I’ve always really enjoyed playing board games, so I’m very happy about now being able to play some of these with Penguin! It’s taken a bit of extra effort for our boy to grasp how to play, due to his autism, developmental delays and learning differences. In this post I’d like to share a few examples of how we play and what types of games that are working well for us so far, and I’ll also be highlighting some of the great developmental benefits of playing board games.
When you’re a parent of a child like Penguin, finding ways of playing together can be tricky, but all the more rewarding when you do. And I’d go as far as saying that playing games has been a real ‘game changer’ (pardon the pun) for us. I’m hoping that this might inspire you to play more board games together with your children, too!
Benefits of playing board games
What skills that will be needed for and developed through playing games will of course vary somewhat between different types of games. These are some of the aspects which we’ve found that playing board games have been really useful for:
- Colours & Patterns
- Shared attention & ‘being social’
- Fine motor skills
As we take a look at the different types of games we play, throughout the rest of this post, you’ll see plenty of examples of working on the skills mentioned above.
Simple picture lotto games were the first type of games we started with. We had discovered (through some therapy activities) that Penguin was really good at visual matching, so lotto games seemed like a natural step forward from that.
However, there’s a lot more to playing those games than just being able to match the pictures. You need to sit down and share focus on the game together with the other player(s), you need to be aware of when it’s your turn (and when it isn’t), and you’re expected to initiate actions such as turning a card over. All of these things were difficult for our boy, in the beginning. And to be honest, it sometimes still is, even though we’ve been playing these games for years now.
To make it more rewarding to come and sit down to play a game, I usually offer a snack and/or drink at the same time. To have something like that in sight, which Penguin can immediately recognise as something positive, helps him with transitioning from whatever he’s been doing before. Transitions can otherwise often cause a rise in anxiety, which is a bad start for trying to do something constructive together.
In the early days, we often used raisins or other small snacks as ‘reinforcement’ (you can call it a reward, or thanks, or bribe if you prefer, but either way it made it more likely to make Penguin feel positive about doing things together). So it would be “come and sit down” and get a raisin or two, then another raisin or two when he’d picked a card and matched it to the same picture on a board (at the very beginning he would need to be physically guided to do these actions, mainly due to executive functioning issues). There would also be a lot of expressions of joy and praise from me, but in our case I think it’s true as the saying goes, that ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’.
I’m aware that using treats in this way can be seen as similar to ‘dog training’, and I’m also aware of the whole discussion around ABA type therapies and how they can be very problematic in some ways. As I see it, it’s a balancing act of being encouraging and helpful, while still being respectful of a child’s nature, preferences, abilities etc. There’s no one size fits all, and I think it’s a good idea to try different ways of doing things, to see what feels right for you and your child. Hopefully, by us sharing how we do things, it can give you some useful ideas.
When you first start playing games, or doing almost any kind of activity really, I’d say it’s a good idea to make things as simple as possible, to maximise the chances of it being a successful and positive experience. When it comes to playing lotto games, I’d say start with just two players (you and your child), to get the hang of it before anyone else is invited to join in. It’s also great if there aren’t too many cards on the table to start with. One board each with about 6 pictures per board was great for us in the beginning. Nowadays though, Penguin is quite happy for us to play with three or four boards each (with 6 or 8 pics on each board), and we can be more than two players as well without a problem.
If possible, try and find a game with pictures that are interesting to your child, perhaps themed around a subject or character which they already know and love? Ravensburger do sets of games, including lottos, with characters like Peppa Pig, Thomas the Tank Enginge, PJ Masks and others. Alternatively, you could print out your own pictures and boards, to customise it to your kiddo’s personal preferences (we made a Sooty game that way, a few years back).
Once you’ve got started, the variations possible and the ways you can incorporate lotto games into learning are almost endless. We’ve got a Number Lotto which has been fantastic for grasping the numbers 1-9, and we’ve had another lotto type game for matching lower case to upper case letters. We also use our lotto games as a way to work on communication, for example by naming the things pictured, and/or finding them in our AAC app, or making a relevant Makaton sign if we know it (we’re only beginners!), or animal sound, etc. I also model some words like “play”, “go”, “you” etc using our AAC app.
When we play lotto games we usually follow the rule that if the card that you pick belongs on your own board, then it’s your turn again, until you pick a card which belongs to another persons board, and it then becomes their turn. So that’s a different type of turn-taking than the most common one of ‘your go, then my go, then your go’ etc.
Dominoes, Memo and other Matching Games
Domino games are quite similar to lotto games, as they too are based on matching pictures/patterns/numbers etc. There are some aspects of playing dominoes which are slightly more complicated than lotto games, such as what you do when you don’t have any tile that fits with what’s on the table (to further confuse the issue, there are a few different sets of rules out there on how to play dominoes). We always play with our tiles open, so that all players can see what everyone else has got. That way I (or another adult) can easily guide the game forward, which is still needed even though Penguin has grasped the basics of the game.
