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For children on the spectrum, social skills can be difficult to learn. Whether it’s because they have a hard time noticing social minutia, processing language, or expressing their thoughts, social skills are a challenge. The biggest difference we, as SEITs, can make in a child’s quality of life is to help them make friends. Teaching them board games can be a great way to help them make friends.
What is your favorite board game? Do you remember learning it as a kid and feeling such joy? Do your kids with autism know how to play board games? Are they being deprived of that joy? If so, don’t worry. You can teach them!
Teaching board games sounds strange since most kids learn how to play them naturally. However, our students often miss out on the experience because of challenges with executive functioning and social skills.
To learn more about executive functioning and autism read this post!
I remember the first time I tried to teach a kid board games. I found the game of Life in the back of their toy closet and set it up. The game lasted half an hour and the student was not so much a participant as a doll that moved pieces when I pointed to them.
I later talked about it with a coworker/mentor, who said it was a mark of how much that kid loved and trusted me that he sat through that. She applauded the impulse and advised me to start much smaller.
A year later that same child loved Life and was able to play it without me even in the room.
Where do I start?
First of all, don’t make the same mistake as me and jump to the end. Full-blown board games that come ready-made out of the box, might seem simple to us, but we’re adults with fully developed frontal cortexes and good executive functioning skills.
Skip the regular versions of games for now and start much smaller.
The first game I introduce is called (Child Name Here)-A-Thon and comes from my brain. And the drug store, because that’s where they sell poster board and red sharpies.
I make a snake-like pattern and divide it into twenty spaces. I shade a few of those spaces in red. You land on a red space and you get to roll again. The first person to reach the finish line wins.
Does it sound boring? Well, that’s probably because it’s super simple. Our goal with this game is not to solve all social skill problems, but to focus on a few fundamental board game skills.
Our kids have to learn how to sit for the length of a board game, roll dice, move pieces, and take turns. This first board game is all about that, and while I let them decorate the board, it’s a very no-frills game.
Let’s make it Interesting
Next, I might make a custom version of another game with more poster board and sharpies. However, this one I make a little more complex. Typically I recreate Life in thirty or so spaces.
It’s not as complicated as it might seem. I take away all the choices and simply add stopping points for getting a job or getting married and I’ll add a couple of spaces for having kids and payday.
I take the pieces from an existing game, except the cards.
If my kid is artistically minded, I have them make the cards and custom make the money and the job cards. I pick the jobs, specifically so it’s something my kids find motivating or funny. Professional napper has been a job before, but it only gets you one dollar. Sleeping doesn’t pay well.
If the student isn’t artistically minded, I make them all myself.
It might take your kiddo a little longer to master this one because it’s not about who finishes first. It’s about who has more money, which is slightly more abstract, so be prepared to explain that a few times until they get it.
The goal here is to master more complex rules.
Your First Game From a Box!
After they’ve gotten the hang of these two custom board games we can move on to games they can actually play with other people.
That’s right you can finally get out a game you didn’t make on poster board!
I like to start with Sorry or Trouble. Both of which have simple rules and are about moving pieces around and knocking your opponent back. (Note those are affiliate links, and I do get a small commission)
The goal with those two is to lengthen the amount of time your student can play for. Feel free to only play with one or two pieces each, and then add more as your student can sit for longer and longer stretches of time.
I often change the rules of board games as we go, so don’t be afraid to tweak the rules to make it simpler when your student is first learning.
Junior Games Are Your Friend
Did you know most of the classic games like Clue and Monopoly and Apples to Apples come in Junior versions?
These are often shorter and more kid-friendly, and easier to play. Clue Junior was very popular among my kiddos for a long time so I’ll break down here how I taught it. (Another Affiliate Link)
In the new Clue Jr., someone ate the last slice of birthday cake! (Because murder is not child-friendly). Traditionally the characters have to find out who ate the cake, in what room, and what they had to drink.
Same typical format but the board is smaller and there are pictures instead of words.
At first, when playing we just had to figure out who ate the cake. My goal was to teach simple strategies because you can only check a player when you’re in certain spots. You have to plan how best to get there. It also teaches process of elimination and keeping secrets.
If my kid picked up the piece, checked and saw someone ate the cake and screamed: “Sarah Look!” I got the information for free.
Once they mastered those three things with who ate the cake, we added in what room, which made the game longer, and finally what they had to drink.
Don’t Be Afraid to Make Adaptions
As you can see I changed the rules to a lot of games as my kids mastered them. It’s how I scaffolded the games, and I credit it with why I was so successful in teaching board games to my students.
Some adaptions I’ve made include, covering part of Battleship with pieces of paper and changing the number of ships we use, playing chess with just kings and pawns, and whoever takes all the other player’s pawns wins, plus a lot more.
I didn’t leave it that way forever, just until they’d mastered that one or two skills I was trying to isolate.
You are your student’s teacher, and as such you know what skill they need to work on the most. Trust your instinct and don’t be afraid to bend the rules. Just be willing to bend them back later!
After my kids learned how to play with the standard rules they were free to play with others, including family and friends.
In addition to the language and social skills board games have built, it can greatly improve a child’s quality of life to have something to do with their family besides stim and watch TV.
Also, it gives my students something to do with their more typical classmates during indoor recess when the board games come out.
Don’t be intimidated by the overwhelming nature of board games. Breaking it down might take a long time, but the results can have a massive impact on a student’s life.
Make sure to join my email list to stay up to date on my posts and get access to the free resource library, which includes a goal tracking sheet so you can monitor student progress as they learn to play board games. Also, check out this post on why I Love to Teach Crossword Puzzles!