Category Archives: Games as Therapy Tools

15 Puzzle Aids in Stroke Recovery

An incredible email we recently received from a stroke survivor – We are thrilled to hear our game is helping in his recovery and has earned a place in his family’s Earthquake Kit!

Dear ThinkFun,

Thank you for inventing the “Fifteen Puzzle” game.

As a 5-yr stroke survivor I find this, aided by other physiotherapy, continues to help.  It is a game that I enjoy because it is quiet and does not disturb or distract others; and does not require batteries.

I had a similar game when I was younger, about 60 years ago.  I have been looking for a similar one to my childhood one – lost long ago.  Your Fifteen Puzzle is the closest.

Planning for a recently completed, lengthy airliner trip and boat cruise prompted my efforts to again locate such a toy game that would keep me 1) amused, 2) my mind active.

I don’t where we ‘found’ and bought your puzzle game, but have had it for more than a few years now.  I do enjoy playing it and when its not out being used I keep it as part of our family earthquake kit along with a deck of playing cards.

Keep up the good work with your other toy distribution!

Using Games to Treat Traumatic Brain Injury

An incredible letter recently made its way to my desk.  A woman in Alaska wrote to share a remarkable story, one that reaffirms the brain building (and in some ways even life-saving!) power of play and reminds us that the games we create can do powerful things.

Her letter gave me chills!This isn’t the first we’ve heard about our games, particularly Rush Hour, being used to treat patients with brain injuries.  Over the years we have heard from many therapists who use our games to help patients rebuild cognitive and fine motor skills, and Rush Hour was recently featured in an NBC Nightly News segment on treating returning veterans with brain injuries.  We are eager to explore how we can continue to create games that support the incredible work these doctors are doing!

(Check out Rush Hour’s cameo at 00:38)

Are you a therapist or patient who has used games as part of your treatment?  Please share your story!

Toys Are Tools: Exercise & Improve Memory with Cartoon It!

The following post is by Jenn Choi, whose incredible Toys are Tools blog sorts toys and games by the skills they support, providing invaluable insight and tips on ways to use fun products to draw out meaningful learning!  Jenn recently shared a fantastic evaluation of ThinkFun’s Cartoon It!, focusing on ways game play supports working memory (view original post).

Brain Sharpening Games: Part 1

WHAT: ThinkFun’s Cartoon It!
DOES: allows you to work on your “working memory” the memory that you use to complete tasks and more, exercise your drawing abilities
INVEST: $19.99 ($17.50 on Amazon today)
TOOLS: Remember to Learn (if your memory is so-so); Social Scene Helper (if you’re shy but can draw a little and you have an awesome memory)

Being a kid growing up in New York City, I was exposed to children from many different places.  So many of these kids would often talk about school experiences in their former countries and even show how they learned things differently.

For example, I learned the times table in Queens, New York by folding some paper into columns and writing out each table like this:
2 X 3 = 6
2 X 4 =8
2 X 5 =10
over and over etc..

But once I met another kid from Korea who recited the times table to me this way:

He stood with his body tilting and swaying a little bit and he recited the times tables with almost no tone, almost like he was meditating.  He also sounded like he could go on reciting all the tables forever.  I was in awe.

Committing things to memory is challenging.  We all have tricks here and there but at least we only need to memorize things for tests, right?  For the rest of the day, we can just turn on our green light and go.

But what if we can’t? What if we can’t remember things not just for tests but just to function at home and at school? Here is an example of memory failure in daily living, ever say something like this? “I specifically told you to bring this here and then go start your bath but you went straight to the bath! Why?”

Psychologists will likely tell you that this is what is known as a working memory issue and some people are born with better working memory than others.

By the way, I don’t think that working memory has anything to do with intelligence because I’m pretty sure that Number 1 is an amazing thinker but his working memory is really in need of a makeover.  I can easily relate to him on this as well.  I go into rooms ten times a day wondering why I went there.  I will even stop what I’m doing on a computer, open a new window in my browser, type in a web address, and by the time the home page appears, I do not know why I’m there.

This has got to stop!  But can it be stopped?  Can I help my son (and maybe me) with his working memory?

“Yes,” says Anil Chacko, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queens College in New York City.  Dr. Chacko is also working on a treatment development grant from the NIH*, known as RAMP (Refining Attention Memory and Parenting) Study which is examining whether a computerized working memory training program in combination with a parenting program will improve the social, emotional, and academic functioning of children with ADHD*.

