Chapter One: Spontaneous Games for All Ages

Waiting Games for Airports, Restaurants, and Doctor’s Offices

Game 1: Guess the Winning Number

Game 2: Toothpick Art

Game 3: Penny Flick

Game 4: Which Cup Is It Under?

Game 5: Whose Hand Is on Top?

Game 6: Feely Games

Game 7: Making a Wiggly Worm

Game 8: Art for Two

Game 9: Secret Writing

Game 10: Can You Do What I Do? Can You Say What I Say?

Walking Outside Games

Game 1: How Many Ways to Walk?

Game 2: Stop and Go

Game 3: Glued Together

Game 4: Guess the Number of Steps

Game 5: Whose Head Is in the Clouds?

Games Just for Little Ones (Ages Two to Seven)

Game 1: A, You’re Adorable

Game 2: I Love You Because

Game 3: Secretary to the Writer

Game 4: Guess How Old

Game 5: Making Faces

Game 6: Pony Boy

Game 7: Having a Disney Day

Game 8: Knocking Game

Game 9: Playing with Pebbles

Game 10: How Many Hand Lengths?

Game 11: Edible Play-Doh

Games for Older Kids (Ages Seven to Fourteen)

Game 1: How Would You Describe Me?

Game 2: Five Good Moments

Game 3: Self-Portraits

Game 4: People Report

Game 5: Which Line Is Best?

Game 6: Shadow Games

Game 7: Toe Stepping

Game 8: Stone Painting

Traveling Games

Game 1: Postcard Diaries

Game 2: Travel Collections

Chapter Two: Games for Babies

Game 1: Diaper Song

Game 2: Helpful Legs

Game 3: Pan Music

Game 4: Homemade Rattles

Game 5: Clap a Rhythm

Game 6: Bird Talk

Game 7: Hand Dancing

Game 8: Silly Sounds

Game 9: Swat at This

Game 10: Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

Game 11: Catch a Moving Cube

Game 12: Move Me Around

Game 13: In Your Face

Game 14: Keep Your Eyes on This

Game 15: Tender Touches

Game 16: Smell Sorting

Game 17: Describe That Taste

Game 18: Speaking in Sounds

Game 19: Sound Sorting

Game 20: Box Ride

Game 21: Pillow Pile

Game 22: Beach Ball Bounce

Game 23: Standing and Counting

Game 24: Furniture Pathway

Game 25: Backward Steps

Game 26: Book in a Baggie

Game 27: Straws in a Bottle

Game 28: Nest the Cans

Game 29: Voice-Over

Game 30: Chip Bank

Game 31: Color Matches

Chapter Three: Progressive Games for Ages Three to Seven

One Goal for Teachers, Therapists, Aides, and Caregivers

What Materials Are Best?

How to Organize the Kids

How to Get and Maintain Attention

How to Organize the Games

How to Get Everyone Involved

How to End the Game

Beanbag Games

What Is Being Learned

Game 1: Jump

Game 2: Jump Sideways

Game 3: In and Out

Game 4: Jump One, Jump Five

Game 5: Run and Leap

Game 6: Balance Walk

Game 7: Musical Beanbags

Game 8: Throw into Colored Container

Blanket Games

What Is Being Learned

Setup for All the Blanket Games

Game 1: Sausage Walk

Game 2: Fat Sausage Walk

Game 3: Dragon

Game 4: Rock and Roll

Game 5: Sushi or Burrito

Game 6: Trampoline

Game 7: Dance Around

Two-by-Four Games

What Is Being Learned

Game 1: How Many Ways Can You Walk on the Beams?

