10 ways to use Barrier Games for fun and learning

Barrier games are fantastic resources to support your child’s speech and language skills, and the best part, anyone can use them; speech pathologists, teachers, child-care workers, parents, and support workers! There are many benefits from using barrier games with a child such as developing: listening skills, oral language skills, social language skills, clear talking and understanding of concepts. They are great for extending the amount of information your child can understand or express within a sentence.

What are barrier games?

Barrier games are played like the board game Battleship. Two people sit opposite each other with a barrier (e.g. box, or book) in the space between them. Instructions are spoken (or written depending on the goal) for each person to follow. The aim of this idea is that when the barrier is removed both the child and adult will have the same result (e.g. same picture scene or Lego construction). This will be because the child has listened carefully and/or gave clear accurate instructions to the adult.

Bonus: Barrier games can also be played in a group setting!

Where can I find barrier games?

One of the great features about barrier games is that they can be flexible, portable, and inexpensive and suited for a wide range of age groups! Barrier games can be easily adjusted to the child’s goals and skill level, and can be made more complex as the child progresses.

  1. Your Speech Pathologist can supply you with picture sets. They can also demonstrate how to carry out a barrier game to support your home practice. Better yet, they may have already planned to target your child’s speech pathology goals using barrier games because they are so valuable!
  2. There are links provided throughout this blog to access free picture sets that you can download and print
  3. Toys/objects around the home: Once you understand how to carry out a barrier games you will realise that there are endless materials that you can use to create fun barrier games with your child/children.
    1. Ideas: Blocks, Lego, miniature objects, animals and figures, sticker sets, picture cards from games, coloured pencils and paper, real objects, maths materials, collage materials.

How to use the picture sets:

  1. Print and laminate two copies of the sheets, so that there is a set for each person.
  2. Leave the background sheet or large pictures as a full page and cut up the small pictures into individual pieces. Each player should have one background sheet and one set of small pictures. You will also need a barrier such as a large book or folder.
  3. Next sit facing each other. Set down the background sheet and lay out the small pictures so that your child can see all of their pictures. Place your own background sheet and small pictures in front of yourself.
  4. Check that your child knows the names of all the small pictures. If there are any they do not know remove them or teach the word to your child. If teaching, check again that your child has learnt it before beginning.
  5. Explain to your child that you are going to play a game to show off that you are good listeners and talkers. Explain that you will put your pictures onto the background and tell the child what to do to make their picture look the SAME as yours. Tell them that they need to listen carefully, because they will not be able to see what you are doing. Stand up the barrier and explain that this is so that the child cannot see what you are doing. Again, remind the child that he/she needs to listen carefully, so that you finish with the SAME picture.
  6. Place your small pictures on the background one at a time and give your child clear instructions about how to put their pictures in the same position as you go. Make sure you give your child enough time to respond before giving the next instruction.
  7. When you have placed all the pictures on the background take the barrier away and talk to your child about the pictures that they have placed in the correct position. Explain to them that this means they have listened carefully. Explain the correct position of any pictures that the child may not have placed correctly.
  8. Play the game again and this time, tell your child that it is their turn to talk. Explain that you will listen carefully and make your pictures look the same as theirs. Put the barrier up again and ask the child to tell you where to put the pictures. If your child’s instructions are not clear, you may need give verbal hints e.g. if your child says “put the car there” you might say “I've got the car, but I'm not sure where to put it.”
  9. Take the barrier away and look at all the pictures that are correctly positioned and tell your child how this means that they did a good job of talking and that you listened carefully. Talk about any pictures that are in the incorrect position. Model the correct instruction such as “oh, I needed to put the cat under the tree”.

Reminder: Once your child understands how to play barrier games, you can use a range of items from around the house to make your own games. You can gradually make a game more difficult by increasing the length and complexity of the instructions, and the number of items that need to be placed. You can introduce concepts of space such as: in, on, under, next to, above and below. You can also introduce concepts of colour and size.

Here are 10 ways that you can use barrier games to develop communication skills:

1. Listening and auditory memory.
Auditory memory is the child’s ability to remember information that is spoken (rather than written).To develop listening and auitory memory skills you need to begin with an instruction that your child can follow easily. If they can follow this easily you can then gradually increase the length of the instructions. It can be helpful for the child to repeat the instruction to support their memory and to check if they are listening.

There are more ideas and activities for developing skills with following instructions here.

You can print two copies of the following instructions activities to turn them into barrier games.

There is more information about developing listening and following instructions here.

2. Extending sentence length.
To increase your child's sentence length, encourage the child to ‘be the teacher’ in the barrier game i.e. they give the instruction to adult. Let them try it by themselves first to check how many key words they are using. Aim to increase this by at least 1-2 key words each time.

First, ask them where to put one picture, then two and so on. Practice at a level where your child needs a little help but not too much and gradually add an extra word as they get more skilled and confident. If your child finds it hard to form the sentences taking turns can help, 'I'll tell you then you tell me' because you can model for your child how to make the sentences. If your child has a go but makes some mistakes, model and say their sentence back to them the right way but be encouraging and positive.

