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SLP Corner: How to Choose and Use the Best Games for Children with Special Needs

by Sherry Artemenko, M.A., CCC-SLP
I want to write a series of blogs on how to choose and use the best games, toys and books for children with special needs, since that is where my passion, experience and expertise in speech language therapy and great children’s toys converge.
In my 35 years of experience as a speech language pathologist, I have pursued great commercial toys, games and books to engage and excite kids while serving as a structure to teach language skills. I see children improve in their understanding and use of concepts, syntax, critical thinking skills and social pragmatic language while playing a game.
While gathering my list of best games to use to build language, I observed a child with whom I work, who is on the autism spectrum. We had been playing board games with his peers and siblings during our sessions to encourage social language and build language skills. During an observation at his preschool, I watched free play, as he joined his peers in a game of  “Froggy Boogie” by Blue Orange Games. James knew the rules and appropriate reactions since we had played the game many times in therapy. He was one of the gang with his typical peers! He was taking turns, reacting with appropriate surprise, delight and discouragement over the results of his play, using appropriate facial expressions and eye contact and giving background information to friends who didn’t know how to play the game. If my little friend James improved his language skills while having fun playing a game, why not show other parents and therapists of children with special needs a method for addressing language goals and building skills while enjoying a game? Look for:

  • Specific language structures emphasized such as asking and answering questions, moving markers to different positions to describe, or listing items in categories and naming, such as “S’Match” by ThinkFun where kids play a memory game by category or HABA’s “Who Am I?”
  • Language required to negotiate with other players to move ahead in the game such as using strategy to trade, discard or save cards while conversing such as “Mermaid Beach” by Gamewright.
  • Multi-sensory design such as “What’s in the Cat’s Hat? by The WonderForge where kids have to guess an object by feeling, seeing and moving it.
  • Social language emphasized where players work as a team and advise and encourage one another to progress through the game such as “Richard Scarry’s Busytown” by I Can Do That! Games.
  • Add on games that involve story -telling such as Gamewright’s “Rory’s Story Cubes.”
  • Flexibility to change the game such as “Memory Match + Tic Tac Toe” by I Built It Games where the game disks unscrew and the players draw new content for the next round.
  • Great illustrations and packaging that provide opportunities to learn vocabulary and description associated with the theme of the game such as eeBoo’s “Mystery in the Forest Matching Game.”
  • Props that lend themselves to pretend play such as “Diggity Dog” by International Playthings.
  • Word-building games such as “What’s GNU?” by ThinkFun or “Dabble” by INI

Here’s a language lesson for “Froggy Boogie” to demonstrate all the aspects of language learning that can be captured while having fun with a game. The parent or therapist can model the different concepts and vocabulary for extra learning:
Froggy Boogie by Blue Orange Games
Recommended age: 4-6 years
Review: Grab your kiddy frog for a boogie around the lily pads. The trick is that you can’t be “seen” by the googly eyes of the adult frogs or your froggy is frozen in place, unable to advance toward the finish. What kid doesn’t enjoy sneaking past his parents’ watchful eyes? Each adult frog, painted two delightful colors, lies waiting in the middle of the pond. Roll the colored dice, match the two colors that come up to the adult frog and pick up one of his bulbous eyes to reveal if he has “seen” you–a green frog stamp says “yes” and a blank means “no.” Let’s hope it is blank and you can sneak on past the adults around the lily pads to the finish.

  • Temporal: Verbalize the order of turns taken by players as you progress through the game, “Ryan is first, I am second and Zoe is third.” “Ryan goes before me.” Use before/after, first/next, second/last. Kids always forget whose turn it is so take the opportunity to say, “Wait,” or “You go later, after Ryan.
  • Spatial: Pause throughout the game to talk about the position of your frogs in relation to the others. Check the child’s understanding of concepts by asking, “What frog is first, second, third?” or at the “beginning, middle and end?” Who is nearest the big lily pad to win? “I’m catching up and coming next to your yellow frog.” “We’ll be together on the same lily pad.” “I’m behind, beside, or in front of you!”
  • Quantitative: Counting lily pads, verbalizing how many left to win—“just one, or a few.” Compare positions in the game, “We each have 2 more spaces to win.” “We both have a lot more, or just one space left.”


  • Verb tense: Describe your frog’s position in the game before making a move to practice present tense verbs. “My orange frog is in front of Hailey’s purple frog.” After  your move, use past tense verbs, “I jumped to the next lily pad.” For future tense, describe your next move, “I will come next to you on the next lily pad.”
  • Noun-verb agreement: Model sentences using one frog
  • Wh-questions: Who? What? Where?
  • If-then: “If I get the blank eyeball, then I will move ahead.
  • Conjunctions: Because, so: “I picked the eyeball with the green frog, so I can’t move.”
  • Prepositions: in front, in back, behind, over, under, around,
  • Negatives: “I can’t go.” “I didn’t get the right one.”

Social/Pragmatic Language:

  • Setting up the game is an opportunity for following directions. Often kids will make a mistake and put two of the same eyes in a frog, instead of one of each or use a pattern that they can remember later, like all the plain eyes are on the left. (That would be called cheating!) This gives you an opportunity to look surprised and accuse them……
  • Read and name facial expressions. As we start playing, I make an exaggerated face to show my pleasure or frustration in choosing a frog’s eye. I model my feeling and give the language to explain it, “Yes! I’m happy (or excited) I got the eye without the frog on it so I can move my frog.”
  • Have some fun conversations with the frog markers. As I advanced my frog on the lilypad path, I joined a child’s frog marker and I talked for my frog and said, “Hi, I’m coming on your lilypad.” Later her returned the conversation. “Do you remember?” Sometimes you can generate collaboration if you have generous opponents.
  • Model commenting as you talk through deciding which eye to peek under. “Hmm, let me see.” “I can’t remember which one it is!” “Do you remember?” Sometimes you can generate collaboration if you have generous opponents. Pausing during this time of reflection can invite nice conversation.
  • Talk about position on the game board—who is in first place, who is winning, and how this changes as the game progresses. As it changes, point this out to the child. “Who is first now? She is______(winning).”  Start the child off with the statement as a prompt to help them comment about the status of the game.
  • Let the child be in charge, telling players when it is their turn, and modeling language such as “See what you get,”  “Your turn,” or  “You go next.”

Non-language skills strengthened: visual memory, (remembering 2 colors on the frog), counting, fine motor skills, visual discrimination, color matching, and requires no reading.
Links to Literacy:
Have fun with a book about frogs!
A Frog in the Bog” by Karma Wilson
Its Mine!” By Leo Lioni
Frog and Toad are Friends” by Arnold Lobel
Foggy Learns to Swim” by Jonathan London
Featured Contributor: Sherry Y. Artemenko M.A., C.C.C.
About Sherry Y. Artemenko M.A., C.C.C. and Play on Words
For more than 30 years, Sherry Artemenko has worked with children to improve their speech and language, serving as a speech language pathologist in both the public and private school systems and private practice.
Working and playing with children daily, Sherry has become an expert in evaluating children’s toys, games, and books for their language-building value. She has contributed articles and reviews to Parents Choice Foundation and her reviews appear in promotional media for Playmobil, International Playthings, Alex Toys, Thinkfun Games, and Baker Taylor Publishing, among others.
Thanks to Sherry and Play on Words for sharing her article with us.
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