“Working memory is not fixed.” Dr. Chacko added that studies have found that working memory can actually improve, even in a matter of one year, particularly for younger children.

Can you hear the birds singing?  I can.

Even before talking with Dr. Chacko, I was hoping this could be true.  You hear enough about it, know that there are tons of theories out there but how much about improving memory in children do we really know?  In fact, after reading this story, I invite you to google “memory” and “training” or “games” and you will see a flood of choices asking you to try these games with prices ranging from free to the thousands of dollars.  There is a penny to be made here.  Maybe a whole lotta pennies.  Why?

Well, take Number 1.  He knows his memory is not great.  It frustrates him a lot and I can understand that.  Memory is very personal.  So of course I go online and see what I can buy to fix this.

Okay, I know that I can not buy anything to “fix” it but maybe there are tools to help me try.  It didn’t take me long to find  Cartoon It!, a game made by ThinkFun.

This company has a special place in my heart because of their game Rush Hour Traffic Jam. When Number 1 was little, he mastered the Junior version of this game so quickly.  I was so proud of him and this is really significant because I think he was around 5 years old and he was really driving me crazy.   But that puzzle was so much fun, it just drew him in.  It gave him a lot of confidence and I was so proud of him.  So, of course, when I am looking for fun things for Number 1, I frequently go to this site to check out what is new.

And there it was. When I think memory games, I think about preschool matching cards.  This game is not  like that at all. But, are there pictures? Yes. Is there card flipping? Yes.  But YOU must match it yourself by drawing it out.  And if you do it the fastest, you get an extra point. How awesome is that?

I love this two-step process.  You basically look at the card with a cartoon face and then when the timer is up, you flip the card back over and then draw.  To me, writing it out or saying it out loud commits things to memory.  And don’t worry if you are not an artist, they give hints on a board like a multiple choice question and the choices are not that similar so that it looks like a trick question.  Lastly, there is a self-grading part.  That is cool.  I love that.  The directions also give suggestions of what to do if there is a disagreement.

You can grade yourself! You can even practice by yourself!

But the game is still hard for my Number 1.  After a couple of rounds, he flipped over the game board, barked some angry talk, and stomped away.

What’s a mother to think?  For me, I thought, “Jackpot!” I know it is a little evil of me but hey, we hit a soft spot!   If this taxed him, then the enemy has identified itself and I can use this game to help him not just with his memory skills but also teach him how to cope with feeling crappy when he has a memory mishap.

And of course, games are supposed to be pleasurable but the added dimension to why he’s upset is that he does like the game.  He also gets to play with his family! It’s understandable that he wants to be successful around us.   He also likes to draw and through this, I noticed something else.  He draws really small!  Wow!  I don’t know why but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s kind of cute.  I just have to encourage him to make a big enough face to fit the features.  It’s a planning skill that also needs work here.

Lastly, did you see this video above?  It is awesome.  I still haven’t read the instructions and I’ve had this game for almost three months.  I HATE READING INSTRUCTIONS! Who wants to read instructions in front of two impatient kids!  This is what is good about today’s world.  Video instructions make it easier for a parent to explain a game. For some kids, it even does an excellent job of getting them started.

Later, we played the game again with Number 1 and he did better.  I also found it to be a natural time to have an open discussion talking about memory strategies like the fact there are such things as memory strategies and that people do in fact use them to succeed.  And this is not limited to spelling tests!   For example, Number 3 told Number 1 that every time she saw a face, she called it a name like “grumpy” or “excited” and that helped her remember the features. She won the game.

At another game night, my husband also told my son to look at the columns and remember the sequence of numbers as you go down the board. see photo above. (Face is in 1st column, eyes 3rd column, ears 5th column, nose 2nd column thus 1,3,5,2…)  I have a feeling that this is more compensatory than Number 3’s idea but I like that Number 1 can start learning how to compensate.  We are all different and once we know ourselves, we can work concurrently on strengthening a weakness but at the same time learn to cope so we can function right now and in this case, play a game and have fun with friends.

But even if I liked memory games and had a great one like Cartoon It!, how do I know how much I should play to make a difference in his life?  Dr. Chacko said we just don’t know the answer to this question but he gave me a very good common sense analogy that we can apply to this equation.

