Using TIC-TAC-TOE To Grow

Tic Tac Toe is well known game that is simple to grasp, easy to adapt and excellent for building beginner planning, problem solving and perspective taking skills. This post is going to focus on how you can use Tic Tac Toe to help develop your child’s gross motor, fine motor, social, emotional and cognitive skills.

Gross motor skills

Tic Tac Toe may not seem like a very physically active game but it is easy enough to adapt to target some of those gross motor goals.

  • If playing Tic Tac Toe on paper, encourage your child to sit cross legged, kneel on their hands and knees or lie on their stomach while playing to increase their core strength.
  • You could also create a large 3 by 3 grid with masking tape or chalk on the floor then use 2 different colours of beanbags (or something similar) to play Tic Tac Toe with.
    • Place the beanbags a few metres away from the Tic Tac Toe board and use various animal walks (E.g. bear, duck, crab, frog) to get the beanbags and bring them to the board. Encourage your child to think up new animal walks. You can also make it a race (i.e. first person to get to the board gets to place their beanbag down first).
    • Create a simple obstacle course using what you have at home (e.g. crawl under chairs, hop on mats, walk heel-to-toe on a line drawn in chalk or masking tape etc.) and have your child do the obstacle course each time they want to collect a beanbag to place it on the board.
    • Work on your child’s throwing and aiming skills but getting them to toss the beanbag onto the square they want to make their next move on.
    • Place Yoga cards face down on each of the squares of the grid. Before you can place your beanbag down on a square, you need to hold the yoga pose shown in the card of the square for an agreed upon time (e.g. 30s). Decide how long to have your child hold the pose based on their current skills and the difficulty of the pose. Yoga poses are also a great way to work on motor planning. Encourage your child to make their body look the same as the picture with as little help as possible. If they struggle, have them stand in front of a mirror so they can see what their body is doing. If they need further help, give them specific advice about how to move their body or model the pose.
    • Similarly, pick 9 gross motor skills you would like your child to work on (e.g. star jumps, skipping, standing on 1 leg etc.) and write each skill on a piece of paper you place on each square. assign each skill/task to a column. Each time either player wants to put their beanbag in a square, they need to do the activity linked to the square (e.g. do 10 star jumps before you place your beanbag down on square 1).
  • When picking up the beanbag, pencil or coin, have the child use their right hand to pick up items placed to the left side of their body and their left hand to pick up items placed to the right side of their body. This develops a skill called midline crossing which is important for hand dominance and is necessary for tasks such as dressing.

Fine motor skills

  • Ideal pencil grasp

    An alternative to drawing Xs and Os is to use tokens or coins of different colours. If using coins to play Tic Tac Toe, ensure your child uses a pincer grasp (using the thumb and index finger with other fingers tucked away) when picking and inserting the coins.
  • You can also practice in-hand manipulation skills by having your child grab multiple coins, keep them in their palm then use their fingers muscles to bring the coins one at a time away from their palm into their fingers.
  • If you’ll be playing by drawing in Xs and Os, encourage your child to use an age appropriate pencil grasp. The ideal pencil grasp would involve holding the pencil with the thumb, index and middle fingers and tucking away the ring and little fingers for stability (see image). Encourage your child to use their helper hand to hold the paper down while they draw.
  • You can also practice drawing different shapes or writing different letters or words. For example, have them write the first letter of their name or their entire name instead of drawing a X or O to mark the square as theirs.

Cognitive skills

  • Children often find it easier to understand and make vertical and horizontal lines before diagonal lines. You may need to give lots of hints to help them understand how to make a diagonal line. They may benefit from using their hand to tap out the squares that make a straight line.
  • Tic Tac Toe is in itself a wonderful game for developing planning skills as children need to plan out how they can build their own line of 4 while also watching out for what their opponent is doing so they can block their opponent from winning.
  • Start by providing your child with verbal prompts (and gestures) to help them identify when they have a chance to win or when their opponent might be close to winning. Ask your child if they can predict where their opponent is likely to place their next piece and/or how their opponent might be planning to win. Give less and less verbal prompts as they get better at the game.
  • This game is great for encouraging visual tracking and visual perceptual skills as your child needs to track the different symbols/ coloured beanbags/ coloured coins.

Social skills

  • Alongside planning their own moves, children need to think about their opponent’s intentions and have a look at the board from their perspective in order to predict and block them from winning. If you are about to win, encourage your child to stop and think about what you will do next and hence what they should do to block you.
  • Prompt your child to find a fair way to decide who goes first. Playing ‘rock, paper, scissors’ can be a useful way to prevent arguing. Practice turn taking skills and if your child requires the support, give verbal prompts such as ‘who is next?’, ‘your turn, my turn’.
  • You can also focus on developing your child’s winning and losing skills. Often when children become fixated on winning, they can have difficulty regulating their emotions if they lose. It is often helpful to role model good winning and losing behaviour. Also emphasize at the start of the game that it is more important to have fun and play fairly than to win. Similarly, before starting the game, brainstorm friendly things to say to one when someone wins (e.g. “You played really well”) or when someone loses (e.g. “Good game. Do you want to play again?”.

Emotional regulation skills

  • If your child gets frustrated, angry or upset when they lose or because it is challenging to practice the skills listed above, encourage them to identify what emotion they are feeling. Then help them identify and use strategies (such as taking deep breaths or using a movement break) to calm down before refocusing back on the task. Also emphasize the importance of practicing so we can get better.
  • Instead of Xs and Os, draw simple emotion faces instead (e.g. one person draws a happy face and the other draws an angry face). Each time you draw your face, say something that could make you feel this way or something that could make you feel better if you were feeling this way.

Related Blog Posts

If you liked this post you may also like:

Visuals for preschoolers
Playing with Board Games - Supporting Your Child's Development
Learning to Use Scissors
Playing together


  • Blog Categories: