“Families that pray together, stay together,” could possibly read “Families that play together, stay together.”

Families that develop traditions of playing games together, often beginning as alternate forms of entertainment during Lent, have found that it can help teach the faith, avert boredom, expand creativity and strengthen family life.

“When families play together, they create their own joyful excitement. When they sit in front of the TV for entertainment, they are at the mercy of whatever is passively fed to them by the media,” said Christopher Ruff, who is director of the Office of Ministries for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisc.

He and his wife, Clare, began playing charades with their first two sons when they were just four and two. It was a way to provide an outlet for their energy, said Clare. Today the Ruffs have five children, ranging in age from 2 to 12. John, the oldest, is still an enthusiastic participant but, Clare said, “is getting wise to the fact that I use the games as a tool to bring order and tranquility to an otherwise turbulent time.”

To play charades with children of varied ages, the Ruffs choose to stick with well-known books, movies or television shows. The younger children need suggestions for easy things to pantomime. For example, 5-year-old Chiara enjoys acting out Cinderella by pretending she is sweeping and then putting a crown on her head and dancing.

“The kids love it,” said Clare. “I think it helps them with public speaking, frankly, because they're used to getting up in front and having to do something on their own.”

The Ruffs also play 20 Questions, which is especially useful in a car. One of the children will think of an animal and the others have to guess within 20 questions what the animal is. You can only ask yes or no questions, like: “Does it swim?” “Does it have four legs?” The one who guesses the animal correctly gets to think of the next one. If no one guesses within 20 questions, the same person gets to take another turn.

Clare said this game helps bring the kids out of boredom, which she believes is a springboard for bickering.

“I used to say a Hail Mary or an Our Father, but I realized it wasn't producing the effects I wanted.” She added, “Board games have been a terrific failure for us. Too many age groups, too many pieces. The younger ones always walked off with the dice.”

The Ruffs have also discovered that their children thoroughly enjoy home videos, an alternative to their no-TV rule for Lent. “It's fun for them to see the affection, gentleness and tenderness that was lavished on them when they were small, too,” said Clare. “I think it helps root them in their identity as a person.”

Bob and Sharon Morris of Steubenville, Ohio, believe it is vitally important that children identify as a person who belongs to a family. From the time their seven children were babies, they would invite other families into their home on Saturday nights for dinner and games. The games, said Bob, were “somewhat of a gimmick on our part to make the tradition of having family life together a reality.”

The Morrises started the evening by reading the Sunday Scripture. Everyone at the table had to offer a comment, which led to some rich discussions about the faith. After dinner, the games would begin. They were simple enough for everyone to participate, like rolling golf balls toward a wall, and the one who got closest to the wall without touching it would win.

The “penny” game was played when there were lots of children around, said Sharon. One person places a penny somewhere in a room where it can be seen out in the open. Everyone walks around the room and when they see the penny, they walk to one side of the room and sit down. The idea is not to be the last one to find it.

The Morris children today range in age from 14 to 33. Thirty-one-year-old Joseph laughs when he recalls those Saturday nights, but says there was no question they had to be home. “I think there were many times when we rolled our eyes, but by the end of the evening everybody had a good time. Some of the fondest memories as a family were playing games. Even when we get together now, we still love to play.”

Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.