Think of memory games like trying to lose weight, he said.  Can you make an impact with doing just a few minutes of exercise per month?  Obviously not.  But maybe if we increase the “dose” we can increase the impact.    So how are we supposed to figure out how much is good enough?  And is working memory really a big deal beyond just getting in trouble by Mom?  What about school? Is working memory helping you for spelling tests and memory games or is it more than that?

All I can say is that there is a lot more to say and you’ll see it here tomorrow when we discuss a remake of an immensely popular memory game that came to the market this year.

For now, know that as a parent, I adore this game.  For the conversations that sparked from it alone, I am grateful.  I also don’t think anyone should be upset when playing this game.  In fact, I think we can modify it so that it can serve lots of families.  We have even figured out a way to play it alone and with Number 2 who is still just four.  Believe it or not, even though he is just four, when helped, he can be pretty damn good at this game.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we keep playing and the kids beat the adults.  This also tells me that if your child’s memory is good, use this as a social scene helper if he needs it or at home just as a confidence boost!  Not everything has to be aimed at improving your skills. After all, it’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun and having fun with your family is an aim for any game.

Come back tomorrow when you’ll read more of Dr. Chacko’s very wise perspective on working memory.

Disclosure statement: Toys are Tools has not been compensated in any fashion by the manufacturer or retailer of any of the mentioned products for the publication of this post.

Snack Attack Serves up Fun and Learning as a Speech/Language Tool!

I am thrilled to share another guest post by Kelly Rholes.  Kelly is a fabulous Speech Therapist who integrates game play into her practice to engage young players and make learning fun and meaningful!  In a previous post she described ways to use Zingo! to support her clients, and here she dives into Snack Attack!, sharing creative ways to use game play to target a range of different learning needs:

This game is FULL…let me say it again…FULL of options for targeting So many speech and language goals. I have created a few of these into a list that may help you when you want a new way to play this game, or when you need a new way to target a goal!

First of all, this game is just great fun, overall. I’ve played it with many of my kiddos and they all enjoy it and ask to play it again and again! They especially love spinning the tube that holds the tokens.
If you’re working on subjective pronouns (he/she):

*If your child needs to work on “he”, find a boy to play with you, and if your child needs to practice “she”, find a girl. (This obviously may be a little difficult depending on your situation. Play the game as you normally would except with this twist: Each child will play the other child’s card. The children will call out to you what the other person has. Have the child use the carrier phrase, “S/he has ____” to ensure the use of the pronoun. For example, Bobby needs to work on “she”. Bobby is playing with Sarah. The spinner will be spun, and Bobby will look at Sarah’s card. Sarah has popcorn, and popcorn is available on the game piece. Bobby will yell, “She has popcorn!” Sarah will then put popcorn on her card, and the game continues like this.

*You can play this way for pronouns I/you have. Also, consider targeting has/have if you child has trouble with this “be” verb and tweak the rules based on the child’s ability to follow new rules/skill level.

*Another quick way to target pronouns is to look at the front of the box the game comes in and discuss what each child has on his/her card.

If you’re working on imitation:

* Put some beans or rice in the tube, and close both ends. Shake the beans/rice and hand it to your child. You can even add words or sounds when you shake. For example, “shake, shake, shake!”

* Use the game piece and the tube, but leave the tube empty. Spin the tube and say, “weeeee!” Wait for the child to take a turn, or help the child imitate you by guiding his hand.

If you’re working on requesting:

* Place a small reinforcer in the tube. Close the tube. Then, show the child the tube. If the child is young, it will probably be hard for him to open the tube; therefore, he will need help opening it. If he’s reinforced enough, he will communicate in some way to let you know he wants it. (Keep in mind this may be crying!) Provide him with a model so that he can imitate you to request at his skill level.

If you’re working on memory:

* Lay target number of tokens out in front of the child. Name them or have the child name them. The child then closes his eyes. Take one of the tokens away. The child will open his eyes and guess which one is missing.

If you’re working on phonological awareness:

* Lay target number of tokens in front of the child. Make sure you have different tokens. Tell the child to give you the one that starts with __. Letters you will be able to target: a, c, g, i, m, p, s. There are 12 different food items. Some start with the same letter. You could also have the child give you the foods that start with the same letter. Another game you could play is to have the child make up a silly (nonsense) word that rhymes with whichever food item you hand him or he draws from the pile.

