All Ears? 9 Games to Tune Up Listening Skills

Ever notice how kids tune us out just when we need them to listen the most? While listening is critical in communication, the skill is one of the most difficult to master and the least taught. From toddlerhood to teen, make learning to listen fun by playing games that will help your kids tune in.

Sing together. Toddlers and preschoolers love to sing and imitate movements that go along with songs.

“Any opportunity for songs and finger-plays promotes working on listening skills,” says Debra Burnett, Ph.D., assistant professor and speech-language pathologist in the College of Human Ecology at Kansas State University. “After they know the song, play with language by changing the lyrics or adding new original verses.”

Try it with songs like The Itsy Bitsy Spider, If All the Raindrops (or Snowflakes), Wheels on the Bus and Ten Little Ducks.

20 Questions. You can purchase this game or make up your own version by putting slips of paper in a jar that feature categories like animals, famous people or objects. One player pulls a slip of paper and the other players have to guess what is on it by asking questions to gather clues.  The person who deducts the answer in 20 questions or less by carefully listening to clues gets to go next.

Shoutout. Read books with repetitive phrases like Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow; Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst; Brown Bear, Brown Bear: What Do You See by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle; and Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson. Whenever your toddler or preschooler hears the key word or phrase, she can shout it out.

“Reading together is critical. Starting early by looking at books and labeling pictures, then reading simple, repetitive stories will allow the child to learn and predict,” Burnett says. “Books are a great tool for sharing language.”

Who am I? Gather your preschooler’s stuffed animals and have her turn her back. This game will probably get both of you giggling! Pretending to be one of her stuffies, use a silly voice and describe your characteristics. Can she figure out which one of her favorite loveys you are describing?

Picture it. Give your child a blank piece of paper and a pencil. Using step-by-step instructions, tell him what to draw. How accurate was he? Then let him challenge you.

Heads Up!  Fun for anyone to play and much like the retro game “Password,” Heads Up! is an inexpensive app inspired by the game Ellen DeGeneres plays with guests on her talk show. Players must guess the word on their head by listening to the clues the other players give before the time runs out. The game features 18 different categories for players to choose from.

Conversation starter games. Try out the Ungame, which is a non-competitive game that features an entertaining way for older kids to practice conversation and listening skills. This game is available on Amazon and comes in pocket or board formats with various themed editions, including all ages, kids, teens and families. Chat packs and TableTopics are other convenient options.

Get “om” the mat. With playful names like gorilla, cat, happy baby and airplane, many of yoga’s poses appeal to kids’ imaginations. Practicing yoga enhances concentration, focus and listening because you must listen to instructions while moving your body. For ideas, check out The Kids’ Yoga Deck: 50 Poses and Games by Annie Buckley; download kid-focused yoga videos on YouTube; or visit for a free pose of the week.

Revisit the classics. Games like Simon Says, Red Light-Green Light and Bingo is His Name-O (an electronic board game available on Amazon) remain favorites among kids and can be played almost anywhere.

Outside of games, set aside time everyday without the distractions of electronics to chat with your children. As Burnett says, “There is no substitute for personal interaction with young children.”

For more tips on listening, check out How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines is the mom of two boys who are selective listeners. Christa’s latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.

Guest Contributor