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Today I’d like to share some fun games that you can play with your little learners that will help them develop skills in critical thinking, literacy, and math. And the best part is, you don’t need any materials at all – you can do them anywhere, anytime!
Whether you’re a parent driving your kids to school or a teacher with a few minutes to fill before that guest speaker arrives, you’re going to love these quick and easy no-prep learning games.
Some of the ideas on this list are games I’ve been playing since I was a kid, some came from this amazing book called Games for Learning by Peggy Kaye, and some I’ve picked up from various teacher friends, blogs, and pins through the years (see the note at the bottom of this post for more info).
I invite you to read through the list below and give some of these super fun learning games a try. And don’t forget to download the printable cheat sheet – keep it handy in case of some unexpected downtime!
This game is super simple and just like it sounds: you say a letter or letter sound, your little learners have to find it and touch it somewhere in the room (or whatever space you’re in). If there aren’t many letters to be found, write some on sticky notes or scrap paper and plant them around the room. Or, give your learners some writing practice by having them write letters on sticky notes for you to find!
Growing up, we played I Spy all the time, but we always used color clues. You know, like, “I spy with my little eye something that is blue.” It’s a great way to play, but there are so many more options for incorporating learning! Here are just a few ideas:
- Letter names: “I spy the letter A” or “I spy lowercase A”
- Letter sounds: “I spy the letter that says /l/”
- Beginning sounds: “I spy something that starts with the /b/ sound” or “I spy something that starts the same way as the word ball”
- Rhyming words: “I spy something that rhymes with the word cat”
- Syllables (though this one might require more than one clue): “I spy something blue that has 3 syllables”
- 2D or 3D shapes: “I spy a square” or “I spy a cube”
You can adapt this game to meet just about any skill, so the possibilities are endless!
This game can be used to practice lots of different skills and it’s super easy to play. All you have to do is give the criteria: if it’s ___________, stand up and if it’s ______________, sit down. For example, “If I say a word that starts with the letter F, stand up. If I say a word that does NOT start with the letter F, sit down.” Say a word, then give your kiddos time to sit down or stand up. Start off slow, and as they get better at it, go faster. You’ll all be giggling in no time! Here are some possible skills to practice:
- Beginning sounds: (see above)
- Ending sounds: “If I say a word that ends with the /d/ sound, stand up. If it doesn’t, sit down.”
- Rhyming words: “I’ll say two words. If they rhyme, sit down. If they don’t, stand up.”
- Letters in their names: “I’ll say a letter. If it’s in your name, stand up. If it’s not in your name, sit down.”
If you have the time, you could also put together flash cards or signs to practice visual discrimination for things like:
- Letters vs. numbers: “I’m going to hold up a card. If it has a letter on it, stand up. If it has a number on it, sit down.”
- Shapes: “If I hold up a card with a square on it, stand up. If it’s not a square, sit down.”
- Comparing numbers: “If I hold up a card with a number that is more than 5, stand up. If the number is less than 5, sit down.”
This is a great critical thinking game that incorporates beginning sounds. Start by choosing an object, then give two clues: the category and the letter it starts with. For example, you might say, “I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter P.” Then the other players have to guess what it is. If they start saying things like “bear” or “turtle,” remind them what sound the letter P makes. If they’re really stumped, you can add another clue like, “It’s an animal that starts with the letter P and it loves the cold.” It’s also fun to let kids try to come up with their own clues for you to guess!
One skill young children need in order to be successful readers is the ability to blend individual sounds together to make words. Here’s a game that’s great for practicing sound blending! I’ll admit, it doesn’t sound all that exciting, but if you set the stage and ask your little learners to become Word Detectives and try to solve the super-secret mystery word, they’ll be totally into it! All you do is choose a word and break it down into its individual sounds. So if your word is cat, you would ask your Word Detectives to solve the mystery word, and then you would say each sound in the word, like “kkk……aaaa……tttt.” You may need to repeat it a few times, and you may need to move the sounds closer together if they struggle. You could even start with a two-letter word like up. As your kids get better at it, you can make the words longer and trickier.