If you’re working on articulation:

These are for specific sounds:

/g/: I got _______! (The child will use this simple sentence when he finds a food on the game board that matches on his plate.)
/h/: I have ______! (The child will use this simple sentence when he finds a food on the game board that matches on his plate.)
/s/: I see ______! (The child will use this to name the food items once the tube has been spun around the entire game board.)
/f/: I found _______! (The child will use this simple sentence when he finds a food on the game board that matches on his plate.)
/l/: I like/don’t like to eat _____! (The child will use this to talk about the foods on the game board or on his plate.)

If you need this as a reinforcer:

Obvious? The game itself is a reinforcer, but a way you can use this and still target your goals (when targeting them other ways) is to have the child perform the target activity, then take a turn with the game. A turn can mean spinning the tube once and playing until he can no longer play.

If you’re working on ANYTHING:
(answering questions, following directions, speech sounds, etc, etc, etc!)

Use this template if you want or make your own: Colored circles for Snack Attack

Cut out the circles and tape them down over the small circles inside the holes where the food lands once the tube has passed over it. Confusing? Here’s a picture. P.S. To make your own circles, use whatever program you want but make sure the circles measure 7/8 of an inch.

You could:

*(Best for 2 players, not including you) Make one colored circle and put a thin thin layer of sticky tack on the back of it. Place it randomly on one of the circles of the game board. Have the children close their eyes. Spin the tube so that the tokens cover up the circles. The children play as they normally would except if someone grabs a food item with a red circle underneath, he must put that token back into the tube. Once that round is finished and the children can no longer play, pick up the tokens that could not be played, move the red circle to another spot, and spin the tube to cover the holes again.

* Put a different colored circle in each of the holes. Have the child spin the empty tube and see where it lands. The color that he lands on is the coordinating color card (that you already made) in which he has to do. These pre-made cards will correspond with your target goals. So, if you have a following directions goal, he will have to perform the activity that the card states.

Here is an example of pre-made cards with a following directions goal:  Following Directions

If you need to work on body parts or clothing, make your cards correspond to pointing to body parts.
If you’re working on specific question types (i.e. “who”), make your cards fit that goal (i.e. “Who delivers mail?”, “Who do you see when you’re sick?”, “Who takes care of sick animals?”, “Who cuts your hair?”)

* Put different colored circles in each of the holes. Play the game as you normally would. Each time a token is picked up, the child must remember the color underneath it. When one round is finished, the child has to repeat the colors in the order he picked up the tokens.

You are not limited to just colors. You can put numbers on your circles (provided as a template) and make up your own games. You would write target letters and work on speech sounds that the empty tube lands on after it has been spun. If working on basic reading and/or phonological awareness, have the child spin the empty tube and read the word it lands on and/or think of another word that starts with that letter and/or rhymes with the word.

If you’re working on patterns:

There are 12 different food items and 11 of each one. Use only the tokens for this. Lay them out to make a pattern (i.e. peanut, peanut, cheese…) Have the child finish your pattern or make his own. You could also make a pattern, then remove one of the tokens. The child must figure out which part of the pattern is missing and replace the token with the correct food item.

If you want the child to answer questions about the foods:

Play the game as you normally would. When one round is finished, look at the child’s plate and ask him a question about one of the foods. Here is an example sheet of questions you can use: Asking Questions

That is all!

A Speech Therapist Builds Language Skills Using Zingo!

I am thrilled to share the following guest post by Kelly Rholes.  Kelly is a fabulous Speech Therapist who integrates game play into her practice to engage young players and make learning fun and meaningful!  Here she shares creative ways to use ThinkFun’s Zingo! game to target a range of different learning needs:

If working on verb tense:

Have the child pull 2 or 3 chips at random and put them in a line. Then the child must create a story in using all past, present, or future tense verbs. For example, if the child grabs a foot, sock and tree and the target tense is using past tense verbs, he could say, “Yesterday I put my sock on my foot, and then I kicked a tree.” Of course, he can make up any sentence, and the sillier the better!

If working on temporal, conditional, or basic directions:

When cleaning up the game, give the child directions for putting the chips back in the slider. Some examples:
Temporal Direction: Put the cake in after you put in the yo-yo.
Conditional Direction: If I put in a T-rex, you put in a tree.
Conditional w/ negation: Don’t put in a foot, unless I put in a shoe.

If working on final consonant deletion:

Many of these chips have words ending in /p/, /t/, /k/, and /g/.  I usually play this game with my children who have final consonant deletion as a phonological processing disorder persisting after 3 years of age. I have the child name the chip or put the word of the chip in a simple sentence. He can also ask, “Do you have a ____?”

