Beginning Level Games 1

For Children Who are Not Yet Verbal or Minimally Verbal


General Learning Goals

  • to intentionally interact with more success, and with more pleasure

  • to notice words, gestures, eye-gaze, facial expressions and body language

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

Initiating and Making Choices

  • to initiate games with actions, words, or pictures


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

  • to understand pictures as representing activities

Managing Emotions

  • to accept proximity and respond positively to familiar adult play partners

  • to willingly join into playful social activities


  • to follow very short familiar routines within games and activities

  • to move together with others


  • to use toys in a variety of different ways

  • to play beside others

Some children just walk away when you try to play!


These are games that will engage children who interact infrequently and mostly on their own terms. In reports they are described as "self-directed". Families sometimes wonder if they are deaf. They may call them "independent". They don't respond to social overtures and sometimes actively move away when someone tries to interact with them.


Some children do not, yet, have the language, social, or motor skills required to play with others readily. Sensory sensitivities and difficulty processing too much information at the same time make it hard for these children to play. But games can be carefully curated!

Swing in a Blanket...more

What better game to start with than Swinging In a Blanket? When my own children were young, it was the CLEAN SHEET SWING BEFORE MAKING THE BED game. The trick to this game is teach the routine before adding any demands. Once the child is enjoying the routine, pause before starting to swing and wait for the child to indicate that they want to swing. Wait for an expectant look, or a wiggle in the blanket. You are teaching the child how to continue the game. After the nonverbal version of this game is going well, this is a good game for teaching the words READY SET GO! Just before swinging say READY SET GO! After a while, just say READY SET....... and then wait for your child to say GO! If speech is still not forthcoming, take your child's hands and help him or her sign the word GO!

Click, click, click, Game with No Words...more

Here is a video demonstration of how to play a game with no words at all. For some children, this is the better way to start as the demands of speech may feel too overwhelming for some youngsters. In this game, a child is invited to play a simple game that just involves a new and interesting way of putting pieces into an inset puzzle. The video shows how to demonstrate this game to the child. See more about Games with No Words.

Build a Mountain...more

This is a RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) game that can be done with couch pillows. There needs to be a soft landing place when the mountain falls down. The game encourages children to attend to the play partner's face and words while excitement is building.

TIP-PRIORITIZE RECIPROCITY: The back-and-forth of words and actions in any social activity is called reciprocity. Games build reciprocity because the child knows how to respond. Both players know what to expect and the both want to keep the game going.

For example, the mother, in Build a Mountain, has taught her son to expect that she will shake the mountain, so when she pauses, and waits expectantly, her son will do something to communicate that he wants her to shake the mountain. The routine in this game was built so that his mother could interrupt the routine. The way he communicates that he wants her to continue might be very small but she is watching for it! She is ready to respond to whatever he does. He might try an urgent glance or a wiggle or a little verbal sound. Now the game is on! His role when she stops is to get her going again. She can gradually teach him a more conventional way to communicate-- to say "GO" or tap her hand or press a single message Talking Button that says "GO, MAMA!" But at first, these games are all about building any form of genuine reciprocity.

Route Game...more

In this game, the child moves from one location to another and then falls. Over time, these parents will allow their son to initiate the game by taking their hand, making a sound, looking expectantly at them. The adults maintain structure by following the simple routine:

1) Clear beginning: READY, SET GO!

2) Clear next step: Run across the room.

3) Clear ending: Fall into a soft beanbag chair.

See more Route Games for all levels of play skill.

TIP-PREDICTABILITY IS THE INVITATION TO PLAY: All young children enjoy routines but children with ASD need the routines to be predictable in more of the details. Small changes are confusing, especially at the beginning. These games introduce predictable routines, which are sequences with just a few steps that repeat over and over. Predictable means that the child can easily understand how the game begins, what happens next, how the game ends. The child can see the pattern and know what to do, exactly, in each moment of the game. Adults are careful to maintain predictability while playing these games. After the child learns the routine, variations are added but not to many and not too quickly. It is the predictability itself that makes these games inviting to a child with ASD. Enough predictability needs to be maintained or the child will lose interest, become frustrated, or just walk away. When variation is added, that variation is intentional and meant to teach a new word, a social skill, motor skill, or even just meant to teach the child that novelty is fun. While predictability is the hook that keeps the child playing, variations, added gradually, allow the child to learn new things while playing.

This short piece of white rain gutter became essential play equipment at our clinic. This idea came from Joanne Burke, my friend and a Preschool Science Guru.