I actually call this game “Same and Different,” but Peggy Kaye uses “Alike/ Unalike” in her book. In this game, players closely examine 2 items of your choosing to determine at least one way that they’re the same and at least one way that they’re different. In Games for Learning, the example is a blanket and a sweater. That’s a good beginner-level pair since they’re somewhat related, but it’s fun to see how quickly kids start making connections between very different things as they get the hang of it! Here are some ideas broken down into levels:
- Level 1: shirt/pants, dog/cat, goldfish/shark, marker/pencil, milk/juice
- Level 2: grandma/baby, boat/tractor, giraffe/monkey, pizza/plate, book/movie
- Level 3: egg/pencil, shoelace/basketball, rock/pillow, worm/tiger, owl/camera
Or you can just choose two random items and see how it goes. You might have to get creative in finding their similarities and differences, but there really are no right or wrong answers. Once your kiddos get the hang of it, you can have them come up with two things for you to compare & contrast. Let them try to stump you!
This is another critical thinking game that helps children work out how things fit into categories. All you do is name a “club” and how many items will be in that club (like 7 animals with sharp teeth, 10 things with 4 wheels, 12 foods with cheese in them, etc.), then let your little learners go to work. If they get stuck, give clues to help them along. You might say something like, “Can you think of an animal that uses its sharp teeth to cut down trees?”
Like many games on this list, this one is easily adaptable for players at any age, ability, or interest. Plus, you can create clubs that match the season or holiday!
In this game, you’re going to list three words and the players have to decide which word doesn’t fit with the other two. I’ve played this most often using rhyming words, which would sound like this: “I’m going to say three words and I want you to tell me which one doesn’t rhyme: dog, fish, frog.”
Or, to make it more challenging and really work those critical thinking skills, you could say something like, “I’m going to say three words and I want you to tell me which one doesn’t fit: dog, fish, frog.” Then when a player gives an answer, they have to explain their thinking. They might say that dog doesn’t fit because it doesn’t start with F, or because the other two live in water. They might say that fish doesn’t fit because it doesn’t rhyme with dog and frog, or because fish don’t have legs. This version is great because it’s so open-ended – kids come up with some really creative reasoning!
Here are just a few ideas for word groups:
- 2 words that start with the same letter, 1 that doesn’t
- 2 words with 2 syllables, 1 word with 1 syllable
- 2 animals, 1 plant
- 2 shapes, 1 color
- 2 days of the week, 1 month
- 3 random words – see what they come up with!
My family plays this game in the car to pass time on road trips. It’s a good game for practicing ABC order, beginning sounds, and flexing those memory muscles. The first person starts by saying, “I was going to Grandma’s house and in my suitcase I packed ____________” and names something that starts with the letter A that would fit in a suitcase (for this example, I’ll use apple). The next player repeats what the first player says and adds a letter B word. So they would say, “I was going to Grandma’s house and in my suitcase I packed an apple and a baseball glove.” The next player has to repeat the list and add a word that starts with the letter C. Just keep going all the way to the letter Z!
I have to admit that my family usually skips saying, “I was going to Grandma’s house and in my suitcase I packed…” And when our kids were littler, we modified it by not having them repeat all the things on the list. My husband and I still recited the whole thing, but we just let the kids tell us a word that started with the letter they were on. Easier for the kids, more challenging for the adults. In my kindergarten classroom, I’ve tried it both ways – I think it kind of depends on the group that you have.
If you’re up for a challenge, I’ve heard a variation of Going to Grandma’s where players have to think of things to pack that fit in certain categories like foods, articles of clothing, movies, kinds of candy, etc.
Ok, this last game isn’t technically a game you can play anywhere – you can really only play it in the car (or on the bus if you’re going on a field trip), but I wanted to include it because it’s still one of my family’s favorites!
Here’s how it works: the first person has to find the letter A on a billboard, then the next person has to find the letter B, and so on until you get to the letter Z. It helps build letter recognition and the speed in which they can identify a letter (fancy people call that automaticity).
Billboard Letter Hunt also touches on ABC order. When my kids were littler and we played this game, I always said the alphabet out loud during my turn to figure out what letter came next. As they got older, I had them start trying to figure it out on their own. For an extra challenge, you could start at Z and work backwards!
You can even add your own variations depending on the ages of your kids. In our family, the letters can be anywhere outside the car – stores, license plates, the guy’s hat in the car next to us. We also have a rule that the word “EXIT” doesn’t count because it shows up everywhere on the interstate. Make it as simple or as difficult as you’d like – there are so many possibilities!
So there you have it. Ten super fun, no-prep learning games that will keep all your little learners busy!
Click here to download your free printable cheat sheet!
*A note about the ideas on this list: it’s really hard to pinpoint where a teaching idea got its start! If any item on this list is your original idea, please email me and I’ll give credit where credit is due.