By Debra Brunner, M.A., CCC-SLP
As a child of the 1970s, tabletop games were a regular activity in my household, especially when it was too cold or dark to play outside. The only video game alternative was Pong, and…well…that was fun for about 15 minutes. “Plugged in” usually referred to playing with a Lite Bright or Easy Bake Oven. For many families today, including mine, there doesn’t seem to be as much time available for face-to-face family fun. However, game time (the unplugged variety), offers a unique opportunity to connect with our loved ones emotionally and socially, as well as stimulate the language, social, and cognitive skills of our children. Now that may sound rather clinical, but I’d like to reiterate that this is all about FAMILY FUN.
Over the years as a speech-language pathologist (SLP), parents have asked me for suggestions regarding books, activities, and games that they can use with their children to foster carry-over with the speech and language goals we have addressed during therapy. In this post I share a few of my favorite FUN FAMILY GAMES that encourage language, social thinking, and reasoning skills in children in elementary and junior high school. Most of these games can be found at stores like Target and Walmart or online at Amazon.com.
Apples to Apples Junior (ages 8+) is a sidesplitting game of comparison where participants select a person/place/thing card from their hand that best fits the descriptive word card that has been placed on the table. An example would be playing the card “gorilla” for the descriptive word “smelly.” The game becomes hilarious when players select unusual or personal words (e.g., “brothers” for “smelly”) during their turn. On each round, the player who turns over the descriptive word card gets to be the “judge” and decides which of the cards played offers the best comparison for the descriptive word. This key feature of the game offers a unique opportunity to target social thinking as you really need to “know your judge” (as we like to say in my family). Each card offers synonyms for the word printed on its center, so this game is an excellent way to expand vocabulary. NOTE: this is one of those games where “the more the merrier” applies and should have at least 4 players. It has become a multi-generational tradition in my house every Thanksgiving, and now that the kids are in their teens, we have moved up to Apples to Apples (original version) and Sour Apples.
HedBanz Game (ages 6+) is used clinically by many SLPs I know, but it is a wonderful game for families to play at home as well. While the recommended age on the box is 7 and up, I have used it successfully with many 6-year-olds. Players wear a headband that is specially equipped with a clip that holds a card. Each player selects a card (without looking at it) and places it in the holder on their headband. By asking a series of yes/no questions (e.g., “Am I a vehicle?”), each player uses deductive reasoning to figure out what picture is on his/her card. So, this game is great for children working on grammar and asking questions, as well as for expanding vocabulary (particularly categories, functions, and attributes). Note: reading skills are not required.
Electronic Guess Who Extra (ages 8+) is like other Guess Who games, but there are 6 different character sheets to choose from (including various people, animals, monsters, and household items). Players try to identify the person/animal/monster/item that the other player has chosen by asking a series of yes/no questions (e.g., “Is your person wearing a hat?”). This game is excellent for encouraging deductive reasoning and for generating questions that start out general (e.g., “Is your person a boy?”) but quickly become more specific (“Does your person have a beard?”). It is helpful to point out to younger children why you would not begin with a specific question like, “Is your person Ben?” before you have eliminated most of the other choices. Reading skills are not necessarily required, which is a bonus for children who have difficulty with literacy.
Charades for Children (ages 4+) combines the classic game of charades with a board game format. Players select a card that has three items or actions listed and then roll a die to determine which of the three choices will be acted out during the charade. This game is nice for younger children and those with reading difficulties because it includes some picture options (instead of written phrases) for children who cannot yet read. The cards with written-only choices are slightly more sophisticated (e.g., “bowing to a queen/king” or “false teeth”) and are appreciated by older elementary kids. When a charade has been guessed correctly, both the actor and the guesser get to advance on the game board (which keeps the kids interested in the game). I use this game with my social thinking groups because it offers wonderful opportunities for clueing into body language, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues.
You Gotta Be Kidding! (ages 7+) requires participants to choose between two ridiculous or equally appalling scenarios and then predict how others would respond. For example, one might be asked, “Would you rather have ears the size of an elephant’s or have an extra eye on the palm of your hand?” Personally I’d go with the extra eye so I could peek around corners. I like this game because players must engage in social thinking, specifically perspective taking and relying on “people files” (what they already know about others) to predict how someone else would respond. Also, it offers great practice in terms of language formulation and expression as each player justifies why they would make a particular choice. I use this game regularly with my social thinking groups, and it is typically the first game requested when students are given the choice. WARNING: Some of the choices are gross…big time! But that makes this game all the more appealing to upper elementary and junior high school age students. To be safe, don’t play it during dinner.
Conversation UNO (ages 6+) is my own personal adaptation of the classic game of UNO. You can use any UNO deck you want (UNO Attack is a favorite of my students as the device spits out a random number of cards at players); the point is to engage in a structured conversation during the game. A conversation topic is agreed upon at the outset of the game by all of the players. This is a natural opportunity to point out how we choose topics that are familiar and interesting to everyone involved. As players take their turn, they make a comment about the topic when they place a card that matches the color of the face card, or they ask a question about the topic of someone in the group when they place a card that matches the number/symbol on the face card. Playing a WILD card enables a player to select a new topic. I have found this activity to be extremely helpful with students who have difficulty with the natural ebb and flow of conversation and require more structure.
These are just a few games that are great for expanding language, social thinking, and reasoning skills. There are many table top games (not listed here) that can be used in this manner, as long as parents make use of natural opportunities to encourage their child to communicate and provide a verbal or behavioral model for skills not yet mastered. If your child is receiving speech/language services, ask your SLP how these games or others might be used to target his/her specific goals. Also, ask your SLP to explain the level of support your child might need to participate in these games. Whichever games you choose to play with your family, please remember to HAVE FUN! Family game time should not feel like work for parents or children.