Teaching With Games: A Winning Strategy for Therapeutic Homeschools

Later this month, I have the honor of presenting the webinar, “”They Shall All Know Me”: Seven Best Practices for Therapeutic Homeschools,” as part of the Ancient Faith Speaker Series with St. Raphael School and Schole´ Academy (learn more and sign up for the free webinar here). A “therapeutic homeschool” is my term for a homeschool for children with disabilities and other special needs. We’ve been homeschooling our five special needs children from the get-go, and I’ve learned a lot about what works to overcome a wide variety of learning and communication challenges.


Why Games?

One of the best tools in our therapeutic homeschool toolbox is teaching with games. Games give you a chance to practice coordination, communication, following directions, turn taking, paying attention, vocabulary building, literacy, creativity, critical thinking, and playing together. You might think that “playing together” is obvious, but for kids with pragmatic communication challenges, anything that engages joint attention and relationship building is a major win. In special needs education, attention is the primary goal. When you can engage attention, you can build relationships with people and ideas. For people of all ages, the best way to engage attention is through play.

Which Games?

Of course, you won’t engage someone’s attention with a game that’s not suited to their abilities and interests. I didn’t plop my nonverbal four year olds in front of Monopoly and debate aloud the finer points of landing on Free Parking. Monopoly might be a perfectly fine choice for building math skills in older kids, but it’s not a game with wide utility for kids with special learning and communication challenges.

Games that will be most helpful will scale to several ages and interests and will share the following characteristics:

  1. Reliance on gross motor skills. If games are filled with hundreds of small pieces or rely on a great deal of precision, they won’t suit a lot of children with disabilities that affect coordination.
  2. Humor and surprise. Games should have some sort of physical humor or chance to engage the attention of concrete learners.
  3. Cooperative or Low Risk. If a game is competitive, there should be enough element of chance to make the likelihood of winning extremely high for the children. Competitive games should also be of short duration so that you can play 2 or 3 times in a 15-minute attention window.
  4. Short duration or easy stopping points for breaks. Kids might want to play again in the time frame, or they might need breaks. Games that last for 5-15 minutes or which have built-in stopping points work best for teaching. Use a visual timer like this one (affiliate link) to keep game play sessions to 15-20 minutes.
  5. Easily adaptable or with simple rules. Games where a turn is a simple action have the lowest entry points and can engage children with a wider variety of challenges. But if you have a game, such as a picture trivia set, that has cards or parts that can be used more simply than the full game set suggests, that game might be helpful, too. (We play Pictopia without the game board, for instance, by taking turns answering the questions on the cards.)
  6. Supported with AAC (augmented and alternative communication). Simpler games are easier to support with vocabulary boards and speech output devices, but you can continue to model emotions and communication with AAC even for complicated games. (See below for a free set of game play vocabulary boards.)

AAC Supports for Games

Some of the biggest benefits of teaching through game play are building attention, vocabulary and functional, pragmatic communication through modeling. This is especially effective if, along with using short, simple spoken phrases as you work, you point to choice boards or press key words on a speech output device. If you have a speech therapist, talk with them about AAC supports for your game play. I’ve put together a helpful set of four pages that you can print out and laminate for use with your game play. This vocabulary board set includes a choice board for sixteen of our favorite games, which I will also list below so you can find them online easily.

Enjoy this free download of four Game Comment Boards for Therapeutic Homeschools:

Game Comment Boards for Therapeutic Homeschool

Example Games

There are many games that fit the parameters I listed above, but here are the sixteen of our favorites that I included in the Game Comment Board printables. I’m listing affiliate links to Amazon, and you might find many of the games at your local store. If you shop through any of these links, your price will be the same as ever, but I will get a small percentage for referring you. All proceeds go towards covering my costs from providing printables and hosting this site, and I appreciate your support.

Two other games that we love but were not included on the comment board printables are Big Letter Bananagrams and the Zones of Regulation Navigating the Zones game. I also included supports for role playing games on the comment boards.

Game Comment Boards for Therapeutic Homeschool
Sample page from the printable set, Game Comment Boards for Therapeutic Homeschool. Download the PDF linked earlier in the post for all four pages.

Please share this post online and by email so that others can benefit! As always, I love hearing from you in comments as well. Happy New Year!

Don’t forget that you can purchase my book, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, from your favorite bookseller, or you can request it at your local library.

Upcoming Events:

Saturday, January 18, 2020, 11am CST: St. Emmelia Ministries South Conference (link to registration page)

“The Whole Household of God” with Summer Kinard. Building Lifelong Memories by Teaching With Space. Learn how our attention and memory is shaped by spaces and how to apply the ancient Christian wisdom for teaching through space and sensory spatial anchors. After an overview of patristic sources and modern neurological insights that confirm the lasting wisdom of our Tradition, participants will apply the patterns and insights to subject matter ranging from history to literature to the faith.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020, 7pm EST: St. Raphael School Ancient Faith Speaker Series (link to registration page) This talk will be recorded and available to watch on the St. Raphael website, sans discussion, after the event.

“They Shall All Know Me”: Seven Best Practices for Therapeutic Homeschools. Whether you’re an established homeschooler or just beginning, teaching children with disabilities requires shifts in strategies, teaching spaces, and priorities. This interactive talk will help you set expectations and rethink the scope of your teaching so that all children can thrive in your homeschool and grow in knowledge of Christ. You will come away with tools to evaluate your child’s goals and progress as well as practical tips for simple changes that allow your child’s strengths to emerge.

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