If working on memory:

1. Show the child a certain number of chips on a table. Then, have him close his eyes and take one away. Then, the child opens his eyes and and states which chip is missing.

2. Show the child a certain number of chips, asking him to look only. Then, have the child engage in a different task for a certain number of minutes (depending on your goal). After your time is up, begin showing the chips (with a few new ones added) one at a time to the child asking him is he saw the picture earlier.

3. Have a selected chip out for the child. Tell the child that you want him to name as many things he can think of that … in one minute. Turn the timer over to start the time and write down his answers. For example, if you choose hamburger, ask him to name as many other foods he can think of in 1 minute. Or, if you choose apple, have him name as many things that are red 1 one minute.

If working on categories:

1. Lay three chips out in front of the child (two of which belong to the same category– 2 animals, 1 food) and have him state which chip doesn’t belong and why.

2. Lay half or all of the chips out in front of the child (depending on skill level) and have him separate them into categories. If the child needs support, write category titles on separate pieces of paper so the child knows what to look for (i.e. food, animal, transportation, etc).

If working on prepositions:

Have the child grab a chip from a pile. Then give him directions telling him where to place the chip. For example, you can say, “Place the ice cream under the chair.” You can increase the number of directions, as well. For example, “Place the horse on the table then touch your nose.”

If working on functions of objects:

Lay out a certain number of chips (they can related or not depending on difficulty level) on the table. Tell the child, “Hand me the one that flies.” Choose the function you are looking for and ask the child to have you the object that serves that function.

If working on phonological awareness:

Have the child grab a chip from a pile. When he looks at it, ask him to name the chip. Then he must think of another word that starts with the same letter/sound, ends with the same letter/sound, or rhymes with the word.

If working on reading:

Determine your child’s reading level. Write simple sentences on sentence strips (or whatever your heart desires) leaving a blank where a noun should be. Have the child grab a chip  from a pile and a sentence strip. The child must place the chip in the blank (or noun) spot and then read the sentence. Again, the sillier the better!

If working on comparing/contrasting:

Have the child grab two chips from a group of scattered chips  laying face down. He must then name one thing similar about the objects on the chip and one thing different (or whatever your goal is for the child).

If working on sentence structure:

Choose a carrier phrase, and write it on a sentence strip. For example, “I see a _____”, or “This is a _____”. Scatter the chips around. Have the child choose a chip and place it in the blank spot of the sentence strip. Then have him read or say the sentence. You can have multiple types of sentences and the child can also choose a sentence strip when choosing a chip. You can also have the child ask questions while playing the game, such as, “Do you have a _____?”

Of course, this game is great for reinforcing activities. The child can perform a task, then slide the slider one or two times. Taking turns while mastering goals.

Do you have other suggestions for creative ways to use Zingo! to exercise specific skills?  Please share in the comments below!

Language Games Build Speech Skills and Family Bonds!

The following post is by Laura Dodson, a mom to five wonderful boys.  Last year, Laura, her husband, and their 2 sons adopted three boys from Uganda, and she shares their remarkable journey in her blog! Here Laura describes how language games have been tremendous tools in helping her boys in speech therapy!

The Dodson Family

In the fall of 2008, our family embarked on a new journey: adoption.  We were matched with 2 little boys ages 3 and 4.  We were informed the youngest, Daniel, was hearing impaired and the oldest, Jeremiah, had some speech issues.  After much prayer, we decided these boys were to be our new sons–4 sons in all!

After several months of filling out paperwork [5 inches thick. yes, i measured.] and obtaining clearance from the US government, a little surprise package was added to the mix. A 5 year old package! We were flabbergasted to say the least, but overjoyed at the addition of a third boy, Alan.  (Yes, we thought we were a little crazy but a little crazy is good. right? right!)

Daniel Dodson

The summer of 2009 was a whir lwind. We made two trips to Uganda totaling 7 weeks in country.  On the last trip, our homegrown sons Joshua and Caleb, were able to come with us. We were blessed beyond measure they could see where their new brothers were born and the caring home where they spent the first years of their lives.  We landed on US soil September 24, 2009.

During our first year home, it was discovered that Daniel’s hearing impairment was due 4 years worth of thick, gluey fluid in his ears. A gracious doctor in our hometown donated her services and performed the surgery free of charge. [due to our sagging economy, Jeff had lost his job duri ng our first trip to Uganda]. We were ecstatic to learn that his hearing was fully restored.

