Ready, Set, LISTEN!: Fun Ways to Practice Active Listening with Children

Ready, Set, LISTEN!: Fun Ways to Practice Active Listening with Children

Lately we have been discussing ways that kids can practice sharing, especially during times of physical distancing. One important, but difficult, skill for young kids is to share attention with others. For example, they might struggle to share their caregiver’s attention with siblings, or to share talk time with classmates online. Developmentally this is totally normal! Most 4 to 5-year-olds have only recently developed the ability to understand that other people have separate thoughts and feelings.  Even if being a tad self-centered is pretty typical, there are lots of things that you can do with children to practice the skills of active listening and sharing attention. Especially during this time when so much of children’s regular, physical social interaction is curbed, why not build a different social skill perfect for physical distancing?

Simple active listening for kids has 2 parts:

  1. Being able to pay attention to and listen to the other person
  2. Remembering not to interrupt while the other person is talking

When teaching kids new skills, it is helpful to both describe the skill as well as model it. One way to introduce active listening is within the frame of respect and being a good friend. A simple and clear way to explain respect to kids might be to say, “Respect means that we care about how someone else is feeling and those feelings are important to us.” You can describe how you show respect and care for another person by giving them your attention when they are talking, through eye contact or other physical cues. The second important part of respect is not interrupting someone when they are talking. This can be really hard! Especially when our friend is talking about something we are excited about.

If your child really struggles not to interrupt, giving them something TO do while they wait can be really helpful. Raising their hand with a finger over their mouth while in the classroom is a great example.  At home, perhaps children could put their finger on their chin while they wait to signal they have something to say.

Below is a list of simple games to practice the skills that make up active listening. They build skills like working memory (being able to hold the rules/instructions in your head and follow them as the game is played), inhibitory control (being able to stop oneself from blurting out or to stop doing something quickly), and paying LOTS of attention to hear the directions/what the other person is saying.

Spot the silly

  • Tell a story, about your day, re-tell a book or movie, describe what you’re eating, or what you saw while running errands, and while you’re telling the story, add in a silly detail. “After breakfast this morning I ran some errands. I went to the store for milk, and I knew I had to get bread too, so I started in the bread aisle. In the bread aisle I saw a hamster pushing a shopping cart as I was reaching for the loaf of bread you like. Then I went to get milk, and cheese. I almost forgot to get broccoli but remembered at the last minute…” Challenge your child to listen to the whole story without interrupting, and when you’re done see if they caught ‘the silly’. Start with short and simple stories for younger children as this is asking a lot of young brains!
  • You can also take turns. Your child can tell a story and you can try to ‘spot the silly’. This is great practice for developing conversation skills and understanding narrative (and yes, it may be rather difficult at first).
  • If you have a storybook that you have read so many times your child knows it well already, you can include ‘a silly’ while reading that story.

Play a sharing game to hear about everyone’s day

  • Lo-Hi (or Lows and Highs): Each person shares part of their day that was not-so-good (a low), and something that happened during their day that was great, or made them feel good (a high). Kids practice listening while other people are talking, and practice telling something about themselves. This can be played in the car, at bedtime, while eating dinner, etc. Bonus: Starting a routine like this early can get kids in the habit of sharing about their day while they’re still young.
  • If You Could See Inside My Head: To play the game with two people, decide who will go first and who will listen. While person 2 listens, person 1 says, “If you could see inside my head, you would know that…” and finishes the sentence with something about themselves. Then person 2 takes a turn completing the sentence about themselves while person 1 listens. You can increase the difficulty by using a timer for how long to spend listening/talking, or by having the listener try to repeat back what the other person said.
  • Bonus: Have a 20 second (or however long) dance party to celebrate the wins and small good things you hear about each other’s day. When you hear the music (played on your phone, stereo, etc.) you get to dance your heart out, but when it stops, you have to stop immediately and freeze!

Play a listening game

  • Red-Light Green-Light adaptation: Add in different movements for green-light (and kids are usually perfectly happy to just stay in one space for this; it doesn’t have to be a race). “When I say green-light, you have to move like a kangaroo!”, or move like a robot, or like you’re in outer space.
  • “When I say go…”: This is a great way to get from point A to point B, such as making it easier to leave the park. “Screw your listening ears on! When I say “GO” start walking to the car like an elephant for 10 steps… Nice! Now, when I say “GO” hop like a frog 5 times…“. Try saying rhyming words a few times instead of “Go” so they have to really listen, “Gopher! Gorgeous! Gum…GO!”
  • Simon Says: This is great practice for active listening and inhibitory control. Another variation we like to use in the classroom to help kids calm down and focus their attention on the teachers is called, “If you can hear me…” The teacher says, “If you can hear me, touch your____” and the children follow the direction. You can add in silly things like, “If you can hear me, dance the macarena”
  • Build A Story: Each person in the group (2+ people) take turns saying one word at a time to tell a story. Kids have to pay attention to what the other players are saying, and remember what has been said so far.

Play a guessing game like 20 Questions, I Spy, or the Animal Guessing Game

  • For both I-Spy and 20 questions, one person thinks of something, or “spies” something in the room, and the others have to guess what it is by asking questions about what the thing might be. For example, “is it an animal, vegetable/plant, or mineral” is how I always started as a kid for 20 questions.
  • To play the animal guessing game, one person thinks of an animal and holds it in their head. The others take turns trying to guess what the animal is by asking questions about the animal. Such as, does it live on land or in the water? Does it have fur or scales?
  • For advanced listeners, being able to add to what the other person was talking about, or ask them questions about the topic is a great skill to practice

Showing respect and care for others while they are talking by using active listening can be a tough new skill for some kids. So it is an excellent, life-long skill to start practicing. We would love to hear if you have a game you play with your child that incorporates active listening!

Text: © Kids In Transition to School 2020

Image: © Anna Sungatulina| Dreamstime.com

Livia Carpenter
Livia Carpenter is the Clinical Supervisor for KITS. She has been with the organization since 2008. Livia has a passion for working with kids from high risk backgrounds, which began when working with foster children prior to coming to OSLC. When she is not inspiring those she works with, she reads, tries new recipes, makes art, and really enjoys a good, whole-hearted belly laugh.

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