CALLING GAME…Tips for Helping a Child Learn to Call People by Name


Tips for Helping a Child Learn to Use Names

A mom recently asked me for suggestions for teaching her child to use other people’s names. Many times, children with autism or social communication delays have difficulty learning to do this. Sometimes late talkers struggle to call anyone by name. Here are ideas that have worked well for me:

Play calling games!

  1. The Mama Game

To help a child begin to use a person’s name, set up a game that I call “The Mama Game.” Since I’m usually working with mothers and their children during therapy sessions, and since it’s the one word moms want to hear most, “mama” is the name we target first. Actually, you can use this game to teach a child to say anyone’s name!

The most success I’ve had with this game is when we’ve placed the child in a confined area. I’ve used a crib or play pack, behind a baby gate, or in a room with a closed door and me. Mom hides outside the room, behind the door, or bends down below the crib so that the child can’t see her. Then I model calling, “Mama. Mama. Maaaaaaamaaaaaaaaa” several times using an exaggerated, playful, and animated tone of voice. I can’t stress how FUN and ‘over the top’ you need to be when you’re playing this game.

After calling for mom in this way several times, Mama excitedly jumps out from her hiding place with a big smile and shouts, ”Mama! Here’s Mama! Mama!”

Then we all laugh and smile and hug and tickle. We want it to be very clear that this is a fun game that we all want to play again.

And then, we play it again. And again. And again, until I think he’s ready to begin to try to imitate “Mama” when I model this word. If he even hints that he’s trying to say this word on his own, I ask Mom to pop up with the biggest reaction she can muster so that he links his action (saying the word) with her return.

Coach mom or anyone else you’re playing with to increase their affect if they’re not being as excited as they should be. Sometimes this one change in how mom reacts is what entices a child to begin to try to say “Mama.” When a mom can’t seem to respond as happily as she should, I go in to “goofy” mode to help everyone loosen up and let go. Making a fool of myself seems to encourage most parents to try a little harder : )

Expand the Game

Older siblings are GREAT at playing this game with mom and younger brothers and sisters. The act of having someone else “call” you and label you as “mama” sometimes helps a child solidify this concept. If you have no other children, then have Dad, grandma, your sitter or even a neighbor come in to help you teach your child this fun game. Don’t try to do it alone. Having another person call you “mama” is what makes this game work. Watch a video with more recommendations.



  1. Simon Says – The Toddler Version

To teach a child to correctly identify people using their name, include at least 3 people in this game so that a child can get it “right” or “wrong.”

This game works particularly well for children who seem to be “stuck” on one person’s name. For example, if a child calls both mom and dad “Da,” we work on this game to highlight the difference between the two and the consequences of using an incorrect label.

In this more advanced game, say a person’s name and then give a simple direction such as “Mommy… pat your head” or “Daddy… jump up and down.” Have the adults model the game for a while before it’s the child’s turn to direct the game.

At first you may have to cue the child with what to say, especially if he doesn’t seem to know how to take his turn. An adult should “whisper coach” the child. By this I mean, get behind him, bend down, and whisper in his hear exactly what to say. “Say…. Daddy… clap your hands.”

If a child isn’t this verbal yet, modify the game by saying something like, “Let’s all jump. Let’s take turns! Whose turn is it? Mommy…jump!” After mom jumps, then ask the next person such as, “Daddy…jump!” To simplify the game, especially in the beginning, use the same action word for several turns and change only the person’s name.

When a child isn’t verbal enough to add the second word, but she can say some approximation of “mom” or “dad,” then I cue her to use that single word and I supply the command.

For a while, pause after saying the person’s name for emphasis. Eventually, you’ll shorten your pause to sound more natural as in “Mommy, look at me!” Shaping the target response in this way will help the child begin to sound more conversational.

Again, everyone playing should exude playfulness so that a child becomes super interested in the game.

Expand the Game

To help ensure that a child generalizes using a variety of names, add other people to the game whenever possible. This ensures that the child will begin to generalize the skill. Older children can be fantastic play partners for this game.

Over time, be sure to embed “calling” in more casual conversation so that it does become spontaneous. Parents of children who struggle to use names may need more specific recommendations so that they can provide the level of practice a child needs. During sessions, I spend time with parents brainstorming situations when they can work on this at home.

Do you have any fun calling games? If so, I’d love to hear them!! Leave a comment below or email me at


If you’d like other practical and FUN therapy ideas like this, you can find those in Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual. It’s always on sale when you use a coupon code!


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