Over the last several months, Daniel and Jeremiah have begun speech therapy. We have a wonderful therapist who comes to our home twice a week helping the boys learn various sounds, conversational language, and master other goals like categorizing, and responding to questions appropriately.  I have learned volumes from her.  Therapy is game based and that is where I learned about Zingo! and S’Match.

Jeremiah Dodson

Our homegrown boys, Joshua and Caleb, are teens. We had very little in the preschooler game department J Our therapist gave us materials to practice with Daniel and Jeremiah on the days she wasn’t here.  You know what that means!  Shopping!

Alan Dodson

We purchased Zingo! and What’s Gnu?  As we play Zingo!, the boys must answer questions in complete sentences such as, “Do you have the house?”  “No. I do not have the house.”  or “Who has the tree?”  Daniel answers, “Jeremiah has the tree.”

If they draw a tile they have on their card they say, “I have the heart.”  I must confess, that I’ve never really liked playing games.  However, Zingo! has become a favorite of mine and the boys like it, too.

In S’Match, the therapist is teaching the boys about categories and same or different. She asks questions like, “Are these the same?” Depending on what they’ve spun, and subsequently drawn, their answer takes some brain power.  They are developing good thinking skills as they observe their cards.  The colors may match, but if the spinner says ‘category’ they need to look past the matching colors and focus on the pictures. It’s a challenge. We plan on acquiring this game so we can reinforce what they’re learning from her.

We are more than pleased with the pr ogress our two youngest sons are making with their speech, thinking and language skills.  Playing games like Zingo! makes learning tough skills enjoyable for all!  Just last weekend, I caught our teens playing Zingo! with their little brothers.  My heart spilled over with joy.  This first year has been a toughie in so many ways, but we’re on the upswing.  And if a game like Zingo! can not only help with language, but build familial bonds as well, then I say money well spent!

Toys R Us Differently-Abled Kids Guide Features Several ThinkFun Favorites!

2010 Toy guide for Differently Abled Kids

Toys “R” Us, Inc. has released the 2010 edition of the Toys “R” Us Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids, featuring actress Holly Robinson Peete, mother of a son with autism, and 6-year-old Tommy Austing on the cover. Released annually, the guide helps parents of children with special needs select toys that will help their child develop skills. This year’s guide is the largest edition ever in the publication’s nearly 20-year history, spanning 60 pages.

The toys featured in the guide are assessed by the National Lekotek Center. The association assesses the value of hundreds of toys and at least two skill-building traits are assigned to each toy that appears in the guide. The skills include auditory, creativity, fine motor, gross motor, language, self-esteem, social skills, tactile, thinking, and visual. Additionally, the guide includes “Top Ten Tips for Buying Toys” from the National Lekotek Center and “Safe Play Tips for Children with Special Needs.”

This year’s Guide recognizes four outstanding ThinkFun products: Zingo!, S’Match, What’s GNU?, and Rush Hour.  Download the full guide here and check out pages 47-50!

All learners can shine through play

I am thrilled to share the following guest post by Pia Prenevost!  In her blog The Crack and the Light, Pia shares her journey raising her son Jonathan who struggles with a severe speech/language disorder.

Teaching J-man To Play

Adorable. That defines my son J-man, with big blue eyes and those lashes that cosmetic companies would kill to be able to produce. He has an easygoing personality and is remarkably bright, especially when you consider that J-man has a severe speech/language delay. He is 3 ½ years old, and his language tests at about 16-18 months old. We have had him in some type of early intervention/speech therapy since he was about 15 months old. His disabilities are unusual. He does not fit into a typical Autism Spectrum diagnosis, but his speech/language disorder is severe and has impacted his ability to both understand the world and to communicate with it.

Early on in our journey, I learned about Stanley Greenspan’s DIR/Floortime model. The Floortime model advocates meeting the child where they are at developmentally and entering their world to play. This style of play allows the building of relationships to occur, thus furthering communication and interaction. For children with significant language issues, this relationship building is incredibly important. It is also remarkably difficult for a parent. Often, these children have their own agenda. Some children on ‘the spectrum’ are withdrawn from the world, exhibiting real difficulty engaging and interacting with others. Other children with language disorders, like my son Jonathan, may have real interest in interacting and playing with others, but do not have the language skills to do so. Many times they become disengaged from others simply because of the communication barriers in place.