Game 2: Frogs on the Beam

Game 3: Crossing the Seesaw Beam

Game 4: Little Jump, Big Jump, Little Jump

Game 5: Hop to the End

Game 6: Going to the Store

Game 7: Make Up Your Own

Hula-Hoop Games

What Is Being Learned

Game 1: Tiptoe Through the Hoops

Game 2: Crawl Tunnel

Game 3: Jumping Maze

Game 4: Combination—Vertical and Horizontal

Game 5: Backward

Game 6: All Together Now

Game 7: Roll the Hoop

Game 8: Boomerang

Game 9: Roll and Kick

Game 10: Ring Toss

Game 11: Jump Rope

Game 12: Hula-Hooping—Fast and in Circles

Ladder Games

What Is Being Learned

Game 1: Jump Between the Rungs

Game 2: Hop Between the Rungs

Game 3: Tiptoe Between the Rungs

Game 4: Walk on the Rungs

Game 5: Jump In and Out

Game 6: Go Through the Window

Game 7: Rock the Boat

Game 8: Working Together

Game 9: Rhythm

Game 10: Creating New Games

Magazine Tube Games

What Is Being Learned

Setup for All the Magazine Tube Games

Game 1: Flute

Game 2: Easy Throw

Game 3: Hand to Hand

Game 4: Reflex Drop

Game 5: Head Drop

Game 6: Throw at a Target

Game 7: Jump over the Tubes

Game 8: What Else Can It Be?

Game 9: We’ve Got a Rhythm Inside of Us

Plastic Bottle Games

What Is Being Learned

Game 1: Knock-Downs

Game 2: In and Out

Game 3: Obstacle Course

Rope Games

Setup for Rope Games 1 Through 9

What Is Being Learned

Game 1: Rising Rope

Game 2: Lowering Rope

Game 3: Over and Under

Game 4: Jump Twice—Forward, Sideways, and Backward

Game 5: Hop Once, Hop Twice

Game 6: Jump the Creek

Game 7: Run and Leap

Game 8: Wiggly Rope

Game 9: Swinging Rope

Game 10: Creative Jump

Game 11: Tightrope Walking

Game 12: Tug-of-War

Rocker Board Games

What Is Being Learned

Setup for All the Rocker Board Games

Game 1: Rock and Roll

Game 2: Back and Forth

Game 3: Two Together

Game 4: Balance and Slide Off

Game 5: Group Rock

Game 6: All New Ways

Chapter Four: Therapy Games for Ages Three to Twelve

Fine Motor Games

Game 1: Ping-Pong Pool

Game 2: Punch’n Poke

Game 3: Rainbow Pizza

Game 4: Snip Snip Clip

Game 5: Flipping Pancakes

Game 6: The Rain House

Game 7: Tongs and Tweezers

Game 8: A, B, . . . Can You C Me?

Game 9: Pumpkin Head

Game 10: Penny Race

Gross Motor Games

Game 1: Flying Meteorite

Game 2: Circus Hoop

Game 3: Fire Twirler!

Game 4: Choo-Choo Train

Game 5: Don’t Forget the Shoes!

Game 6: Helicopter

Game 7: Surf’s Up!

Game 8: The Hailstorm

Game 9: Ready, Aim, Squirt!

Game 10: Sit, Roll Over, Jump!

Sensory Games

Game 1: Club Sandwich

Game 2: The Mirror

Game 3: Moon Walker

Game 4: Lollypop Lick

Game 5: Snowplow

Game 6: Natural Disaster

Game 7: Worms and Eyeballs

Game 8: Bag O Bag

Game 9: Feed the Otter

Game 10: Bubble Monster

Social Skills Games

Game 1: Catch the Thief!

Game 2: What Is It?

Game 3: The Feelings Dance

Game 4: Elbow-to-Elbow

Game 5: Stepping Stones

Game 6: Pinball

Game 7: The Magician

Game 8: Hamburger Ball

Game 9: Voice Remote Control

Game 10: The Detective

Chapter Five: Short Group Games for Ages Three to Fifteen

Short Games for Young Children (Ages Three to Ten)

Game 1: Shoe Leaps

Game 2: Blindfold

Game 3: Can You Do the Can-Can?

Game 4: Can You Do What I Do? Can You Say What I Say?

Game 5: Group Dance

Game 6: Horse Is Walking

Game 7: Marble Play

Game 8: Names, Names, We All Have Names

Game 9: Tell Us What You Like to Do

Game 10: Throw at the Letters

Game 11: Twist on the Twister

Short Games for Older Kids (Ages Seven to Fifteen)

Game 1: Bowling for Dollars

Game 2: Category Ball Game

Game 3: Compliment Me

Game 4: Expressing Self with Body

Game 5: Interviewing

Game 6: It’s All in the Tone

Game 7: Jumping Math

Game 8: Make Up a Handshake

Game 9: Make Up a Story

Game 10: Reflection

Game 11: Say a Line

Game 12: Jail

Game 13: Shower Curtain Spelling

Game 14: Time Line Game

Game 15: What’s My Line?


