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Kids' Brain Teasers and Mind Games

Delight Grandkids With These Old-Fashioned Pastimes


These old-fashioned kids' brain teasers and mind games have amused kids for many years. Most don't require any props, although the river crossing games are traditionally played with coins. They can be played on trips, in restaurants and any other place where the grandchildren are getting restless.

This is one in a series of old-fashioned pastimes for kids.

1. Fox, Goose and Bag of Beans

River crossing games like "Fox, Goose and Bag of Beans" are an old-fashioned type of brain teaser, having been around since the 9th century. My grandfather used coins to help us visualize the problem.

Here's the puzzle: A farmer has a fox, a goose and a bag of beans. He hires a boat to cross a river, but can carry only one item at a time. If left unguarded, the fox would eat the goose, and the goose would eat the beans. How can the farmer get his purchases across the river?

If you need help, here's the solution:  Cross river with goose. Return. Cross river with fox. Bring goose back. Take beans over. Return. Cross river with goose.

The position of the fox and beans can be reversed, and the solution still works.

2. Missionaries and Cannibals

This game, traditionally known as missionaries and cannibals, is a more difficult river crossing game. If you find the name offensive, you can change it to lions and lion tamers, or other entities of your choice.

Three missionaries and three cannibals must cross a river in a boat that will hold only two. At no point can the missionaries on either bank be outnumbered by the cannibals (or the lion tamers be outnumbered by the lions) or they will be eaten. Here it is: a missionary and a cannibal cross; the missionary returns; two cannibals cross; one cannibal returns; two missionaries cross; one missionary and one cannibal return; two missionaries cross; one cannibal returns; and the remaining two cannibals cross.

3. Soldiers and Boys

One more river crossing puzzle: Three soldiers are crossing a river with the help of two boys who have a boat. The boat can carry only one soldier or two boys. Your grandchildren will protest that if only one soldier can cross at a time, it's impossible for them all to cross, but here's the solution: Both boys cross; one returns; the first soldier crosses; the second boy returns; both boys cross; one returns; the second soldier crosses; the second boy returns; both boys cross; one returns; the third soldier crosses, the second boy returns.

4. Picaria

Use this picaria board to play a fun game of logic that's fun to play with grandchildren.
Image Courtesy of Scouter Mom

If you have a piece of paper and two sets of three items to use as counters, your grandchildren can play this traditional Native American game wherever they happen to be. Draw the simple grid. Counters are placed on the intersections of lines, and the object is to get all three of your counters in a straight line. Players alternate placing their counters on the board. The center spot is off limits at this point. Once all counters are placed, if no one has scored three in a row, the players alternate moving their counters. They may only move one line segment at a time, and they may not jump. The first player to get all three counters in a row wins. Some games will end in a draw.

5. Stumpers and Riddles

Another old-fashioned pastime is asking questions that boggle the mind. Here are some examples. You'll probably remember more:

  1. Two mothers and two daughters had a picnic of ham, potato salad and beans. Each individual ate only one dish. How is it possible that no one went hungry?
  2. If Sally's daughter is my daughter's mother, what am I to Sally?
  3. There are four houses all in a row. The Wallaces live next to the Clarks, but not next to the Randalls. If the Randalls do not live next to the Lodens, who are the Lodens' next-door neighbors?
  4. How many years are there between 5 B.C. and 5 A.D.?

Here are the solutions:

  1. The picnic-goers are a grandmother, a mother and a daughter.
  2. I am Sally's daughter.
  3. The Wallaces.
  4. 9, because there is no year 0

6. The Dictionary Game

School-age kids will enjoy the Dictionary Game. One person thinks of a word and begins by saying something like, “I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with car.” The others begin guessing, saying something like, “Is it something black that is put on the road?” The first person has to say, “No, it is not tar.” The round continues until someone guesses the first person’s word. That person is the next one to give a clue. If, however, the first person can’t come up with the word to fit a guesser’s definition, that player gets to be it. Grandparents can help with clarifying or extending definitions. This is excellent practice in language as well as problem-solving.
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