Sneaky Squirrel Board Game for Late Talkers

Sneaky Squirrel Game


I love this game year-round, but it’s especially fun in the fall!

As I explained in this earlier post Board Games for Toddlers, I rarely play a game with “rules” for late talkers – or any toddler for that matter! Kids this age are usually not developmentally ready, and when we force these kinds of restraints, it ruins the fun for everyone. We can miss fantastic opportunities for interaction and teaching language by being too much of a stickler!

When you’re not following the rules, what else can you do? Let me share great ideas for how I use this game in therapy with my little late talking friends:

Introduce the Game Pieces

By taking a few minutes to introduce the game pieces, you’re already working on language, even before you begin to play the game!

Show a child the squirrel tongs, the stumps or “trees”, and nuts. Talk about squirrels by making connections to when a child may have seen a squirrel. If you’re close to a window or door, direct a child’s attention to the trees outside and discuss how the stump pieces come from trees. Mention the nuts too with comments about how nuts grow on trees and then fall to the ground for squirrels to eat and gather to eat later.

When you’re talking with any young child with language delays, adjust your comments to match her receptive language-level or what she understands. If a toddler has a moderate to significant receptive delay (or a super short attention span,) do not go on and on during this initial conversation. Keep it simple! Say things like, “Oooh! Look! It’s a squirrel. We see squirrels when we go outside. Remember? Squirrel!” If she’s still listening, you might say something else like, “Squirrels run fast! They climb up in the trees! Go squirrel!”

Set Up a Way to Play

Next, present some way to play the game. We can blow it with toddlers when we don’t establish how we’re going to play from the get-go. No wonder a child runs off with the pieces or begins to “do his own thing.” You can (hopefully!) avoid those problems by setting up your realistic expectations from the beginning.

Older preschoolers may be ready to spin the spinner and understand how to play the game and follow the rules, but most of the time, I play this game with toddlers simply by putting nuts in the holes.

Set out the tree stumps and say something like, “Look! Trees! See the holes! The holes are for the nuts.” Then show a child how to place a nut in one of the holes.

For children with coordinated fine motor skills, you can use the squirrel tongs from the game. Most of the toddlers I see cannot manipulate the squirrel tongs without lots of effort (which ruins the fun!), so I use well-worn toddler tongs. They’re sized for little hands and have been easier than any other tool I’ve tried.

More often, I’ve just let toddlers use their fingers, which is challenging enough for many of our kids!

Choose Your Goals Based on These Priorities

Participation For some busy or disconnected toddlers, participating should be your ONLY goal initially. Do everything you can to keep him happy and with you for as long as you can. Period. No other goals beyond sticking with it, placing as many nuts in the holes as possible, and then helping clean up the game after you’re finished. That’s it. Once he’s easily doing this, add something else.

Turn-Taking When I’m working on turn-taking with a child, I use my own stump piece and take a fast turn saying things like, “My tree! Here’s a nut! The nut goes in! In!” Remember to take your turns very quickly during games so that you don’t lose a toddler’s attention or make him too mad. For some kids, your turn may just be cheerfully saying, “In!” as you hurriedly put a nut in the hole and then move on to his turn.

When you try too hard to emphasize turn-taking by saying things like “Stop. You have to wait for me. It’s my turn now,” and then insisting that a child sit there patiently while you take F…O…R…E…V…E…R makes some toddlers lose their minds. No wonder they get upset or don’t want to stick around and play!

Language Goals

Requesting When a child is developmentally ready, target requesting. Hold the nuts in your hand or place them in a Ziplock bag and give the child a nut after he requests. This makes you a necessary part of the game. He has to go through you to get the nuts!

For some kids, just making eye contact is a request! Hold the nut in your hand until they look at you.

For others, they can do much more, but carefully select a word or sign based on what a child is ready to target. If he’s nonverbal, you can’t expect him to say a word before he gets the nut. You just can’t. You need a goal he can meet! For example:

  • Start with a sign, a picture if you’re using an approach like PECS, or even some kind of gesture like holding his hand out to you.
  • If he’s a brand new signer or talker, choose easy words and signs like “nut,” “more,” or “please.” Model the sign or word he should use to request.
  • If a child loves colors and already knows some of those words, let him request by saying the color he wants. Be very, very careful with using color words for requesting! You don’t want to emphasize academic concepts when a child does not say very many functional words. I only use this as my target when colors are a preference (aka – obsession!) for a child. Even then, I try to get other words first and default to the color word if that’s the only way I can keep him with me and talking.
  • If she’s working on phrases, you can easily incorporate that goal here with several different phrase combinations including “More nuts” or “I want more” or “One more.”

Spontaneous Communication

This is a fantastic game for helping a child become more spontaneous with requests. Initially, you will have to cue a child and get him to directly imitate whatever your language target is. That’s how we teach everything – gestures, signs, words, and phrases. BUT eventually, we do want to build in opportunities for a child to ask us for things without us telling him how to ask.

Sit back and playfully withhold the nuts in a bag or your hand until he asks for another nut using whatever method he can. Don’t overuse this strategy though, or you may lose him altogether!

(**If you’re not having much luck with getting a child to sign or talk on request or can’t find a balance for withholding that doesn’t result in a meltdown, I can help! My new book Let’s Talk About Talking walks you through that process! My other therapy manuals Building Verbal Imitation in Toddlers and Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual also contain instructions with these techniques. If you need a visual example, you can SEE this strategy in my DVD Teach Me To Talk.)

Other Areas An obvious cognitive goal with this game is to teach or practice color matching. Matching is an important cognitive skill and it always comes before kids learn the names for colors. Sneak in your language goals here too. (Get it? Sneaky Squirrel!) I’ve successfully taught “No” with this game by purposefully mismatching the colored nuts and then pointing this out to a child. Make a big deal about it. Exaggerate shaking your head and finger while saying, “Does it go here? NO!!! NO!!! NO!!! That’s blue. Not red. No way! No!” Be silly while you do this so that it doesn’t sound punitive. Keep it light, playful, and fun!

Those are my beginning ideas for this cute game. The good news is…you can take these same concepts and apply them to virtually any other game too! We’ll be doing that in later posts!

Until then…


Link to purchase this Sneaky Squirrel game:


**Amazon affiliates earn very small commissions on purchases.

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