About the Authors


Praise for The Whole Spectrum of Social, Motor, and Sensory Games

“This authentically something-for-everyone book is a joyous reaffirmation that children learn best through fun, imagination, simple materials, and exploration of the many wondrous things of which their bodies and minds are capable. A timely guide the the timeless kind of child’s play that should not be allowed to slip into history.”

—Ellen Notbohm, author, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew

“Barbara Sher understands children! In her new book, she not only gives great ideas for play, but creatively weaves stories into the book to show how to involve children and excite their attention.”

—Kathleen Morris, MS, CCC-SLP creator of S.I.Focus magazine and author of Sensory Soup

“A resourceful book that takes the ‘Power of Play’ to the next level.”

—Jennifer Gilpin Yacio, editor, Sensory Focus Magazine

“A treasure chest of creative ideas for adding play to the learning experience. Not only teachers, but parents, grandparents, and caregivers will welcome this wealth of ideas for engaging children in these playful and educational games that foster skill development, engage reluctant children, and create shared joy and focused excitement.”

—Phyllis Booth, author, Theraplay

“A book that has a rich variety of play activities that are gentle on the budget and are layered and tailored to appeal to different personalities and developmental abilities.”

—Lorna d’Entremont, M.Ed., Special Needs Book Review

“What I really found to be encouraging is the variations of those activities, which help to stay fresh.”

—Marla Roth-Fisch, award-winning author/illustrator, Sensitive Sam and VP, Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation

“Everyone from grandmothers to therapists will benefit from the easy and practical activities in this book. The author’s personal anecdotes and video clips are heartwarming and made the book come alive.”

—Darlene Mannix, Special Education Teacher and author, Social Skills Activities for Special Children

Other books by Barbara Sher

Self-Esteem Games: 300 Fun Activities That Make Children Feel Good About Themselves
Spirit Games: 300 Fun Activities That Bring Children Comfort and Joy
Smart Play: 101 Fun, Easy Games That Enhance Intelligence
Attention Games: 101 Fun, Easy Games That Help Kids Learn to Focus
Early Intervention Games: Fun, Joyful Ways to Develop Social and Motor Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum or Sensory Processing Disorders


For my Dream Team and the many children we have loved at work

For my husband and the many ways he shows love at home

And for my children and grandchildren for everything, always

—Barbara, Mom, and Bubbie

In loving memory of my parents, who took the time to play with me,

and to my daughters, who continue to do so

—Karen and Mom


We all know that each child is his or her own unique person with individual interests and skills. We also know that most children go through the same crawl-before-you-can-walk developmental sequences, although some children walk at ten months and others walk at eighteen months. There is a range we all respect. However, all children need experience. Infants are born without a clue about how to move their body; it’s the caregiver giving her baby time on his tummy to strengthen his back and putting toys slightly out of reach who helps her baby learn which muscles to use to inch forward. It’s the toys that are hung above a baby’s crib that help her develop her vision and the skills of reaching and grasping. Being in a playgroup or with others at the park can expose a child to an awareness of facial and body cues.

Experience is always the best teacher, no matter what age we are and what skill we are trying to learn. And for the first five years of life in particular, experience makes all the difference. It has been only in the last ten years that brain researchers have explained how a child’s brain develops and grows according to what the child has experienced. We have learned that each time a new activity is consciously experienced, new synapses are formed and the brain enlarges. We have also learned that the one hundred billion neurons that babies are born with and that are connected by practice become atrophied without experiences.

This book is about ways of making these learning experiences fun for children by turning them into games. When children are laughing while they are doing something, they are engaged, and they are learning. When parents and teachers are enjoying the activities as much as their children, or when children are inspired to do the activities on their own, children’s skills flourish. You may realize that you already do many of these kinds of activities, but you want to learn more. As you read this book, you will see ways you can use many games to fit your special child. There are games that are perfect for the child on the autism spectrum, whereas others work well for a child who is hyperactive, and almost all can include neurotypical children. Modify or mix and match, and your child’s smiling response will let you know if you’ve picked the games that suit him.

