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Making Games Work for Kids of All Ages and Needs

How to modify anything from Beach Bocci to Monopoly  

On her blog, thefoorce.com, Michaela Searfoorce writes with humor and insight about raising a special needs child and offers resources and gatherings for parents in the New York area. In this piece for childmind.org, she shares her secrets for making popular games engaging and fun (and even educational) for kids of different ages and needs.

By Michaela Searfoorce

I grew up in a family that lived and breathed games. A family party wasn't complete without an intense game of Scrabble, pinochle, or 21. I knew I had found the right partner when my husband (then boyfriend) pulled out the dictionary to challenge me and played words like "pennes" during Scrabble (different kinds of penne, really?).

My 11-year-old son James has multiple disabilities, not the least of which include severe social and learning deficits. James is the child who describes being tagged out in baseball as "being punched in the chest," who gets upset if someone other than him, even a player on his own team, scores during basketball, or who cries if there is a timer running during a game of Boggle because he can't stand the pressure. He can read the rules to everything but can't remember multiple steps to anything, and usually forgets what the rules were, anyway, unless we commit to playing the same game daily.

Despite all of these obvious hurdles I am proud to report that my family has a healthy game appetite, which is saying a lot considering my children are a special needs pre-teen, a competitive 3-year-old and a copycat 20-month-old. What's the secret? We make up our own rules.

I know what you're thinking, and yes, there are lots of issues that come up when playing by "made up" rules. What happens when my typically developing children get older and play these games with other kids? What will my kids think when they can read and realize we have completely fabricated half of the secret moves? How will we explain our reasons behind continuing the easier set of rules when my younger children "get" the real rules but James still doesn't? We have never lied and told them that our rules are The Rules. We tell them that we're playing by Family Rules, and that family rules are more relaxed—we don't use words like "easier, individually tailored, or watered down" (though they are considerably).

All of the games I'm about to describe to you say things like "How We Play" and "Teaches My Kids." The whole point of this article is to give you some ideas of how to have family games in your life if you have young, disabled, or young and disabled children in your family. Obviously what works for my disabled child might be too easy or difficult for yours, and what suits my child's personality might be too boring or too competitive for your child's tastes. This list is purely intended to give you some ideas as to how to use those family games that are otherwise gathering dust, and to offer ways to engage all of your kids in games if you have a wide range of ages and abilities under one roof.

Monopoly

What You Need:  Characters, Monopoly board, two denominations of bills (we play with 20s and 10s), 1 die

How We Play:  Everyone picks a character to start at Go. Youngest kid goes first. Roll die and move that number of spaces. If you land on a property you can buy it for $20. If you land on a Chance space you get to take a property randomly from the unclaimed pile, if you land on Community Chest you take another turn. If you land on a property someone else has they get $10. First person to collect a complete set of properties wins. As you can imagine, there are many ways to adjust game length (first one to get two sets of properties, first one to get one blue property) or difficulty level (using 2 dice, Chance space means lose a turn).

Teaches My Kids:  Taking turns, winning/losing, numbers (on the die and bills), counting by 10s, colors, matching

Bocce Ball

What You Need:  2 balls per person, small "target" ball

How To Play:  I love this game because it gives us something organized to do outside in a somewhat contained environment like a picnic or the beach. Youngest to oldest, or we divide into teams depending on the number of players (kids vs. parents or boys vs. girls). Throw the target ball around 10-20 feet away. Teams take turns throwing the big balls at the target ball. Whoever's color is closest gets 1 point (we don't do second or third closest though you could). Whoever's team gets to 5 points first wins.

Teaches My Kids:  Taking turns, colors, adding by 1, more and less, gauging distance and strength, textures and materials (playing in sand vs grass vs dirt)

Pictionary:

What You Need:  Pictionary cards (from the game or homemade if you have time), pencils or crayons, paper

Two Ways We Play:  

1) If you use cards from the actual Pictionary deck, I sort through them in advance and find around 10 of a color that I know my kids actually will know what the word means. For example, they may only know the blue words on 10 cards, so I say in advance, "We're playing blue words today" before we start—and they don't know I've pre-sorted. I play the referee and whisper the word to the artist. The other kids guess what it is, whoever guesses first gets a point. First to 5 points wins.

