When Maya Angelou said that a writer has to “take the most used, most familiar objects—nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs—ball them together and make them bounce,” she could have just as easily been talking about children.
That’s because children make it their mission, as writers do, to play with language. It’s how they understand and learn it. And wordplay, like so many forms of play, comes naturally to them. Just listen to any three-year-old skitting their way through a made-up song. You’ll witness them bend and break linguistic rules, mash sounds together, alliterate, and create entirely new words with an unselfconscious fluidity to leave grown poets and writers in awe.
Long before they start understanding written words, wordplay helps children build vocabulary and improve phonological awareness—the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds in spoken language, an important skill for literacy. And, perhaps most crucially, it also opens up the creative possibilities and joys of language. So, celebrate and encourage wordplay with your little ones, and they’ll soon be laughing and learning.
Not sure where to start? We’ve gathered together a few easy verbal wordplay ideas to build into your family’s daily life. Because they’re verbal, you can play them anywhere, anytime—in the car, at mealtimes, during everyday routines. There’s no need for props or pens (unless you want them and they add to the fun, of course). A bonus for book-lovers? Often there are ways to bring the games back to your shared reading. Try perusing old favorites with an eye for wordplay or extending story time with a game.
Note: One of the most satisfying things about wordplay is bending and breaking “rules.” So develop these games as you like, or to add more challenge for older kids. Even better: Make up your own (we’d love to hear your suggestions)! Ready to have fun?
Rhyming Ping Pong
The beauty of this word game lies in its simplicity, which means even very young kids will love it. One player starts with a word, e.g. cat, then the other responds with a word that rhymes, e.g. bat. The players go back and forth until one can no longer think of a rhyming word. Then you declare a winner or move on to another rhyming sound. That’s it!
This one’s also very easy to relate back to whatever it is you’re reading, and it works especially well with rhyming books. Just choose a word or phrase from the book to kick off a round of rhyming ping pong. With children who are learning to recognize written words and spellings, it can also be interesting to spend time on words that look very different but sound similar, such as rude and chewed.
This is another very easy game for kids of all ages, and one that’s great for building vocabulary. One player starts with a word, e.g. cat, then the other responds with a word that is somehow connected, e.g. pet/claw/dog. Any link between the words is ok! It may be a similar word, an opposite, something that shares the same color, and so on. What’s fun is seeing where the associations take you, exploring the unexpected, and, once you run out of steam, looking back at where you started from.
For a more focused game—and one that you can bring back to your reading on a certain topic, if you wish—try keeping the associations within a set theme. So if one player starts with the word family, the other might say mother, then the first player could come back with brother, etc.
One of the most fun aspects of word games is simply seeing where language takes you. And many kids seem to naturally enjoy freestyling as they explore and manipulate the sounds of words they’re learning.
If yours is one of them, encourage it! And don’t sweat it. Freestyling doesn’t need to be about coming up with long strings of lyrics, or sounding super-polished. It can just be about snippets here and there, and often just commenting on something you are doing is enough to spark interest and the start of an idea to play with. For example, It’s bedtime soon, here comes the moon / Shall we go and choose a bedtime book? / Look, look / Your favorite: Charlie Cook.
In my family, our daughter is definitely the lead freestyler. And it’s our job to sometimes help her keep the rhymes going. But she also loves it when we start it off and she chimes in—it’s fun to “pass her the mic” for these moments.
Every parent knows that kids come up with the most wonderful ways of expressing themselves. This can be mispronunciations of words, using a correct word in the wrong context, or coming up with their own unique words and phrases when they don’t have the “right” words to say something. (Just a few my daughter has come up with are “toe snails” for toenails, “softing” for stroking, “separate” for desperate, “hurty buzzcuts” to mean pins and needles, and “wind crumb” to mean a speck of dust in your eye.)
There are so many ways to create little games with these words and expressions. Look for opportunities to improvise with them in everyday language, such as creating little stories around them (e.g., about a giant birthday cake a “wind crumb” might have come from). You can also bring them into your family’s secret language, or “familect”—something experts say helps to strengthen bonds, introduce kids to the creative possibilities of language, and develop verbal skills.
Parents can bring in special terms and sayings from their own childhood, incorporate words from other languages, and even invent new ones alongside their children. Kids love spotting “mistakes,” and you can have lots of fun (plus prompt valuable reflection) by deliberately introducing them to your conversations. For example, say something like “Let’s call Grandma on the yellaphone,” then enjoy whatever unfolds.
What Am I?