What Key Skills Are Being Enhanced in the Games?

All of these games address motor, sensory, and social skills in one way or another.

The sensory skills include ones that stimulate the five senses, especially vision, hearing, and touch. The tactile system, the largest sensory system in the body, is composed of receptors in the skin that send information to the brain concerning such factors as light touch, pain, temperature, and pressure. The input gives form to body and spatial awareness and plays an important role in enabling an individual to perceive the environment and establish protective reactions for survival.

The motor games work on proprioceptive and vestibular skills. Proprioceptive skills provide us with a subconscious awareness of body position and how the body is moving. They allow us to adjust automatically in different situations, such as stepping off a curb, sitting in a chair, or staying upright on uneven surfaces. Even fine motor tasks, such as writing, using a soup spoon, or buttoning a shirt, depend on an efficient proprioceptive system.

The vestibular system is found in the inner ear and detects movement and changes in the position of the head. It is how we relate in space and know, for example, if we are right side up or tilted to one side. The information we receive from this system tells us which muscles to tighten to keep our balance, and so affects our muscle tone and coordination. All other types of sensation are processed according to vestibular information, so it is a unifying system in our brain.

Social skills include the being aware of others; attending to what is happening in the present moment; and learning to share, take turns, play cooperatively, and read social cues.

The Videos

Some of the games include links to short video clips. These are included to help you see how the games are organized. For visual learners, which many of us are, this type of presentation can make directions instantly easy to understand. These are not professional videos. They were taken in classrooms where I’ve worked by teachers Marlon Cabrera, Juana Atalig, Patty Staal, and Ivan Garces. I hope these videos will give you a better sense of how simple, fun, engaging, and inclusive these games really are.

The children are from Head Start centers in Saipan and Tinian. Saipan and Tinian are American protectorates in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Although I am from Northern California, I work during the school year for the Special Education Department at the three islands in the CNMI: Saipan, Rota, and Tinian. As an occupational therapist wanting to increase the motor, social, and sensory skills of children with special needs, I go into each child’s classroom and present games for all the children that target the skills I want “my” child to learn. In this way, the child with special needs also gets the benefit of feeling part of the group.

In the videos, I do not identify which child has special needs because the point of seeing the games is to notice how everyone can use practice in all the skills and how much fun all the children are having by playing the games together.

How the Book Is Organized

The first chapter presents spontaneous games for all ages, because sometimes an improvised moment can be the best teaching. In addition to enhancing skills, these games can make waiting at the doctor’s office or for food at a restaurant enjoyable, helping raise spirits and put everyone in a good mood. “Whose Hand Is on Top?” for example, is a great family game in which everyone has silly fun together but all have to pay attention to keep track of whose hand moves next. And “Ways to Walk” is ideal if you’ve got a cranky kid not happy about walking a distance. If everyone takes gigantic giant steps and mincing baby steps to get there, you will end up with children who are in a much better mood.

The second chapter includes lots of fun games you would do one-on-one with your little one. They work in particular on the foundational sensory and motor skills on which all other skills are built. As with other games in this book, you only need to look around the house to find the materials you need to engage and lengthen your baby’s attention.

The third chapter is full of progressive games. Progressive games continually change to challenge different skills, but each series of games can be done with just one easy-to-find material. For example, kids can start by jumping over a rope that is slowly raised, requiring increasing strength to jump over it. This same rope can then be slowly lowered so that children have to continually adjust their posture to go under it without touching it. The rope can even be wiggled so children have to manage their timing to make it over without the wiggly rope touching them, and so on. Most of the links to videos are in this chapter so that you can access visual information on how to play each set of games. These games can be played in the inclusive classroom or with any mixed group of young children, such as siblings and neighbors.

Chapter Four, written by occupational therapist Karen Beardsley, provides therapy games for a wide range of children from ages three to twelve. Karen is very experienced and knowledgeable and has that same let-it-be-fun spirit. Her games include ones played in small spaces, such as “Flipping Pancakes,” and others that are played outdoors, such as “Flying Meteorite.” The games are organized by type of skill you want to focus on. Karen also contributed the appendix for home therapists and parents who are thinking of inviting a home therapist to work with their child.

