Play is the Best Way: Using Language Games At Home and In The Classroom

© Donna Washington 2016
Over the last month, I have been doing some interesting workshop facilitating. I was hired as part of a grant to work with kids in classroom settings. I don’t tend to do that sort of work these days. Most of my exposures in schools are performances.

I’ve been in fourth and fifth-grade classrooms. Since I don’t really have the patience to teach, I try to find exercises that I love that I think will help schools get the most bang for the buck. To that end, I try to design exercises that the kids will enjoy, have some hope of recreating by themselves if they want, and have a variety of applications for classroom educators. What that has meant over the last month or so is that I have been teaching language based games.

Language based games are any game you play that focuses on using language creatively, listening intently to another person, stretching your vocabulary, and solving problems.

Now, that probably does not sound like it would be all that much fun. In fact, Tuesday, while I stood in front of a group of fifth graders and announced we were going to be playing language games, one of the girls rolled her eyes, threw back her head, stared up at the ceiling for a moment, and made an audible sound that roughly translates to, “Oh god, please just kill me now.” Several of her peers sitting nearby nodded their heads slightly in solidarity.

After an hour, one kid sitting near the front announced that he’d never had that much fun doing anything in his life, and everyone in the class started cheering…including the girl who was contemplating spending an hour in a coffin instead of the library with me.

So, when I say language games…. What Are They?

The answer is simple. Language games are shared events where you play with words in community. I come from a family, and formed a family where playing with language is essential and second nature. We do love or language games. Formally you could call us logophiles, but the truth is we are word nerds.

My husband and daughter love puns. My son loves using non-conventional words. He’s also the king of Sniglets.
At one point he and my daughter started a conversation using nothing but numbers. My husband and I sat in the front seat listening to the two of them going back and forth as if they were arguing, only they were saying things like:
This went on for almost five minutes before my husband said, “Orange!” really loudly as if he were admonishing them.
At which point I said to him, “There is no need for that kind of language.”

One of our kids’ absolutely favorite language games when they were younger, was Mad Libs. They went through the booklets so many times they could tell which story the other was feeding them based on the combination of verbs and nouns. They got bored with those and started doing the ones online. After a while, they just started writing their own. Language games rock.

downloadable mad libs


-Why Play Language Games In The Classroom?

In the classroom, I don’t teach kids games like my family loves. Lots of kids find that kind of nonsense play difficult and frustrating. They think it is silly and refuse to even try it. I have an exercise in one of my residency modules where kids have to speak gibberish, and some of them absolutely rebel at the whole idea!

In classrooms, I play three different types of circle games, and one rock, paper, scissors variant.

“The Good Thing Was, The Bad Thing Was” is a circle game.
The kids sit in a circle and the first one says, “Once there was a ________”, it could be anything. ex. tree, cat, piano, house, man, slug
The next person says, “The good thing was”….and they have to say something good happening in the situation or to the character.
The next person says, “The bad thing was”…and they have to try to destroy the character’s world or situation.
Some simple rules –
-You can’t kill your character
-No weapons

Another game is, “That Reminds Me of…”, which can get tricky for television kids who are used to having all of their information fed to them, and find it difficult to come up with their own visuals.
The first person says, “I’m thinking of…” you need a noun of some kind or an action verb, so let’s use “soap”.
The next person says,  “Soap reminds me of…” and they say whatever they are reminded of, let’s say “bubbles”.
The next person says, “Bubbles remind me of bath time.”
The next person says, “Bath time reminds of a rubber duckie.”
The next person says, “Rubber duckie reminds me of Sesame Street.”
You get the idea. The point of the game is to keep going around until someone is reminded of the original word, in this case, the word “soap”.

Human beings learn through play. Nothing new there. What is cool about language games are what they do while we are playing them.

-Language games encourage children to speak in complete sentences.
-Language games encourage children to explore their imaginations.
-Language games are about advocating FOR yourself instead of AGAINST someone else.
-Language games expand the classroom vocabulary by exposing all of the kids to ideas, images, and expressions they might not hear at home or amongst their own peer group.
-Language games allow every kid to participate at their level even as they acquire more language.
-Language games improve a person’s ability to use improvisation.
-Language games teach students to express themselves.
-Language games encourage children to listen, focus, and process when others are speaking.
-Language games encourage kids to look directly at people when they are speaking.
-Language games encourage kids to focus on choosing their words and considering why they are choosing them.

The more you play with language, the better you become at using it. The better you become at using language, the easier it is to adapt it to more formal uses like persuasive or creative writing. You also get better at advocating for yourself, something that serves you well in job and college interviews. Language games also make you feel more confident with language.

In a world where so much of what our children do encourages them to stare at screens, talk with their thumbs or forefingers, use abbreviations instead of entire words and employ short, percussive bursts of language, language games allow them to do something that is both fun and useful…

Soak in language!

Happy Gaming!

UPDATE: I just got an email from one of the teachers I played language games with last week. She said that the kids have been playing the games I taught them at lunch, and she’s actually played them with the kids in the classroom. Mission Accomplished!


Donna WashingtonStoryteller Donna Washington, a graduate of Northwestern University, has been presenting workshops about education and storytelling for 28 years. Her nine storytelling CDs have garnered over twenty-four awards, including Golden and Silver Parent’s Choice awards and Storytelling World Awards. She has authored numerous articles about using storytelling in both performance and education including contributions to the award winning book, Social Studies In The Storytelling Classroom, edited by Sherry Norfolk and Jane Stenson.  She is also the author of four books: Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa, A Pride of African Tales, The Story of Kwanzaa, and A Big Spooky House.


Play is the Best Way: Using Language Games At Home and In The Classroom — 3 Comments

  1. What a wonderful blog, Donna–such great suggestions fitted into a compact piece. Sharing with my teacher friends.

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