Easy ways to boost your kid’s language with games like “I Spy”


By getting creative with classic games and pretend play, you can help to grow your child’s vocabulary and model the social aspects of language.

The following is excerpted from READING FOR OUR LIVES by Maya Payne Smart, reprinted with permission of the publisher, AVERY, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Maya Payne Smart.

Fun, social interactions (aka play!) start in infancy and have positive impacts for both parent and child. A study of naturally occurring baby games, like peek-a-book—where a parent and child share attention, gazes, facial expressions, touches, gestures, and vocalizations—showed that they were associated with a boost in the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin.

In the early years, it’s great to have a few go-to games in your toolkit for times when you need a conversational pick-me-up. Boost your talk and playfulness anytime, anywhere by keeping the following language-rich games in your metaphorical back pocket. They age incredibly well—with variations for babies, toddles, and preschoolers—work in a variety of settings, and require no assembly.

I spy

You can use this family road-trip favorite wherever you may be and it’s flexible enough to adapt for any age. The game uses the phrase “I spy with my little eye something ___” to set up a hunt for an object of your choice. Start by choosing an object, say a blue dictionary on the kitchen counter, and then give hints: I spy with my little eye something blue. The child looks around and (hopefully!) responds by saying they see a blue book or perhaps simply pointing. Then your child takes a turn to give you hints to find the objects they choose, giving them a wonderful chance to flex their expressive vocabulary muscles.

As your child grows, you can adapt the game to pose new challenges. With the youngest children, you might use it to draw attention to colors or shapes. Later, you can amp it up to direct your child to certain letters or rhyming words, as in “I spy something that rhymes with car. Yes, the peanut butter jar!” The possibilities are endless, but here are a few to get you started:

  • Shapes: I spy something that’s square.
  • Colors: I spy something red.
  • Letters: I spy the letter T.
  • Letter sounds: I spy the letter that says /s/.
  • Rhyming: I spy something that rhymes with stair.
  • Onsets and rimes: I spy something that starts with the /k/ sound.
  • Ending sounds: I spy something that ends with the /r/ sound.

Pretend play

In the beginning, child’s play consists of batting, banging, and biting objects with no discernible end in mind. But as they get older, kids start to use objects in pretend play as we would in everyday life, such as doing imaginary cooking with a mini kitchen set, giving a baby doll a make-believe bath, or taking our orders in a mock restaurant. Some even go so far as to assign us roles in their make-believe dramas and create costumes and props to match.

Propose play, engage with them, and use pretend scenarios as an opportunity to deliver helpful vocabulary, ideas, and background knowledge to extend the play and model the social aspects of language. Keep it open-ended, unstructured, and fun. Here are some go-to imaginative play ideas to try:

  • Restaurant: Make a menu, set the table, take orders, and deliver imaginary food.
  • Tea Party: Set the table, pour imaginary tea, and eat make-believe sweets and savories.
  • Post Office: Sell stamps, send letters, and wait in line.
  • Grocery Store: Roam the aisles, fill your basket, and ring up purchases.
  • Airport/Airplane: Collect tickets, check baggage, and take flight.
  • Theater: Set the stage, assign roles, make up a story, and action!
  • Shop: Stock the shelves, run the cash register, greet customers, and exchange fake cash.

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