The fifth chapter presents group games for children ages three to fifteen. Each game has a single theme, and there is a large range of games to accommodate the different interests of the various ages. An example of a game for little ones is stacking cans in “Can You Do the Can-Can,” whereas older children enjoy “Bowling for Dollars.” One group game has older kids making up a cool group dance, and another has preschoolers jumping on letters.

The Stories

Scattered throughout are personal stories that tell of experiences I have had with children I work with, as well as my own children and grandchildren. My hope is to give you a sense of who I am, to show you real ways that games can fit into daily life, and to amuse you with tales of the joys and frustrations of being with children.



My guiding plan when working with children in a classroom is to include everyone. To that aim, I use games in which there is room for children of differing skills to play together. These are games that can also be played at home and in neighborhoods where children of varying ages and abilities play together. To see which games work best, I needed playful teachers, aides, and parents and, most important, scores of children!

I am so appreciative of all the children at all the Head Start centers who played with me and would enthusiastically greet me when I came in the door, knowing that a game was coming. Big love also goes to their teachers, who were and are enthusiastic about my bringing games into their classroom, especially Quin Besong, Miranda Smith, Juana Atalig, and Ivan Garces, the amazing impresario for our shows.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it also takes a dedicated team to make a difference in the life of a child with special needs. I work with such a team. They are a group of fine people who know how to laugh and play and care. There is an expression that goes, “If you’ve seen a child with autism, you’ve seen a child with autism,” meaning that like all children, each child with autism has his or her own unique interests, skills, strengths, and needs. One size does not fit all. One way of working with children is not “the” way.

I’m grateful to our Dream Team, who understand this and work toward knowing each child well. They are the special education teachers and the related service staff in the Early Childhood Department of the Northern Mariana Islands Public School System: Leilani Nielsen, Mary-Margaret Peyton, Yoli and Chrislaine Lely, Rose and Jerry Diaz, Joe Cruz, Jacob Villagomez, Mark and Patty Staal, and Mercy Tisa and Marlon Cabrera—the last of whom captured most of the great video shots of kids playing the Progressive Games and Short Group Games.

We are also fortunate to have a director with vision, Suzanne Lizama, who is willing to grow and be open to ever better possibilities in working with and evaluating the whole child.

Writing a book is also a collaborative effort. It starts with an idea and expands to many other people. I am thrilled that my former colleague and dear friend Karen Beardsley, whose work I have always admired, agreed to enrich this book with her home therapy ideas.

I’ve always admired my editor, Kate Bradford, for her diligent and careful editing, but now I am also enjoying getting to know her good sense of humor. Thanks also to copyeditor Francie Jones, who added her thorough editing skills. Ralph Butler never fails to come up with a joyful group of people in his illustrations, and I appreciate his willingness to match my visions. I must mention Nana Twumasi and Justin Frahm, Wiley associates who are fast to answer whatever questions I have and contribute their valuable touch. My thank-yous to them all, and to the others who are part of the production group whom I have never met, but who are, I know, of great importance to the final product.

Gratitude extends beyond the writing of this book. It belongs to the people in my life, such as my sisters, Bonnie Wilson, Trisha Ferlic, and Glo Harris, who have always cheered me on. Two people, however, get special recognition. One is my nephew Marc Wilson, who taught me how to love my iMovie feature. The other is my dear brother, Monty Sher, who expresses his understanding of the synergy of my games with his articulate words.

And—as if it were even possible to have a good life without close women friends—I owe so much to my wonderful Saipan buddies, Rita Bonnici, Susan Baetge, Jenny Slack, Patty Staal, Mary Peyton, and Jill Derickson, for all the lovely and meaningful walks and talks; to Janet McCulloch for so many insightful conversations; and to my dear Humboldt lifelong, loving friends, Lorraine Carolan, Cindy Taylor, and Joan Becker.

I also want to give recognition to two people who are an enormous help in my life, Lorna Arcega and Mario Santillan.

