3 classic kid’s games with a literacy twist

Girl wearing hatPlay is the work of children. Every day, kids learn about their world through playful exploration and joyful investigations. These games aren’t just to pass time — they build critical social skills, test personal thoughts and belief structures, build comprehension skills, and let children experiment with new vocabulary.

As someone who has worked in literacy education for more than 17 years spanning programs for infants and toddlers, at-risk preschoolers, out-of-school time youth and adult basic education programs, I’ve used the power of games to improve literacy skills. I’m also a mom of a one year old and a three year old, an avid game player and have two of my own games in pre-production. 

Here are some great twists on classic games that kids ages 2-12 are sure to love. These games will help teachers, parents and other loved ones enjoy time together while also building important literacy skills.

1) Simon Says

By itself, Simon Says is a great listening game. Players listen for sentences starting with “Simon Says” and follow those instructions, ignoring anything that doesn’t begin with “Simon Says.” However, young children have learned to watch and copy for most of their gross motor development, so if you say “Pat your head” and start patting, chances are a two or three year old will copy you regardless of you saying “Simon Says.” To adapt the game for young children, you can say “DO” and “DON’T” instead of Simon Says and play this as a basic listening game. “DO pat your belly! DON’T hop on one foot.”

For older kids, bring in some new vocabulary to test out in a silly way. If you are learning about the body, for example, play “Simon says tap your clavicle. Simon says touch your patella. Touch your sternum.”

There’s no reason you can’t extend this game from basic understanding of words to application of words either. How about, “Simon says pretend you are a chickadee.” Even young kids will love applying their knowledge of birds by acting like one.

2) I Spy

Play I Spy long enough and it seems like it becomes a game about color recognition. There are only so many times I can say, “I spy something pink” and still pretend like I’m enjoying the game with my three-year-old daughter. Take this opportunity to use a lot of great descriptive words to get your child to guess what you’re thinking. How about, “I spy something that I use to write with.” Or try changing senses to liven up the game. “I hear something that sounds like a buzzing bee.”

3) 20 Questions

20 Questions is much like I Spy with the idea that you are thinking of an object, not just looking at one. And instead of having unlimited guesses, players only get to ask 20 questions that must be answered by “yes” or “no.” It’s a great game to practice asking questions and talking about different kinds of questions. Young children need lots of prompts to practice asking questions before they start guessing the answer. When they have clues, help model how to connect details together for them by repeating what they’ve learned and talking through how to figure out the answer.

For early spellers and readers, you can play this game with spelling words or vocabulary words. Try out “I’m thinking about a word that has two M’s in it” and see what questions you can get back.

For older learners, play the game but tell the players they can ask any questions they want. Of course the first question will be, “What are you thinking about?” but encourage more open ended questions to demonstrate how much more information you can gather with open ended questions vs. closed questions.

Hopefully these ideas have inspired you to add new twists to the games you may have already played. And since kids probably already know the games as well, they will be learning without even realizing it. Happy playing!