The child sends green or blue items to slide down the gutter and watches the adult for a response. This simple game allows a child to see items being sorted by color and this might be interesting to the child, but the fun for the child is when the object goes in the wrong bowl and the adult acts dismayed and shouts What! and quickly fixes the problem. If this elicits a giggle, the adult has unleashed their inner actor. A child who might not typically participate in reciprocal play, will often play this game.

Photo by Prateek Katyal from

I used scripted language while children were just learning language and later as well. More of my frequently used Little Language Scripts:


Tip-Use Scripted Language

There are little sayings, a set of words that we tend to say in the same way, often with the same melody. This is Scripted Language. Examples: READY, SET, GO! before an action like swinging, jumping, knocking something down. ALL DONE _____, TIME FOR ______ which you always say as you finish one game and before you start another activity. ONE MORE AND ALL DONE! when the child is ready to be done but you want to teach them to stay just a little longer. OOPS! or UH OH! when something breaks or falls down. In the game above, the scripted language is WHAT! WAIT A MINUTES! This is just done for fun but it is quite engaging for children. It also introduces the idea that making a mistake can be fun. Use the word, HELP before you provide assistance.

Scripted Language can be thought of as little song-like sayings. When children are minimally verbal, they should be said in an unvaried melody so that certain words and phrases be comes familiar and are understood even when a child has a limited ability to comprehend most other spoken language. Example: ALL DONE BUILD A MOUNTAIN, TIME FOR PUZZLE GAME. This language script only works if you have a name for every game.

Calling Games...more

Notice that this Calling Games uses a kind of Scripted Language in the sing-song calling melody. Once a child learns the calling melody, it can come to mean more than just "calling", it can mean that we are looking for something. It is a very useful melody to teach.

Knock it Down Games...more

Most children will readily knock things down when invited to do so with the verbal cue: READY SET GO, KNOCK IT DOWN! There are many versions of this game for Beginner Players. Learn more about games where the child participates by making a mess on Knock Down Games

TIP: SENSORY EXPERIENCES ARE CRUCIAL IN THESE GAMES. All these games include an interesting sensory experience even if that experience is an adult, dramatically exclaiming What! Wait a Minute! as in the game above. When children have more language skills and more social and cultural understanding, games and activity based upon stories will start to make sense but at this level of play, the games are all about how something looks, smells, feels, or sounds. For more on how to think about the sensory aspects of social games, see the link below for a very clear discussion on the topic.

Link: Hanen Centre Tips for "People Games"

The Hanen Centre, out of Canada, uses an intervention method similar to the method that I learned and provide useful instruction on their YouTube Channel. In this video they focus on the idea of sensory preferences.

TIP-USE INTRINSIC REWARDS. An intrinsic reward means that there is something (usually some sensory experience) built into the game that is pleasant enough to keep a child playing the game. Notice that there are no extrinsic rewards used in these games-no tokens given or iPad time earned by playing these games. The goal is to find or create social play activities that were intrinsically rewarding even for the most reluctant child. Ultimately, the goal is that the child comes to believe that playing with others is socially rewarding and for that to happen, the play partners need to be enjoyable to the child. After finding the right game, social barriers to enjoyment need to be removed. Is the adult talking too much? Or talking too loudly? Is the play partner too unpredictable-saying or doing things that the child cannot anticipate or respond to? Is the play partner too intrusive? Or, as explained in the Hanen Centre video above, are the sensory aspects of the game, including actions of the play partner, just unpleasant to this child?

Intrinsic rewards include the social reward of being with another human being, sharing emotions and sharing experiences. The goal is to have the child experience social rewards as well. For a child with autism, often more attuned to the material/mechanical world than the social world, the intrinsic reward may be the pleasure of seeing something interesting, touching an interesting texture, hearing a cool pattern of sounds (like scripted language), identifying a cause/effect sequence, or feeling the pleasure of some movement. As someone who played for a living, so to speak, I chose to genuinely enjoy all of these sensory experiences in the game right along with the child. This in turn, allowed the child to enjoy the social experience of sharing attention, emotions and intentions with another human being. In other words, I joined the child in the physical world so that the child could join me in the social world.

First Visual Supports...more

Using large pictures, this child is introduced to the concept of pictures representing activities. At the end of each session, he is shown the picture, then, he is helped to put his shoes on. Over time, the large picture may be traded out for a little line drawing of shoes. Now it is picture icon because it means that it is time to put shoes on.

TIP-INTRODUCE VISUAL SUPPORTS: Visual Supports, are pictures used instead of, or in addition to words. They are used to communicate with a child who is not yet able to understand what people are saying. From the beginning, when working with a child who has limited verbal language, adding visual information can almost magically help a child understand expectations, participate in transitions, and enjoy social activities.

A Speech Language Pathologist can help you choose the appropriate kinds of visual supports. On this site, I have offered a mere hint of what is possible.