As always and forever, I depend on the support and continuous love of my own wonderful, talented, beautiful, and intelligent daughters, Roxanne and Marissa, and my adorable and bright grandchildren, Oliver and Julien. I also have the good fortune to have spectacular sons-in-law, Ehren and Mark, who have always been so good to me.

And I’m grateful to the universe for bringing this former widow a warm, funny, kind, loving, and handsome husband, Don Cohen, who is my comfortable ballast, cuddly companion, and head cook. He makes our life work smoothly in our tree house home by the sea.

My love and gratitude for you all.



We learn through play, and should never underestimate its power. A dear friend and fellow colleague of mine once told me, “I see myself kind of like an inspirational fairy, sprinkling permission for therapists, teachers, and parents to make fun use of whatever they have, to do therapy with.” Her name is Barbara Sher, and I am grateful for her invitation to collaborate on this wonderful project. I hope we have been able to accomplish a bit of this inspirational work with this book and our games.

To the children around the world, thank you for teaching me to be the therapist I am.

To the parents of these children, thank you for welcoming me into your homes and lives.

To the professionals with whom I have worked, thank you for your wisdom when I needed guidance.

To my husband, Don, thank you for your support and eternal confidence in me.

To my two beautiful and loving daughters, Kaya and Raina, thank you for inspiring me with your creativity, your eagerness to always play with me, and your honest critiques of my games. But mostly, thank you for teaching me that the importance of most anything we do in life all starts in the home.


The Power of Play and the Synergy of Games

This book is about play. As such, it confronts a common prejudice: play is frivolity, incidental to life’s purposes and direction. Right? No. Of course there are contexts in which play is frivolity for its own sake—but at the foundation of what makes us human, play is central. This is true for all of us, but particularly true for the developmentally atypical. Still, let’s briefly examine the importance of play for all of us.

To quote Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, scientist, clinical researcher, and founder of the National Institute for Play, “Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, social scientists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process. It shapes the brain.”1

This is true for all children. Stanley Greenspan, author and noted authority on children with autism spectrum disorder, emphasized the importance of the “floortime” approach: getting down and creatively playing on the floor with these children can make a significant difference in their brain growth and subsequent increases in skills.2

The instant effect of joyful play on brain growth was shown dramatically when two groups of typical children had brain imaging done before and after activities. One group’s activities were watching TV, playing repetitive video games, and the like. The other kids were engaged in activities that were exciting for them, such as playing with a train and making up stories about the action taking place. The brain images from the children not particularly engaged showed no changes. But the brain images from the children who were playfully engaged in these multisensory creative activities showed immediate differences. New synaptic connections were actually visible in the brain scans!3

In brain-speak, stimulating experiences activate certain neural synapses, and this triggers growth processes that consolidate those connections. Rich experiences, in other words, really do produce rich brains.

Abundant scientific research, such as that conducted by Marian Diamond at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, shows that even rats placed in an enriched environment with opportunities to play with others will thrive. The more a young rat plays, the more rapidly its brain grows.

Play makes us smarter. But there is more.

Peter Gray, a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology, adds to this idea of play making us human. In a series of essays, Gray observes that play occurs among the young of many species and seems clearly to promote skill learning and practice. It has been observed that playfulness among primates serves as a means of defeating aggression and mitigating dominance. As Gray says, “We inherited these play-enabling signals and restraints from our primate ancestors, and then—through both culture and biological evolution—we built upon them.”4

Robert Fagen, an animal play behaviorist, explains, “Play allows ‘pretend rehearsal’ for the challenges and ambiguities of life, a rehearsal in which life and death are not at stake.”5 Play researchers Sergio and Vivian Pellis of the Canadian Centre for Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) corroborate the notion that play is practice in their book The Playful Brain. This erudite book synthesizes decades of research on animal play, showing that play is clearly integral to development—and competence—and that the skills gained through play in navigating social ambiguity are key.6

What happens if we don’t play?

Brown spells it out in his book Play. When social mammals seriously miss out on play, they show similar characteristics: they don’t have the ability to delineate friend from foe; they miss social signaling and either act aggressively or retreat when meeting others; they don’t learn the give-and-take of mock combat (taunting from teasing); they can’t perceive others’ emotional states and adopt an appropriate response; and they have difficulty connecting emotionally with others.

