Kids’ Games that Support Language Development on the Sly


Jan 11, 2016


Parents are all-too familiar with the competitive undertone of milestone stories. “She was reading at 3!” is subtly countered by, “He was walking at 1!” While parents may differ in how they choose to celebrate these milestones, what is universally true is that their involvement plays a large role in crossing these milestones, especially in the case of language development in early childhood; a child’s vocabulary is directly proportionate to the number of words they’re exposed to in the early months.

In a 2012 study, Harvard professor Meredith Rowe examined the vocabulary of 50 children from age 18- to 42-months, and the correlation between parental input a year earlier. Her study found that “diversity of vocabulary input plays more of a role in vocabulary growth when children get older, and sheer quantity plays a more important role when children are in the more initial stages of vocabulary acquisition.” In layman’s terms, this means we need to talk more to our toddlers and have adult conversations, including difficult words, with our preschoolers.

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Reading is a good way to do this, say pediatricians and educators alike. And, as it happens, the benefits go far beyond children’s speech language development. A study published last year in Pediatrics explored the effects of a home reading environment on children by using an MRI machine to monitor kids’ brain activity while listening to a story.  The team discovered that higher reading exposure was positively correlated with neural activation in the brain’s “hub” of semantic language processing. So while you might cringe at the plot lines in some classic fairy tales, your child isn’t just learning about princes, princesses, and magic castles – these imaginatively descriptive tales are also contributing to cognitive development.

Reading isn’t the only way to help your child with language development in early childhood. If nursery rhymes bore you and happily ever after leaves you cold, try playing one of these language games for kids ages 0 to 5. Trust us, you’ll both have fun.

Language games for kids

Cricket commentator (3 to 11 months)

It’s difficult to have a conversation with a 3-month-old, especially if you’ve never done it before. So don the hat of a narrator, and imagine your everyday life is an ongoing cricket or football match. In this earliest of kids games, tell your baby what you are doing and what is happening in short, simple sentences, like: “I am laying you down to sleep.” “You woke up!” “Are you hungry? Let’s feed you!” “The blanket makes you feel hot.” This isn’t so much of a game as an exercise to get you speaking to your baby, even if she doesn’t seem to understand. It’s these early interactions that help babies develop language and communication skills. And you don’t have to sound like an adult. Gentle baby talk will do just fine. In fact, infants actually prefer ‘Motherese‘.

Sightsaying (1 to 2 years)

You’ve heard of sightseeing — this is sightsaying, and it can be done anywhere — in doctors’ waiting rooms, at a friend’s home, or even at the dining table. Have your toddler ‘read’ to you by flipping through a picture book or magazine. As you spot objects you know he is familiar with, point to them and ask him to name them. Remember: At this age, it’s all about the number of words they’re exposed to. Alternate between familiar and unfamiliar books and magazines. All babies will have their favourites, where the success of recognizing objects correctly is encouraging, but in new books they encounter objects they cannot name – and this is where the parent comes in: to introduce new words and turn the unfamiliar into the familiar.

I spy (2 to 3 years)

You thought I Spy was just a silly game to keep kids occupied on long car trips, didn’t you? Actually, I Spy is a great way to introduce words to your child by keeping a running game going at home. Pick an object in your surroundings that isn’t too hard to spot and have your child guess what it is by describing it to her (for example, “I Spy something furry/brown/cuddly/soft,” for a teddy bear). This game can also be played at the store, in the car, and anywhere else you go. Don’t make the game too hard, though; the focus is on learning what objects are called and how to describe them, not on the challenge of guessing. Reinforce words when your child gets it right and correct her when she gets them wrong. (For older kids, you can switch roles so they’re the ones ‘spying’ and describing and you’re the one guessing.)

Talk to me (2 to 3 years)

When we were young, we used tin cans and string as pretend phones. Children today might have a hard time recognizing that concoction with the cell phones they know, so we leave it to you to get creative with this bit. (We suggest using a banana, which can double up as a snack afterwards.) Once you have your ‘phone,’ pretend you haven’t seen your child all day and have a ‘phone call’ with him to catch up. You can get started with questions like “What did you play today” “What did you eat for lunch?” and then see where the conversation takes you. Children have started mimicking by this age, so don’t be surprised if phrases you used in conversation a few days ago make an appearance to describe his day. (It’s also wise to be careful, in general, about what you say around your kid at this age; no one likes to hear their toddler telling them to “get your ass back here this second!” … Not that this has happened to us. We swear.)

Grocery store (2 to 4 years)

Kids at this age are very imaginative in a mundane way. Acting out an everyday situation your child has been exposed to, like a trip to the grocer’s, may be boring to you, but it’s just as exciting as the real thing for her. So pretend to be the owner of a small grocery store, with your kid as the customer. Greet her and wait patiently for her to look around the shelves and ask you for things she needs, with you prompting when necessary. Don’t stop when she names each item; ask her why she needs those apples — is she planning to make apple pie? This develops conversational skills, while a variation of this game, for older kids, can introduce the concept of money, too. In this version, you switch roles, so your child is the store owner. You hand over the money, and she has to total the price of items and return your change.

Go fish with a twist (4 to 5 years)

Write out 3- or 4-letter words in a large font on flash cards. Make two copies of each word. Mix them in a basket, while you and your child each take at random a set number. The goal is to match the words with their counterparts. Once he finds the matching word either by asking you, or by going fishing in the basket, he must say the word out loud. A simpler version matches words to pictures, to reinforce the object, and a more advanced version matches words to definitions. As your child grows you can tweak the game accordingly; cat’s counterpart can go from an image of the animal, to ‘C-A-T,’ to ‘a furry animal that says meow.’

What’s in the box? (4 to 5 years)

Fill a cardboard box with toys or small household objects familiar to your child. Put on a blindfold and hand the box to your child. Ask her to pick out items one at a time and help you identify them by describing the objects. Don’t rush her, but allow her to describe the shape, colour, texture, use, etc. You can prompt with specific questions like, “What time of day do you use it?” “Where do we usually keep this in the house?” “Is it bigger than a watermelon?” to go beyond simple descriptions and exercise other, important skills, like comparison and location.


Written By The Swaddle Team


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