2) Because Pictionary is such a hit at our house I have also made up cards with one word on each that everyone will know. Green words are super easy (circle, triangle, square), yellow words are medium (balloon, snake, ghost), and red words are "hard," (witch, truck, fish). If it's just my older two playing we mix up all the cards, but if my 20-month-old insists on joining in I give him only the green and yellow words. Again, there is one artist and up to 4 guessers in our game, though there could be more without any trouble. Whoever guesses the picture gets the point and the first to five points wins.

Teaches My Kids:  Sight words, drawing, adding by 1, keeping secrets (my daughter always wants to tell us what she's drawing), winning and losing gracefully

Travel Bingo

What You Need:  Blank bingo sheets (think 5x5 squares here), pencils or crayons

Two Ways We Play:

1) With blank bingo boards and a theme. I give the kids empty sheets of 5x5 squares and tell them to look for a theme—things that are orange, things that fly, things with wheels, animals, etc. and as we pass them they draw them into a square. First to fill up a line, or four corners, or whatever shape you have designated wins.

2) With pre-filled boards. I give the kids randomly drawn in pictures—stop signs, colorful cars, birds, water, the sun, etc. Whoever crosses off five in a row (or whatever shape) wins. This one is fun to do when you are going somewhere specific (the beach, the playground) because you can draw pictures specific to their trip to ensure they see the items. This is also a great way to kill time at a restaurant if you think of it ahead of time and make up boards with things found in the restaurant or on the menu.

Teaches My Kids:  Observation skills, drawing skills, shapes, categories, sorting

Trivial Pursuit – Dinnertime Edition

What You Need:  Trivia cards with questions, much better if homemade for individual abilities

How We Play:  Have you ever run out of things to talk to your kids about at dinner? Especially after asking them how their day was, how school was, or what their favorite thing they did was and the answer is "I don't know" or "nothing," or James's favorite standard, "I liked everything the same." This little game has saved many a dinner alone with the kids while Ryan works late and I am out of ideas. The cards make it an "official game" so they will answer anything I ask—pretty genius, right? An additional perk is that all of my kids can easily play, even my 20-month-old. Though we haven't yet, it's probably another fun game to bring when you go out to dinner.

As an added bonus to this game, everyone can "win." We play that everyone who gets to 5 points (which is usually 5 answered questions) gets dessert.

Some Sample Questions: Name a green vegetable. If you could be any kind of animal, what would you be and why? What is your favorite song? If you could have a super power, what would it be and why? If you could pick, where would you want to go for our next vacation? What do you want to be when you grow up? What is something you want for Christmas? Name three things that are pink (brown, big, small, soft, round, etc.). If you had five dollars to spend on anything, what would it be? (answers to this one always crack me up).

Teaches My Kids:  Conversational skills, sitting at the dinner table, taking turns, listening skills, and whatever you put on those cards!

I'm not going to lie—I still play by the real, (extremely) hardcore rules with my husband, but that doesn't mean the joy I feel watching my kids have a blast playing by Family Rules isn't as real as the thrill of destroying him at Boggle.

On thefoorce.com Michaela passes along tips and insights about a wide range of things close to the hearts of parents with or without a special needs child, including which toys kids actually play with the most (and are hence worth what you have to pay for them—especially if you take her advice and look for them on eBay).

Published: July 2, 2012

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jenn_choi · Jul 09 2012 Report

I really like the idea about screening the Pictionary cards prior to play. It's such a practical idea but I've never done it. This is probably why my family hasn't played Pictionary together even though we have it at home. Thanks for this idea! Speaking of games and adapted play. ThinkFun just put up a special needs section and created a skills matrix that displays the skills practiced in each of their games. I love it. I wrote about it and included an interview with Child Mind Institute's Susan Schwartz. http://www.toysaretools.com/2012/07/review-and-giveaway-thinkfuns-new.html Now off to sift through Pictionary cards! Jenn Choi www.toysaretools.com

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