Introducing table top role playing games (TTRPGs) to kids less than 5 years old
Introducing TTRPGs to kids under the age of 5 can be difficult. Sometimes, the mechanics don’t click. Sometimes they aren’t ready to play as another character. Sometimes, they just don’t know what you are doing.
Instead of jumping straight into a TTRPG, you can try to slowly introduce the concept of a role playing game through storytelling and play.
I started with my son when he was 2 years old by doing what I call “interactive storytime” and along with this article, I have published a small game called StoryGuider on ich.io to get you started!
- What is interactive storytime?
- How do you create and play a story?
- Some tips and tricks to add
- Use StoryGuider to help!
What is interactive storytime?
Interactive storytime is like a TTRPG but you only do the role-playing (RP) part. There’s no dice mechanics or rules to get stuck on – it is just you and your child telling a story together.
You are the storyteller and explain what happens. However, unlike just reading a book, you ask your child questions about what the main character should do next.
This helps your child connect with the character in the story and get used to the idea that they can change things without having to worry about remembering rules, knowing numbers, etc. It ends up being a good transition into trying out other TTRPGs (that have rules/mechanics) later since the RP will at least already be familiar.
It also helps in other areas of life with decision-making, problem-solving, and learning cause-and-effect… but that’s probably going to be a whole other article.
How do you create and play a story?
Interactive storytime is very freeform, but here is a guide for helping you come up with and continue a story with your child!
Step 1: Pick a topic for your story
Choose a story topic that is easy for your child to connect with and that you can come up with enough material for.
Some good places to start are:
- Retell one of your kid’s favorite movies, TV shows, or books
- Tell a story about one of your kid’s toys
- Use a regular TTRPG plot hook list but change the tone to be kid-friendly
- Ask your child if they have an idea
Bonus: when I started, I chose characters from kids movies that my son hadn’t seen yet… it blew his mind when we eventually watched the movie!
Step 2: Prepare a simple plot
Keep your prep simple… treat this like an improv-heavy one shot. There doesn’t need to be interweaving plot lines or traps or ulterior motives for the first time you bring this to your child.
Here’s an example of what I did for my son’s first interactive storytime to help give some example framework:
- Choose a start and end point
Start: The magician gets a letter from the king to perform at his birthday party
End: The magician pulls off a funny magic show
- Think of a few events that can bridge those points
- The magician needs to pack
- The magician needs to travel through the woods to the castle
- Once he’s at the castle, the magician gets nervous
- The magician needs to perform a few tricks
And that is about all the prep I did because I wanted my son to fill in the rest of the gaps and questions with me. My son would also probably end up overwriting or losing interest if I did anything more complex.
Step 3: Ask your child questions
When you get to one of the events in the story, ask your child a question about what the character should do. For the first time doing this, it can help to give a few suggestions within the questions to help your child get used to picking.
Asking “what should the magician pack?” is probably OK for an older kid or a kid used to RP.
For the first few storytimes, something like “The magician is running out of room in his bag and can only pack one more thing… Should he pack an extra snack? Or should he bring his lucky rabbit stuffed animal?”
Step 4: Let your child answer
This is the whole reason for doing this… let your child answer.
Give them time, let them ask you questions about the choices presented, and encourage them or let them know they did well when they made a decision.
If they aren’t answering:
If they won’t choose or they say, “I don’t know. I want daddy to pick”, try to calmly talk to them about why they don’t want to pick.
Maybe this is just totally new and they don’t understand.
Maybe they don’t want something bad to happen to the character.
Maybe they want to get the best answer.
Maybe they don’t feel confident in themselves or are just scared about making a decision.
If still they aren’t responding, try to understand why this might be difficult… and be compassionate.
Think about when you’ve had a hard time making a choice. If someone got upset at you for not picking, it would probably stress you out and make it harder to come to that person for help in the future.
So, if they really don’t want to pick, you help them along while still introducing them to choice:
- Have your child flip a coin (if they’re old enough)
- Write options on slips of paper and have them pick it out of a box
- Put it into a choice generator
This still encourages choosing and shows that it is safe, but it takes away some of the pressure by randomizing it. It can still help your child learn that choices aren’t something to be afraid of and you can work their own choices in as they get more comfortable.
Step 5: Ask more questions… unless your child is done
Sometimes with toddlers… you don’t always get to the end of the story. Maybe after the first 2 story points, the topic isn’t clicking with your child and they want to do something else. It is OK to end there or come back to it later.
This should be something fun and like a game, so you don’t want it to become a chore or something they will feel forced to do after losing interest.
Over time, they’ll probably be able to pay attention longer, and you’ll get more practice with storytelling. My son and I started out doing ~5 minute stories but now consistently do 15-20 minutes at a time.
Some tips or tricks to add!
Here are some additional parts that I added when doing interactive storytime with my son!
Let your child act it out
Let them pretend to chase the squirrel that stole their sandwich, command the boat (the couch), or yell at the king that the ogre was just trying to help. This helps get the wiggles out and is great that they are getting immersive with the RP!
Another way to encourage role playing is to use props! Use their toys to represent characters, build a pillow fort castle, or let them dress up. This also helps emphasize that this is fun play-time and makes it special, especially if you do it with them.
Draw the character or parts of the story
I have run into once in a while where my son has a hard time separating himself from the character, especially when he’s acting the story out. It helps for him to see, “oh, the magician is actually this guy on the paper”.
This is also a good way to break up parts of the story with coloring breaks. If their interest starts to wane, let them draw a picture of the treasure map or castle from the story so they have something else to focus on for a little bit.
Teach colors, numbers, etc
Once you and your child are comfortable with the RP part, consider adding in some other teaching elements to help them learn colors, counting, ABC’s, etc.
I would ask my son to choose between a red or green apple that we colored on a sheet of paper or maybe the map was marked with numbers and letters.
Because it is integrated into play and not just memorization exercises, it is sometimes easier to get kids to practice some of these educational bits and actually remember them.
Use StoryGuider to help!
At about the same time that I’m releasing this article, I am also releasing a game on ich.io called StoryGuider. It gives you a story about The Magician’s Big Performance (I hope to publish more stories in the future), an example playthrough of the story, and a blank template for using this method to make your own stories!
I wanted to make something that was affordable to everyone, so it is a pay-what-you-want (PWYW)/you can grab a free copy. It should be appropriate for your child as long as they are old enough to understand you and can respond to questions, either verbally or by pointing to pictures that you draw.
I really hope you give this (either the overall method or the free game) a try, even just once. There’s a lot of benefits for your kid (developing critical-thinking, decision-making, self-confidence, etc), and it gives an amazing opportunity for you to bond with and understand your child. Sharing a hobby, a story, and a few laughs for even a 5 minutes can help brighten up a day and can mean the world to a child.
Please let me know if this helps and if you use any of the tips here! Or let me know if you have tried something similar and have your own stories!