Our approach to play with Jonathan has therefore been very focused on meeting him where he is at developmentally. Note, not chronologically….developmentally. It can be a struggle (especially for others) to recognize that although he looks like a three year old… and at times acts like a three year old… his language is not there yet. And his play behavior follows suit.

J-man is also what I call an “extreme” visual-spatial learner and problem solver. He can do 40-50 piece interlocking puzzles. He amazed us last month with the recitation of his ABCs by identifying them on a piece of playground equipment without ever learning them from us (no doubt Sesame Street and Super Why helped). At 2 ½ years old and within one month, he went from having no words or signs to having over 40 signs, just from watching the newly acquired Signing Time videos. He constantly amazes us with his ability to learn an activity and tasks just from watching others do it, or purely through his own exploration.

Many of the toys and games we have provided J-man focus on capitalizing on these “hidden talents” while (hopefully) encouraging the acquisition of language. We have found that the most effective way to encourage learning and play is by letting him take the lead, and modeling in those moments little bits of language and communication. At times, this can be a struggle. J-man certainly prefers things to be his way. Indeed, we have often been mournfully aware that we are creating a little ‘prince’. He needs to feel successful and in control to be engaged and willing to learn, and I work hard to discover new toys and games to peek his interest. Hopefully, providing these new play opportunities will push J-man to use or try new language skills.

Some guidelines I try and live by:

1. Think outside “the box.” Recently I purchased the game Zingo! Zingo! is tagged ‘Bingo with a Zing’, and consists of a series of pieces with words/pictures and associated bingo cards. There is a plastic machine that allows you to distribute the tiles by sliding it back and forth.

Here is J-Man with Zingo! in action:

While this game is meant for older children, or children with significantly more sophisticated language skills than my boy, this game does have numerous features he loves. He loves the pieces, with the words and pictures on them. He loves matching them to the cards. He loved figuring out the machine and sliding it back and forth to get out the pieces. Each of these features capitalizes on his visual-spacial skills and his awesome problem solving abilities. However, I get to ‘backdoor’ in some language. He is exposed to words and picture associations. I label, label, label…each game tile, each action.

He engages with me, needing my help and assistance to get the game going. We practice turn-taking and following simple directions. And as he grows, this game will grow with him, as I find new and inventive ways to keep him engaged.  Thinking outside of the game or toy’s original intent, and using it in new and creative ways, is important. It is also important to allow the child to just explore the game and come up with their own “story.”

2. Respect where they are at and don’t expect more than that…Today. Many a time I have been sad or frustrated that J-man doesn’t play with toys the way he is ‘suppose’ to, or the his peers play with them. However, when I remember where he is at developmentally, I realize he really is doing exactly what he needs to be doing right now. If I expected J-man to have sophisticated imaginative play right now, I am not honoring his current language development. Indeed, his imaginative play is just now starting to emerge, and it is thrilling to see.

We have loaded the house with action figures (Buzz Lightyear and Woody, anyone?!?), trains, cars, dollhouses and dress up clothes, and he is embracing this play with gusto. But he needed to do it in his own time and in his own way. He loves puzzles, problem solving toys and games, and is very intent in figuring these things out by himself. If I interrupt his play with a new, interesting toy, I will invariably get the cold shoulder. I could worry… be concerned about his ability to engage in joint attention and reciprocal play. I am not. I know him, and I recognize his intense desire to work these problems out on his own. Once he has, there is room for me in his play. Sometimes I think that the intensity he needs to engage in that new, exciting, problem solving toy is at odds with the focus needed to include me and my language filled agenda in the action. So if I step back, allow him space and quiet, I can be part of the action without interrupting the flow.

3. The play is the thing! Shakespeare was right. In the end, it really isn’t about ‘teaching’ or ‘therapy’. While toys and games can be used therapeutically, that is not their purpose either. For us, it is about having fun. Without fun, no learning would ever really take place. Focus too much on the goal of learning, and not just enjoyment of life, and we lose him. However, get his spark through fun and play, and he learns in spite of us.

Raising a child with a disability is hard. It requires more energy and commitment than anybody can imagine. It is incredibly difficult to balance the intense desire to help your child, to give your child every opportunity, and the desire to just have a normal parenting life. I made the decision some time ago that I am J-man’s mommy first, everything else second. So I think about what will help him learn, what will further his ‘therapeutic goals’, but I don’t let it be the center of our universe. We are all happier as a result.