Is this true for all social mammals, namely, us?

Darell Hammond is the inspiration behind KaBOOM!, the world-class nonprofit that has harnessed the power of community to build and renovate, so far, over two thousand playgrounds. As Hammond points out on his Web page, “The Play Deficit is the very real decline in play in our society. Children are playing less than any previous generation. . . . Play is the primary means by which children develop, and lack of play is causing them profound physical, intellectual, social, and emotional harm. . . . During play, children learn to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and act for themselves. Children who do not play are at an increased risk for displaying problems during more formalized social interactions. . . . If play is not made a priority, we will continue to see a decrease in creativity and imagination, as well as vital skills including curiosity, social skills, resiliency, and the ability to assess risk.”7

Play, then, allows us to be more socially approachable and open to learning, creating better social interactions with other people.

How do you intertwine play with these children’s lives?

Introducing play activities, examples of which you will see in this book, into these children’s lives reopens their social world. Of course, this entry must be managed deliberately and with care. Playing with typical peers is integral to the experience, as is play with a loving caretaker. As you will see, some of the play activities seem to border on the simplistic. Yet it is their very simplicity that makes them accessible and acceptable to the child with special needs. You will see children’s delight as they awaken to their new social life. As this life unfolds, they can explore the freedom and equality in the play state, interacting with some safety from being dominated or controlled by others. They begin to learn what it means to be in tune with others. Indeed, literally sharing musical tunes with others is an important part of this process.

You will find a rich variety of play activities in this book. There may be a temptation to see them as isolated, unconnected activities. That would be a mistake. Every activity is layered. Every activity combines a variety of modalities: movement, touching, looking, interacting, and so on. Every sense is engaged. There is evolution from the simple skills to the more complex.

Finally, it is important to recognize that these play activities are synergistically potent. That phrase is a mouthful, but it contains a truth. All these play activities interact in ways that enhance each other, making the learning richer. The resulting achievements become the foundation for still further achievement.

But the best part of all these ideas is this: when we play games with children, we can all have fun.


1. Brown, S., and Vaughan, C., Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, New York: Avery, 2009.

2. Greenspan, S., and Wiede, S., Engaging Autism: Using the Floortime Approach to Help Children Relate, Communicate, and Think, New York: Da Capo, 2009.

3. Begley, S., “Your Child’s Brain,” Newsweek, v127 n8 February 18, 1996,

4. Gray, P., Psychology (4th edition), New York: Worth, 2001.

5. Fagen, R., Animal Play Behavior, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

6. Pellis, S., and Pellis, V., The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience, London: Oneworld, 2010.

7. Hammond, D., KaBOOM!, Washington DC,

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

—George Bernard Shaw

Chapter One

Spontaneous Games for All Ages

Children are awake around 12 hours a day, more or less. That’s 84 hours a week or 4,368 hours a year that their brains are open and available for learning—and parents are a child’s best teacher. However, we caregivers are busy 5,000 hours a year with the demands of work, children, and home. Having to play a game with our child can feel like a lot to ask, even when we know it matters.

One solution is spontaneous games. Games can teach, and they also can change the mood. When our child is a baby, we learn that distraction works. Our child is fussy, and we reach in our pocket and pull out our keys or anything novel to play with and voilà, the child is content and busy.

Preschool kids can be distracted too. For example, I played “Can You Do What I Do? Can You Say What I Say?” with my twin five-year-old grandsons when they were hot and grouchy. They took a moment to warm to the idea, but they got into it and had silly fun coming up with their own variations. Hot and grouchy changed into light and fun. Emotional alchemy!

There are lots of games in this chapter that take a short amount of time and can provide the perfect distraction from a potentially hard moment, such as when standing in a long line, waiting for food to be served at a restaurant, or walking a long distance to get back to the car or bus—or even when children are cleaning their room. There are also silly games to start off the day with a giggle. The best part of spontaneous games is that they require no materials, or only what is probably lying around. The even better part is that they give parents easy teachable moments, and give children real experience in practicing skills.

Waiting Games for Airports, Restaurants, and Doctor’s Offices