Institute for Girls’ Development. She specializes in parent coaching and working with young children. “They get to know their parents better.”

In San Francisco, Sara Maamouri discovered this after mining her memories for activities that would be both fun and educational for her two daughters. She came up with the code-breaking game Mastermind— and decoded another benefit: a connection with her 7-year-old daughter. “I’ve told her that it was a game I played a lot with my cousin, Ilyes, in Tunisia. Playing it just feels like snapshots of my childhood,” she says. “And she was delighted to have a new game.”

Anya Lee’s kids got to see a different side of their mother after her idea of retro playtime got her thinking back to an old-school science experiment she did as a child. One day she filled a plastic bag with water, held it over her husband’s head, then brandished a sharpened pencil. “I asked my kids, ‘You guys, what do you think will happen if I stab this bag right in the middle with my pencil?” recalls the Southern California mom. “My husband’s, like, ‘Wait a minute.’ He’s getting nervous.”

Fortunately for her husband, no water spilled out. “That sparked an interest for them,” Lee says of her daughter, 10, and son, 8, who asked for another science lesson the next day. (Check out more kid-friendly science experiments here.)

And all that retro playtime interaction is great for parents as well. “You kind of get to be kids again,” Leyba says, “and have a little fun, too.”

Zahn can personally attest to the joys of revisiting playtimes past with his 11- and 8-year-old daughters. Together they’re exploring the world of Hot Wheels cars, wooden deck classic skateboards, and Rubik’s Cubes. “It’s so true that play is therapeutic,” Zahn says. “My daughters and I are just happy if we get a side of the Rubik’s cube complete.”

Ignoring the eyerolls

Frausto notes that Generation Z—with their lower attention spans and higher expectations—might need help wrapping their heads around retro fun. “Kids are used to seeing things on YouTube,” Frausto says, giving drawing videos as an example. “They have so many examples and instructions. When we were kids, we were just given some crayons and paper.”

But they can definitely adapt and learn. Lee, a self-proclaimed “helicopter parent,” saw this for herself. “My kids are always looking to me for what to do next,” she says. The quarantine has helped her realize her own limitations, sparking another old-school idea: shoving her kids into the backyard and telling them to go play, without any specific instructions.

The first few times, her kids whined within minutes. But she persisted. “If they’re out there, they’ll come up with something,” she says. “That’s what my sister and I did as kids. We didn’t have anything planned. You just come up with something.”

And even if the retro activity seems like a fail, don’t despair. Grace Jimenez, a mother of two in Lorton, Virginia, was desperately trying to spark interest from her two sons in this old-school favorite: dominoes. After setting up chain-reaction patterns with her kids, her 12-year-old suggested recording the dominoes falling in slow-motion with a phone camera. “We entertained ourselves for 20 minutes,” Jimenez says, admitting the interest didn’t linger much beyond that. “It was, like, ‘That was cool. OK, bye.’”

But Frausto praises resourceful parents like Jimenez and encourages them to keep reaching into their memories to inspire their children. For instance, now that Jimenez’s kids know how to play with dominoes, they can play on their own anytime.

“You don’t have to fill all of your kids’ time,” Frausto says. “They learn how to get out of [feeling bored]. They learn initiative and creativity.”

Real simple

Sometimes the retro activity isn’t about the board game or the gear. It’s just about channeling a simpler time—and how that made parents feel. “After all,” Frausto says, “the kids will remember how they felt.”

The simplicity of this moment is what Leyba connects to her own childhood, such as when she and her four kids visit a nearby creek. They’ll try to catch a frog or hop from rock to rock. “It’s so different from going to the swimming pool,” she says. “There’s an element of exploration and adventure.”

In East Cobb, Georgia, Jamie Salimi remembers how she felt as a child building forts and roller-skating with her siblings and has been passing on those feel-good vibes to her 6- and 8-year-old daughters. On roller-skating outings, she tells them about how, as a child, she spent every Saturday at her local rink in Southern California and had fabulous birthday parties there.

“I think we are bonding differently, probably because these are activities I’m familiar with and I have good memories of myself,” Salimi says. “They can probably filter in the happiness.”

In the online parenting support group she leads, Frausto has heard about relay races in the backyard, a ton of bike riding, and movie nights watching the parents’ old favorites like the original Superman series. Whatever the old-school pastime, she says this together-time can help provide much-needed comfort during a very traumatic time.

“You’re giving yourself a burst of all these great positive neurotransmitters that help us feel things like connection and love that make our brains tap into its reward system,” she says. “That’s just a great antibody against stress.”