Here are some simple barrier games for practicing both listening and forming longer sentences.



3. Developing vocabulary. To develop vocabulary in younger children begin with games where they know most of the words and add a few new ones each time (for example, familiar and unfamiliar animals). Start with your child listening and completing the instructions, then aim for them to use these new words in phrases/sentences as they tell you what to do.

Barrier games are also great for familiarising preschool children with new vocabulary. If your child is going to be learning about dinosaurs or Africa or insects at school why not make a barrier game and use this to practice the vocabulary your child will be needing to understand and use. Ask your child's teacher for a word list and use Google images to find some pictures to use. For more information about developing vocabulary and some lotto games that can make simple barrier games click here.

4. Developing understanding and use of concepts. Once your child knows how to do barrier games, can follow simple instructions with at least three key words, and form simple sentences, you can begin to add some concepts to your games. These can include size, shape, position and colours. Remember to keep in mind how many key words your child can understand and that the concept words count too. “Put the big pig in the truck” would be three key words. “Put the big pig under the truck” would be four, because you need to pay attention to the position word (under) as well. Here are some pictures you can use in your games to practice colour and size concepts. For more information on developing concepts click here and you can also download some games for developing position words. Print two copies to make barrier games!

5. Developing descriptive language. A fun game to support development of descriptive language is to make a rule that you cannot say the names of the pictures. Therefore, to "put the dog on the boat" you might have to say "put the brown animal that barks on the blue vehicle that goes in the water". Another way to develop descriptive language can be to incorporate more complex materials. There are some more complex barrier games to print off here. Step up your child’s descriptive skills three dimensional (i.e. real) materials such as blocks or objects such as plastic animals. This requires more careful description to place the items in the correct spots. You can begin by placing items such as plastic animals onto a printed board such as the one from the farm game, then move to using other objects such as trees, fences or blocks to form the background instead of the printed sheet. Drawing is also challenging. You might start with a grid as a background to help with positioning them move to a blank page as your child becomes more skilled. Here are some more ideas for developing descriptive language.

6. Developing grammar skills. Taking turns and modelling target sentence structures is one way of developing grammatical language using barrier games. After the child’s turn, repeat back their sentence and correct any errors they made. You can help your child include small grammar words such as articles ‘a/the’ and prepositions ‘in/on’ by using a sentence strip as a cue. Show your child how to put the small picture onto the strip and point to the words as they say the sentence. You can download some printable sentence strips for the beginner's barrier games here. You can download the beginner's barrier games here.

Specific structures, such as pronouns (he, she, they etc) can also be targeted using barrier games. You can also use barrier games to target specific structures such as pronouns. Download some simple barrier games to practice the pronouns he/she and his/her here. Download some sentence strips for the pronoun game here. The visual and verbal feedback provided in barrier games helps children learn to self-monitor and self-correct their errors.

7. Transferring new speech sounds to conversation. Using sound loaded barrier games is a great way to practice newly learned speech sounds at a conversational level. You can download sound loaded barrier games for some common speech sound targets here: s barrier game, l barrier game and k barrier game.



8. Developing clearer speech. Barrier games are great for children who mumble, or speak too quickly or softly. Barrier games provide opportunities for listeners to provide immediate and honest feedback about the child’s communication skills and clarity of speech. For example, "When you speak so quickly, I am not sure what I need to do" or "When you said that slowly and clearly, I knew just what I needed to do". This provides the child with good practice to recognise how well the listener has understood the message. Therefore the child is able to practice using clear speech so that their message can be understood.

9. Developing theory of mind. Theory of mind is about understanding other people's perspective. Developing theory of mind using barrier games works in much the same way as developing clear speech. That is, by giving your child clear, specific feedback about how well you can understand their instructions. Children with poor theory of mind will often say things like "put that one over there" because they do not realise that you cannot see what they can see. By talking about this and pointing out that the barrier stops you seeing what they are seeing, they can learn to use more specific words as they learn to think about the perspectives of others. You can then use this understanding to develop their knowledge of theory of mind in broader contexts "You need to tell me all about what happened today at school because I was not there and did not see what happened".

10. Developing written language. Children who are often reluctant to write can often be motivated to write through barrier games. An idea can be to take turn writing down instructions (rather than speaking them) and carrying them out. This targets fine motor skills by handwriting, a number of language skills such as; grammar, sequencing and planning, and also targes literacy skills of reading and writing. A step up would be for the child to write all the instructions for the game.

Variations on barrier games for groups. Barrier games can be effectively in small groups and classes as well. Children can sit in a circle and one child sits with their back to the rest of the group and gives the instructions. Alternatively, children can take turns giving one instruction each. You can do barrier games as a whole class activity using photocopied background boards and instructions which involve drawing, pasting or colouring on the sheets.

To find out more about how the Talking Matters team can help your child click here. We provide speech pathology and occupational therapy services to children with a range of needs including autism spectrum disorders.

To find out more about Talking Matters visit us on our website, Facebook page, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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