We have two different domino games, one classic ‘double-six’ set of black tiles with white dots (good for basic numeracy 0-6), and another more colourful set with shapes and symbols. We’ve also got a game called ‘Hisss‘, which is one small step further on from dominoes, and has been a great game for us! The goal is to build snakes by matching colours, and if you complete a snake you get to keep it.
Memory/Memo games is another classic kind of matching game, and we’ve got a Teletubbies one which we play sometimes. It really does make a massive difference that the pictures show things that he already has a love for. We have a few other memo games too, but he’s not as keen on them at all. As I mentioned above, make it as easy as possible to start with; We used to play with only 4 or 5 pairs to begin with, and have increased it slowly to about 9 pairs. (If you’re looking to buy a memo game, there are some great ones here – though I can’t find our Teletubbies one available at the moment.)
A slightly more unusual matching game which has been a good one for us for a long time (and still is) is called Rondo Vario. In this game you roll two dice, one with colours on and one with shapes, and you then pick a large bead which matches the colour and shape of what your dice show, and thread it onto a caterpillar.
So this Rondo Vario game involves not only turn-taking and colours, shapes and matching skills, but also great motor skills exercise, for threading the beads as well as throwing the dice! And you need to keep the results of both dice in mind while selecting the matching bead… This might seem like a simple game at first, but it certainly wasn’t simple at all for us, when we first got it! To start with, I hadn’t anticipated that throwing the dice would be tricky. But there’s actually a fair bit of coordination required there, and to judge exactly when to open your hand and let go of the dice, and how hard to throw them, is more complex than you’d think. And then, to look at the two different dice and pick the matching bead… well that turned out to be a near impossible task.
To get over that hurdle, I got paper and pens out so that we could look at the dice and draw what the bead should look like. So, if Penguin rolled a triangle plus the colour green, we would get the green pen and draw a trianlge (and colour it in), and then look for a bead that matched our drawing. That way, he didn’t have to keep the TWO concepts of ‘triangle + green’ in his head, but just match the bead to the ONE object we’d drawn. I also removed some of the beads to choose from, so that there wouldn’t be an overwhelming amount. It was still super difficult for Penguin, to start with! I nearly gave up…
A therapist we were in contact with at the time suggested focusing on just the shape or just the colour, but I thought that would make it too confusing down the line, so persisted with our way of doing it. And eventually our boy got better and better at it, and we could stop drawing and just play the game as it was intended! This is one of those things I go back to in my mind when something we try to do/learn seems impossible. I remind myself that he CAN learn, we just have to figure out how to do it, and allow for it to take time. Maybe this is something you recognise regarding your child, too?
Now before moving on to the very last part of this post, I’d also like to mention Sound Lotto or Sound Bingo games. They usually come with a cd of recorded sounds, as well as picture boards and markers, and the idea is simply to listen to each sound and place a marker on the responding picture.
The game we’ve got is called ‘Soundtracks‘ and comes with a mix of sounds, but there are also themed ones around animal sounds, city sounds etc. This game has been really brilliant for us, for working on listening skills/auditory attention. It’s also something I’ve seen suggested in manuals for working on language and communication in the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage), and something which was used by the therapists we had when Penguin was younger.
Snakes and Ladders with Shaun the Sheep
I can’t leave the subject of board games without mentioning our Shaun the Sheep game. This is another example of the significance of building on a persons interests and preferences (or ‘affinities’, if you’re familiar with that term). Penguin isn’t fully grasping how to play this ‘Snakes and Ladders’ type of game yet, but he persists with it because he loves Shaun the Sheep and enjoys looking at the pictures on the board, and moving the characters across it. So he’ll roll the dice and count the dots, but then rarely gets how far that means he can move his character forward, so we still help him with that bit. We take turns, and we use the AAC app to say ‘you go’, ‘I go’, etc. We talk to him about the images on the board, and cheer when we get on a ‘ladder’, boo when sliding back on a ‘snake’, and so on. Eventually he’ll grasp how to translate the amount of dots on the dice to how far forward he can move on the board too. It’s just a matter of time and practise. We keep on playing together, and the learning comes when it comes… x
This post contains links to products which I’ve found relevant to include. The links are Amazon Affiliate links, meaning that if you’d click on the link and decide to make a purchase, I should recieve a small commission from Amazon (of no extra cost to you, of course!) as thanks for pointing you in their direction. Every little helps, thank you x
Below are a few more games that I’ve come across while writing this post, and which I think seem like reaaly good value as well as fun (click on the pictures for more, all links open in a new window):
Joining in with: