You don't have to have rules or goals or a game or even anything to play with except each other.
But whatever it is that you're playing, there are two things you have to take seriously: being together, and the sheer fun of it all.
No game is more important than the experience of being together, being joined, being equal - governed by the same rules, playing for the same purpose. And no purpose is more uniting and freeing than the purpose of being fun with each other.
This may be hard to remember at the time. But getting beaten, fair and square, by your own grandkid, is one of life's great accomplishments.
For some reason, both adults and children tend to take games more seriously than anyone needs to. That's why it's not unusual for a trivial game to end up as a contest of wills and little kids to wind up in tears because they've "lost."
But in many games nobody has to lose. Try, for example, this:
Free Form Frisbee Golf. When you're out for a walk, take a Frisbee, plastic plate, or shoe with you. Decide on the target you'd like to hit - a tree, or rock, or fire hydrant - something visible, indestructible, and at least two good throws away. Next, estimate how many throws it will take to get to the target (that's going to be par). One of you tees off (throws). The other picks the Frisbee up where it landed and throws from there. Your joint score is the total number of throws it takes to get through a course that you basically make up as you go along.
Found Object Song Writing. When you're in the car and the preschool grandkids are getting restless, start singing something you all know - "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," for example. As you drive along, change the words to something you both observe so that you make a silly song: "Row, Row, Row your rock gently down the trash can; merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a billboard."
Colors. Here's a game Rocky (my wife) and the kids (Shael and Elyon, then around 5 and 7) invented to fill time when you find yourself on a car trip, for example. On somebody's signal, everybody says a color. Then, on the next signal, everybody says another color (not the one that you just said). And on and on until everybody just happens to say the same color at the same time.
Guess my Chew. For this kitchen table game, put out at least five finger foods, each with a different crunch. For example: grapes, pretzels, carrots, roasted sunflower seeds, potato chips, and string beans. One of you closes your eyes and places your ear to the other's cheek. The other takes a small piece of one of the foods, and chews as necessary. The goal, if one is needed, is to identify what is being chewed and how much of it.
Feeding Fancy. Reserve this dinnertime game for when you're babysitting, because parents might become impatient with all this dilly-dallying over dinner. In this game you can't ask for food or take any for yourself, so everyone can only eat what and when you're offered or offering. It's wonderful being there for each other at the right time with a forkful or sipful or handful of just the right stuff. Nothing prevents any of you from turning up a nose at something that's "yucky," of course - the signal to the server that next time you would like something else. The feeding frenzy works particularly well with sundaes for dessert -- first a little ice cream, then a dab of non-fat fudge or a spoonful of crushed nuts or a dollop of whipped cream. Yum.
Cranks. When you're stuck inside and you want to get the grandkids away from the TV, play a game where one person is the Cranked and the others the Crankers. The Crankers take turns attaching an imaginary crank to any body joint (elbow, knee, finger, wrist) that will move the body part in the direction the cranker wants that part to go -- up or down or left or right. It's most fun if you try to get the Cranked to do something, like eat a piece of bread or sit down.
Theater of the Air. This game for creative fidgeters is played when everyone's tired enough to lie down for a while. You and your grandchildren lie on your backs with your heads almost touching. Raise your hands. Look up. You've created a cast of puppets, a cage of finger birds, or a finger ballet -- whatever you'd like. Let the play begin!
Even when you live far from grandchildren, you can have fun with them in between visits. Here's one low-tech and one high-tech activity to try.
Merry Monster Making. On a blank sheet of paper, start drawing the head and neck of a "monster." When you're finished, fold the paper so that only part of the neck shows, and tape the other part down. Send it to your grandchild (little kids love receiving mail!), with instructions on how to proceed -- such as "Start where I left off, and make a body for the neck. When you're finished, fold it over so that part of the body still shows, and tape down the rest. Then send it back. If you need help with this, ask Mom or Dad." When you get the drawing back, continue drawing the legs, again folding the paper so that your grandchild knows where to continue the drawing, and again taping your part down. When the drawing's complete, untape, unfold, draw a put a frame around it, title it, and send it back to your co-artist. (see Redondo)
Drawing together. Send your grandkids a link to Groupboard. (password = FUN) You can play tic-tac-toe, draw a picture together, play word games, or send "secret" messages to each other. Follow directions on the page, and if you run into any trouble, call your grandchild and ask for help. If you both have two phone lines (or high-speed access), you can talk and play. It's the next best thing.