Guessing games are always a hit with kids. And with this one, it’s easy to introduce an extra wordplay dimension. Here’s how to play: One person thinks of a person, object, book, film, place, or anything else, and gives a clue about it. The other has to work out the answer. To add a wordplay element, focus on the name of the person or item, as in the example below.
For example, the first player might say, “What kind of cat am I? I like to eat leaves and then I build a cocoon.” Answer: “A caterpillar.” You can either continue with more words containing the word “cat” (there are loads!) or change the key clue, e.g. “What kind of fish am I? I live in the sea, but I also share a name with the bright lights in the sky at night.” Answer: “A starfish.”
With younger kids, parents will probably have to lead this game, and you should adapt the clues to suit your child’s deduction skills, individual knowledge, and confidence. Then if they want to come up with clues too, great! Give lots of encouragement, even if they’re not ready to incorporate the wordplay element. Just trying to describe something without using the actual word is a fun challenge in itself. And of course it’s easy to bring this game back to your reading, whether through playing off the names of favorite characters or referencing stories in your clues.
Riffing on Roots
If you enjoy etymology (the history of words) or your child is curious about what words mean and why, then this game is for you. My daughter once asked me what the word mermaid “actually” meant. We got to talking, and it became clear she recognized the word maid (though she was fuzzy on its meaning), but was really confused about the prefix mer. I explained that maid meant woman and mer meant sea, so mermaid meant woman of the sea or sea woman.
And that’s when this particular word game started. We began with words we knew, like merman, but then quickly moved to inventing new ones, like mercorn, mermusic, and merflowers. With each new word, we imagined what they might sound or look like. Together, we created creatures, characters, and landscapes we’d never thought of before—ideas, perhaps, for stories to make up another time.
Silly Songs And Rhymes
Ever tried coming up with your own version of a nursery rhyme? Or heard your child singing different words to a favorite or familiar tune? That’s musical wordplay, and you can have lots of fun with it.
Take the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons.” The last, rather grizzly, verse is, “Here comes a candle to light you to bed / And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” In my family, we saw this as a perfect opportunity to come up with our own, more kid-friendly alternative.
And when coming up with your own versions of songs and nursery rhymes, sometimes just adding one unexpected word is enough to create a whole new twist. For example, what happens when ”Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” becomes “Head, shoulders, bees, and toes”?
Great for strengthening the muscles involved in speech and practicing pronunciation, tongue twisters also offer big laughs for kids and grown-ups alike. You can start with classics like “She Sells Seashells” and “Peter Piper.” Then make up your own, too. It’s fun to relate them back to your child’s own experiences and reading, like imagining a favorite character in a new and silly scenario.
An easy way is to ask (or help) your child to pick a sound (say, /k/ or /ch/). Then choose a person or animal that starts with that sound, along with a word to describe the person or animal and an activity that also starts with the sound. Then build from there.
So you might pick /ch/ and settle on chimp, cheeky, and chomp chips as your words. Voila! Your tongue twister is “Cheeky chimps chomp chips.” You can also use a character from a favorite story book, e.g., “Ada Twist twirls twine.” Create longer tongue twisters with older kids, or add to your inventions over time. Then comes the hard, and hilarious, part: Practicing your tongue twisters at ever-faster speeds!
When your child starts reading street and store signs while you’re out and about, it’s a great chance for more fun with words and meaning. Play around with ways to tweak spellings to create new meanings—for example Parking can become Park King, Dead End can become Head End, Starbucks can become Star Chucks, and so on.
You can explore meaning, too. Does a sign that reads “Slow pedestrian crossing” mean the pedestrians are slow? Is “Entrance” the place where you enter … or a command to cast a spell that puts someone in a trance?
Once you start looking, you’ll start seeing a potential play-on-words at every corner. Kids will love correcting your mistakes as they learn, without realizing, to look closely at words that most of us don’t pay much attention to.
Puns And Jokes
From around age three, most children can start to understand and even invent their own simple verbal jokes and puns. And this is when the bad dad jokes can start in earnest. The key here is making sure the humor and play-on-words is straightforward enough for your little one. Anything that you have to explain or that relies on spelling variations is probably a stretch too far.
So, think more along the lines of “What’s brown and sticky? A stick?” than “Why couldn’t the pony sing a lullaby? It was a little hoarse.”
If your child enjoys jokes, as my daughter does, try making up your own, as well as repeating ones you know. Plus encourage wordplay by being a willing audience to early attempts and remembered favorites.
The punch line? Children learn through play. Make play with words an integral part of your approach—it will build their confidence and love of language.
What unique words or funny sayings has your child come out with? Share them on social media and tag Maya Smart (scroll down for social media links) or email them to Maya!