Beginning Level Games 2

For Children Who Have Emerging Single-Word Language Skills


General Learning Goals

  • to intentionally interact and communicate for more reasons, with more success, and with more pleasure

  • to imitate what others do including actions and single words

  • to enjoy playing and interacting with others for longer periods of time

Managing Attention

  • to shift attention rapidly between people, activities and toys


  • to initiate


  • to understand and use a core set of important words and phrases (scripted language)

  • to understand pictures as representing activities, emotions and people

  • to understand and use nonverbal gestures such as pointing

Managing Emotions

  • to accept hand-over-hand help from trusted caretakers

  • to persist

  • to become familiar with facial expressions for happy, sad, mad, scared, and okay.


  • to follow routines within games and activities

  • to communicate the desire to end an activity

  • to allow others to share control of materials


  • to play beside others who are playing

  • to play with others in highly structured routines

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Wake Up! Go to Sleep!

With just a blanket, and perhaps a pillow, you can pretend to go to sleep, yawning and pulling the blanket over you and closing your eyes. In a sleepy voice say, GO TO SLEEP. Then, abruptly, yell WAKE UP!

The daily activity of sleeping and waking has certainly caught your child's attention. This makes a simple, delightful, pretend play game. Your child knows that this is not real and yet feels that it is very familiar, so it is a pretend play activity many children, otherwise not inclined to participate in pretend play activities, will understand and enjoy.

Children beginning to use words will enjoy telling you to go to sleep and to wake up. You can provide two Talking Buttons for children not yet putting two words together, one programed to say GO TO SLEEP. The other to say WAKE UP! If another person is around to help, turn the lights on and off in the room as part of the game. LIGHTS OFF! GO TO SLEEP! you can say. LIGHTS ON! WAKE UP!

Balloon Game...more

Watch this video to learn how to use a balloon to teach the names of body parts-important vocabulary words. Also, this game is used to teach how one communicates to request a desired action-an important reason for communicating .

Children enjoy the air blowing on them and will stay in this game for long periods of time with great joint attention! Joint attention means that the child and the adult are both looking at and thinking about the same thing at the same time.

Balloons can be dangerous when put in a child's mouth. Be careful to dispose of the balloon and not let the child handle the balloon.

TIP-PLAYING WITH ONE ADULT AND ONE CHILD IS BEST AT THIS STAGE OF DEVELOPMENT. A sibling or classmate will often add confusion or dominate and it becomes difficult to keep the game simple and predictable. For teachers or parents who must include other children, let the more able children demonstrate the game first, and make each child's turn clear with a visual support showing whose turn it is or by saying the child's name. Example: ANDY'S TURN or OLA'S TURN

Drawing Faces...more

Children with autism often avoid looking directly at your face. This may be because the emotions on one's face evoke emotion and/or because the expressions on faces change rapidly. This game makes it fun to look at your face! The feelings you are demonstrating are clearly pretend so the feelings are not overwhelming, and you hold an expression for longer, making your facial expression easier to understand. My friend and actor, Kate Horvath helped out with this video demonstration. See Other Face Games.

Imitation Game: I Do What You Do

When a child is decidedly reluctant to play, just imitating what the child is doing can engage the child, if only because you have made yourself into a kind of cause/effect toy. The child is sitting, ignoring you very pointedly. Saying nothing, you sit next to the child and with your body, do whatever the child is doing. The child moves, walks across the room and you walk next to the child to the same place. The child picks up a block and you pick one up too. No words required. This is a better game without words, in fact.

Sharing Toys...more

In this video, Dad is using a strategy called "Piece by Piece" where he is providing toys one at a time. His son likes popping pieces out of each puzzle square. Even though this child would normally like control of all toy pieces, he is content to let his dad hand him pieces.

Hide and Find Games...more

These games are played by hiding an item your child will want, and, with your child, looking for the item.

For example, with Potato Head, hide one important part that your child will notice is gone. Assemble Potato Head in front of your child labeling each part as you assemble it.

Shoes on, nose on, mouth on, arm on, arm on, hat on, eyes on, ear on........ Oh No! Where is ear?

Then, with your child, go look for the lost ear and find it together!

Played in this way, you are teaching your child joint attention, shared emotion, and the word for all the body parts.

TIP-GAMES GROW AND CHANGE BUT DON'T CHANGE THE NAME: For example, in later Hide and Find games, you will tell your child where to look for the hidden item and this version of the game will help your child learn new vocabulary. Still later, you may find that your child simply resists doing what other say, a somewhat common stage, and then the game might always include REALLY fun things for your child to find simply to give your child practice doing what someone says. Later still, you might want your child to practice giving directional directions to others and then your child is the one to hide things and tell others where to look. If all these games are similar and called the same thing, it is easier to talk about and plan for.

