When Dragon Child was born, Astra and I had a (semi)regular weekly gaming group (mostly various RPGs with the occasional board game when multiple members were absent). While he was still very small, this continued with no problems, since he would just rest in a carrier, nurse, or sleep for the entire session. As he began to get older, keeping him entertained during the session became more and more difficult. The group eventually broke up for unrelated reasons, but I realized I needed to find another way to play the games I loved while managing my children in a way that was fair both to them and the other players.
When children are very small, they are often content to just sit and stare, eat, or sleep for long periods of time, and gaming only requires simple adjustments along the lines of “Can you hold the baby while I take my turn?” When kids are older, they can learn to play with you, or have their own hobbies that only require minimal supervision. In between is a problematic window: the child is old enough to get bored and needs entertainment (and wants to know what you’re doing), but isn’t capable of always participating or entertaining themselves. When this window begins and ends will vary based on the temperaments and needs of each child, as well as your preferred games, but I’ve yet to meet the child ready to roll up a High Elven Evocationist by the time they could walk.
Besides the problems of caring for the child, the increased attention on your kid can be unfair to the rest of the gaming group, who have to wait on increasingly frequent interruptions, pauses, and sidetracks. Tabletop gaming is a social activity, and it’s important for everyone at the table to have the same expectations about how focused players will be on the game. If you’re the only one in your group with kids present, chances are good that you will be the most distracted (and distracting) member, probably decreasing other players’ enjoyment.
It’s nearly inevitable that your available gaming time will decrease after having children. At the same time, I’ve found that continuing to have a little gaming time as a creative outlet, socialization time, and stress reliever became, if anything, more important once I had kids. Below are several ways to work a little bit of gaming back into your schedule.
Gaming Without Kids
The most obvious, though not always easiest, solution is to find some time to game when your children aren’t an issue. Hiring a babysitter or using some of the time afforded by the childcare option of your choice definitely gives you dedicated gaming time with no distractions, but it comes with its own costs. Besides the possible financial burden, if you’re the type of parent who always worries about their kids when they’re away it can make what is supposed to be relaxation very stressful. Depending on the frequency and length of your gaming sessions, you will also have to balance how much time away from your family is appropriate to your situation.
If you have a significant other with hobbies of their own to which they want to devote time, a “trade” can be arranged. Consider something along the lines of, “You take the kids to the park on Saturday afternoon while I play a game, and I’ll take them to the zoo on Sunday afternoon while you meet up with your book club (or whatever).” Such an arrangement not only gives each partner time to pursue their hobbies, but also ensures that each will have dedicated “mommy time” or “daddy time” to focus on enjoying their children. Discipline in scheduling will be required, however, to regularly fit both activities into an increasingly busy family routine.
Gaming With Children Nearby
Whether at your own home or another venue, it is possible to enjoy a game with children in the same building (or even the same room). The simple question that must be answered is: What will your kids be doing while you play?
Venue becomes very important in this scenario, as it determines what diversions are available. If you have the space, consider hosting the gaming group at your house–besides having all of your child’s toys in it, you can be sure it will be baby-proofed to your satisfaction. Slightly older children can entertain themselves for long periods with TV or computers, but you as a parent must determine how much time is appropriate for such activities and ensure that they are suitably monitored.
Safety first! Make sure your gaming environment is appropriate for children (especially if you play at a friend’s house that doesn’t usually have kids) and immediately find and retrieve any small game pieces that fall off the table where little hands (and mouths) could reach them.
If the child is interested in what you are doing, consider providing similar toys to play with. For games with “funny dice” like Dungeons and Dragons, a jumbo set of foam polyhedral dice can let children roll their own criticals and make up their own games (you may be surprised to find your little one watching you, picking up a die when you do, and rolling it along with you). For games with cards, spare cards (or even basic playing cards) that you don’t mind being destroyed can be given, and will survive some rough play and even light gumming if encased in fairly inexpensive card sleeves. Alternatively, you can pick up a set of plastic playing cards to hand to your child whenever they want to play with cards, too.
Of course, it is likely that your child will still take some attention, making it important to communicate with your gaming group about what the expected level of attention and focus will be for a session. The ideal scenario is when everyone has the same (or equivalent) level of focus and distraction, which brings us to…
The Playgroup as Play-date
If there’s anyone who understands the challenges you’re facing, it’s other parents. It is well worth the effort to find other parents in your area with kids about the same age as yours who would be interested in gaming together. Reach out to friends at your church, work, or parent group and ask if it’s something they would be interested in. Unless you’re very lucky, be prepared to explain your hobby and and induct new players–some of the explanations I needed to give spawned ideas for other blog posts!
If you can get a sufficient number of parents together, this arrangement can be very beneficial. Everyone gets together for regular (ish) meetings where you can all play your favorite games and your kids can play with each other. Since everyone has kids present, everybody is about equally distracted. If you’re good friends with the other players, you may have the ability to deal with the problems of each other’s kids, which lets whoever just finished their turn or isn’t participating in this scene deal with any problems that come up. Since everyone’s house is set up for children, hosting duties can be rotated instead of always falling on one person. Provided interests align, both parents can play and share the childcare duties all around.
Everyone in the group will have to accept, however, that the children come first. This leads to a more “casual” gaming atmosphere where play happens when there’s time and attention to spare for it, which may turn off more “hardcore” gamers. Additionally, players will frequently be absent for illness, doctor appointments, extracurricular activities, etc. I recommend getting a group that is slightly larger than your ideal number of players and setting a minimum number of players for a session, then holding a session whenever your minimum is met. Otherwise, almost every session will end up cancelled. For example, I ran a 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons group with myself as the DM and seven players, but would hold a session on schedule whenever myself and at least 3 other players could make it. Don’t penalize players for missing a session; award experience, gold, or whatever as if they’d been there–the goal is to make sure no one ever feels bad about attending to their family’s needs.
Take care to set expectations and commitments appropriately when setting up your gaming schedule. If weekly games take too much time, consider meeting every other week or even monthly instead. Also realize that even if you are predictable, your child isn’t. You will likely miss more sessions than you used to for illness and other times your family needs you, so make sure your group is aware of this. Always communicate your impending absence as soon as possible–text or message your group right away when you realize you won’t be able to attend.
While gaming definitely becomes more difficult as a parent, it is still possible and can be well worth the effort as you await the day your children can join you at the table. If you have other tips for parents like me, please share them in the comments!