In addition to writing the blog The Crack and the Light, Pia Prenevost works as a NICU nurse, dabbles in writing, and is the completely smitten mother of the J-man.

The power of play to reveal and strengthen a child’s cognitive abilities is incredible… what have you learned about your child by watching him/her play?  What guidelines or tips have you discovered to help support his/her learning through play?  Please share!

Using Games as Therapy Tools

One of the highlights of my job are the emails and letters I get from teachers, specialists, parents, even kids, sharing their game experiences!  The following post is from a Child and Adolescent Therapist in Texas who emailed me her story of using Rush Hour as a therapy tool, neat!

Finding New Uses For Rush Hour In a Therapy Practice

Jennifer S. Berliner, Child and Adolescent Therapist
Austin Travis County MHMR Center, Austin, Texas

I’ve been using Rush Hour in my therapy sessions with families. I discovered this game in a local training by a therapist who is doing research on the use of games with at-risk youth. The game Rush Hour is helpful diagnostically to observe problem solving skills and patterns of communication between a teen and parent or between siblings. Do they argue? Share? Work together or in competition?

With Rush Hour, I set up a puzzle and tell them the object is to get the “red car out of the grid lock, you make up the rules…there is only one rule: cars must stay on the road/track they are currently set up on.”

Some observations my colleagues have noticed, anecdotally speaking, are that adolescents seem to be the group that tries to “cheat” by lifting the cars off the road and moving them! Also, overwhelmed parents tend to give up and throw in the towel and disengage before teen (Mmm, telling information for the teen that keeps running away from home, skipping school, etc.).

Interestingly, the game Rush Hour is also a GREAT metaphor for parents/teens:

  • Does the teen like to break other rules or take short cuts?
  • Siblings (or team members in a class), what was it like to “establish the rules of the game?” Where the rules fair? Did you all agree on the rules?
  • What are the house (or classroom) rules?
  • What (if anything) happens when you break a rule?
  • (If a parent ‘gives up on the game’): Have you, the parent, ever walked away when your teen gets into a complicated jam?
  • Have you ever been in a jam?
  • Did you get out of the jam on your own?
  • Have you been helped out of a jam?
  • Have you helped others out of jam?
  • What did you do to get out of a jam?

Social-emotional skills are vital to development, yet often overlooked because they are learned mostly by observation and modeling. Social-emotional skills include tasks such as sharing, taking turns, waiting your turn (very difficult for kids with impulse control & ADHD), and reading non-verbal communication cues. Also, playing Rush Hour promotes team work and problem-solving together rather than in competition.

The ThinkFun Education site is great and I look forward to the newsletters! You might consider putting together some activities around the social-emotional education that ThinkFun games offers players! Keep up the GREAT work!

S’Match Supports Speech Therapy Sessions (say that 3 times fast!)

The following post is by speech-language pathologist Sherry Artemenko, featured on her Playonwords blog

Strengthen language skills through play!


I use fun commercial games for speech therapy all the time. Some are valuable as a reinforcer after a turn of saying a sound, practicing a language structure or using appropriate social language. It is helpful if they are fast paced and turns are quick to keep the session going. But some games have a bit of language learning embedded in them too. I have blogged about Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Mystery Garden for learning association and categorization.

A new game that just came out, S’ Match, by Thinkfun, can be used as a reinforcer or to learn language categories. You have to know the story behind the invention of this game. When I was at the Toy Fair, I spoke with Thinkfun’s Education and Curriculum Specialist and she said the Staples Easy Button and a salad spinner inspired the pop up spinner kids love that turns the dial to point to one of three attributes: color, number or category. Players turn over two cards and try to match images according to the attributes, making this a more complex memory game.

I first used the game with a little girl working on her /s/ sound. Every time we got a match we said, “S’ Match!” and each time we spun the wheel we said, “Spin the s’match.” When it stopped, we said, “I spun color, or category.” Interestingly enough, when kids didn’t make a match according to the spinner, they still called out the kind of match they got. For instance, if they had to match by category but uncovered two orange cards, they would say, “Smatch for color,” making a verbal note of where to find that match should they need it in the future. To reinforce categories, we would say, “a s’match for vehicles,” naming the category. Each sturdy cardboard card has the image as well at the words to encourage literacy.

Don’t forget to always look for a little language in a game.

Sherry Artemenko, MA-CCC, is a speech-language pathologist with more than 35 years experience and founder of The opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the author. “S’Match” was provided for review by Thinkfun.