Pointing Games...more

Adding a barrier between your child and a desired toy, the closed plastic bag, provides your child with a reason to point at what they want. You are the Toy Giver and your job is to give your child what they point at. Pointing is an important communication gesture that is often weak or missing in young children with ASD. Here we are using the real objects and the clear bag makes the desired object visible but not accessible. Another way to accomplish this is to use photos of the desired toys. Save sturdy zippered plastic bags as they are quite useful.

Drumming Together...more

This is a demonstration of how to play a Drum Imitation Game where the mother is imitating her daughter most of the time but sometimes invites her daughter to imitate her mother as well with the egg shaker. At the Beginning Level, games where you imitate your child playfully are a way to increase your child's interest in social interaction and reciprocity.

Sticky Decorations Game...more

Bedroom decals that are removable and have the sensory quality of being sticky, makes it fun for children to take off and put on these decals. The game can be played at a window, by the refrigerator or on a metal file cabinet. In this video demonstration, the target language is limited to "take it off" and "put it on". A set of animal decals allows the names of animals to be taught. If a child likes the sensation of sticky, then a lot of vocabulary can be taught using decals.


  1. Use short sentences or phrases.

  2. Demonstrate what you want your child to do.

  3. Keep your games and sessions very structured and predictable; meaning that you do not alter the game materials/toys or the words you say while playing, or the sequence or steps within the game until your child understands the game.

    • However, as the game becomes familiar, make small, intentional and interesting variations in your games to keep the game fresh, challenging, and interesting.

    • Be aware that once your child has learned to play a game, your small intentional variations allow your child to continue learning while playing. If the game never changed, nothing new would be learned.

    • Variations can be: new words, new materials/toys, a new location, a new play partner, an additional step in the game, an altered sequence of steps in the game. Just don't change too much at one time.

  4. Begin teaching Visual Supports such as First/Then Boards, then consistently use Visual Supports.

  5. Teach your child how to end an activity with the words ALL DONE.

  6. Help your child learn to choose from among possible options with Game-Specific Visual Supports.

  7. Maintain control of the materials-meaning that your child cannot have free access to the toys you are using for these games.

See several of these tips demonstrated below:

Video that can help children understand the meaning and uses of All Done.


ALL DONE is a bit of Scripted Language that is used early and often with children for good reason. It is taught to children as a spoken phrase, a sign language phrase and as a visual symbol. Both understanding and being able to say ALL DONE as a way to end an activity is a way to avoid many emotional breakdowns. Also known as temper tantrums. For non-verbal children, pick an icon that means ALL DONE and teach the child how to touch it or hand it to you when they are finished playing a game. You might have to finish some games earlier than you want to but teaching your child to use the ALL DONE is worth a shorter game.

Note: the scripted language phrase that helps children persist is FIRST ________THEN__________.


Often, the first Visual Schedule taught to children is one called a FIRST/THEN Board and it only lists two events. It literally tells the child what will happen first and then what will happen second.

When you get to three item schedules, move to a Numbered Visual Schedule. But don't hesitate make a quick FIRST/THEN schedule, with a pen and paper when you need one for any age. This was me, for me, today, FIRST 15 MINUTES ON THE STATIONARY BIKE/THEN COFFEE.

Pointing to get the big fuzzy ball/pillow of your choice.

TIP-MAINTAIN CONTROL OF THE MATERIALS: There are a lot of strategies for this including just being a bit hard nosed about it. A great trick is putting a little distance between the child and the toys the child wants. In this pointing game, the child had to point to the toy to get it. In many games on this site, you see me using a short length of plastic gutter that was sanded carefully and used to send toys to a child who was sitting a couple feet away.

Another way to make toys visible but not accessible is to put them high on a shelf to provide a little distance between the toys I and the child and allowed me to provide them.

Animal Tickle is a game where the adult pretends to be an animal and after a little acting, tickles the child briefly. Note: Tickling is only a good game if a child likes it.


Create a visual support for a favorite game, like Animal Tickle. A familiar game is a good way to introduce the concept of a choice board. The child makes a choice by pointing at pictures of an animal and then being tickled in a different way.

This number of pictures/choices might be too many for some children and a choice board with just four larger pictures might be a better way to start.

Tickle Game with Digital Game-Specific Visual Support

In this video, the visual support that allows this child to request a certain kind of tickle is programmed into a digital display of pictures. In this case, we used DynaVox software. An iPad can be used with any one of several different augmentative communication programs to create a Game-Specific Visual Support. When the child touches the picture icon, the word or words are said aloud by a digital voice.