Eye contact is a skill that can be taught to some extent in all children through fun games and activities. Lots of parents and teachers worry when children don’t give them eye contact. It is easy to understand why. It is difficult to fully interact with others in life without making eye contact. Relationships and tasks become harder and more awkward.
Over ten years of working with children aged 3-5, I have come across numerous children who had problems with eye contact. Some had autism, but that was not always the case. There are plenty of young children who have issues with eye contact (making eye contact, maintaining eye contact, or avoiding eye contact) but are not on the spectrum.
Having tried to develop this key skill in small nurture groups over several years, I have come up with my favorite 12 children’s eye contact game:
- Baby Bear game
- Pass the smile/frown/wink
- Giant keys game
- Missing child game
- Pass the ball
- Pairs mirror
- Staring competition
- Eyes on the forehead game
- Robber winking game
- Who is under the sheet game
- Face painting
- Using puppets
Many of these eye contact games are designed more for a school or nursery setting with other children, but some parents reading this will be able to play some of these alone with your child. Read on to hear a full description of each of these games…
1. Baby Bear Game
This is a fantastic listening game, that is great for early phonics, as well as being excellent for developing eye contact.
The children sit in a circle. One child sits in the middle with a blindfold on. They are Baby Bear.
Put a pot of honey behind Baby Bear.
There is a chant for this game. The chant goes like this:
Baby Bear! Baby Bear!
Where’s your honey gone?
Give a tambourine or some keys to one child in the circle. They are the ‘robber’ and they are going to steal the honey from Baby Bear.
The robber holds the tambourine or keys, and as quietly as they can sneaks over and tries to rob the honey off Baby Bear. They pick the honey up, creep back to their place, and sit down. Then they put both the honey and the tambourine behind their back.
All children, including Baby Bear, put their hands behind their backs so it could be anyone! Anyone could be the thief.
It’s time for Baby Bear to wake up. They take their blindfold off and have three guesses to identify the thief. This is where the eye contact comes in. They must look into the faces of all the people sitting there, and try and spot a sign of guilt.
2. Pass the smile/frown/wink
This is quite a simple circle game, that teaches about emotions and facial expressions as well as being a good game that encourages eye contact.
Choose a facial expression – a smile is a good one to start with. The adult smiles at the first child in the circle. They ‘pass’ the smile on, by smiling at the person next to them, and they pass it on and so forth. See if they can pass it all the way around the circle.
Then repeat with a frown, a wink (which is quite hard for some of them), or other faces (and or various emotions), such as a shocked face.
3. Giant keys game
This is very similar to the Baby Bear game. Instead of Baby Bear, the person in the middle is going to be a giant. They lie down because they are ‘asleep’, and put some keys on their back.
A child comes and steals the keys as quietly as possible, and then sneaks back to where they were sitting and hides them behind their back. Everyone else also puts their hands behind their backs, as it could be anyone.
Then the giant wakes up. They have three guesses to work out who has stolen the keys. This is the great eye-contact part. The children will hopefully be looking at the giant, and the giant will be looking back in their faces, hoping to see a sign of guilt. No child can rob the keys totally silently, so there is always some sort of noise clue.
4. Missing child game
This is a really fun eye contact game, that is also one of my favorite memory games (check the other 21 out here). Get everyone to close their eyes and no cheating! This is the important bit.
Then tap one child on the shoulder. This is the child that is going to go ‘missing’. The child goes off and hides somewhere in the room where the other children can’t see them.
Then get everyone to open their eyes. Who has gone missing?
The nature of the game is that it forces everyone to look into each other’s faces to try to work out who is not there. This encourages eye contact, and it is also good for learning and using other children’s names. Repeat for different children.
5. Pass the ball
Ball games provide a wealth of skills for young children, including eye contact.
Sit in a circle with a large ball – either a sponge ball or a rubber ball is best.
The adult starts. Say one child’s name and roll the ball to them. The idea is that they pick up the ball and say ‘Thank you’. Then they pick a child, say their name, and roll the ball to them. That child says ‘Thank you’. And repeat.
This game promotes lots of eye contact. You have to look around to see who to roll to, and you always need to be looking because it might be you getting rolled to next.
6. Pairs mirror
This is a slightly harder game but a fun way to teach eye contact. Get children to sit in pairs facing each other. The idea is that one child is going to do different funny faces, or movements, or poses. The other child is the ‘mirror’. They are going to copy exactly what the other child does.
Silly faces are good, or emotion faces, or movements like patting your head, rubbing your tummy, etc. When one child has had a good go, they switch places and roles.
7. Staring competition
This eye contact game is good for children who are competitive. It’s just the old-fashioned staring competition.
Sit or stand facing each other and just stare! Who can maintain eye contact and keep staring the longest without looking away? For some children, even doing this for a few seconds is a good achievement.
Another way of doing this is to stare at a teddy.
8. Eyes on the forehead game
Another fun way to promote eye contact!
Get the children to draw eyes on a post-it and then stick it on their foreheads. In pairs, they try to stare at other children’s eyes on the post-its!
9. Robber winking game
One child sits in the middle with a toy behind them. They wear a blindfold so they can’t see. Pick one child to come and rob the toy as quietly as possible. They take the toy away, sit down and hide it behind their back. Then the child ‘wakes up’ (takes the blindfold off).
The idea now is that the robber will be winking! It is good to pick a child who is able to wink. If they can’t wink then exaggerated blinking is good. The child in the middle has to look around the circle and see who is winking or blinking. They are the thief!
10. Who is under the sheet game
This is similar to the missing child game from earlier. Get all the children to close their eyes. Once again, that is the tricky bit!
When they really are closing their eyes, tap one child on the shoulder. They sit in the middle of the circle and put a sheet over them.
Then everyone opens their eyes and tries to guess who is under the sheet.
Again this promotes eye contact because they have to look around the circle and try to think who is not there that was there before.
You could also use a parachute for this game. To check out the 40 greatest parachute games for kids then go here.
11. Face painting
This is a simple activity that just develops a good rapport between the adult and child and hopefully gets them to look at each other’s face. Children will usually enjoy looking at other children who have had their faces painted to see what they look like as well.
12. Using puppets
The effect of puppets on children is like magic! Many children will often be captivated by a puppet much more than another human, and there are so many successful activities you can try with puppets to teach more or less the whole curriculum.
The trick is to get the puppet to whisper to you, so the children have to look at the puppet, but they also have to look at you to find out what the puppet has said.
Puppets are fantastic for playing simple games, singing songs, or telling simple stories. A great way of developing eye contact.
What If A Child Has Autism?
Eye contact issues are a massive part of autism. An autistic child may really shy away from any eye contact whatever games you play with them. However, the games highlighted above are definitely worth a go. Even if the progress is slow, games that encourage eye contact are one of the best ways of getting autistic children started on the path of developing eye contact.
Many practitioners who work with children with autism emphasize eye contact with every interaction. They coax and encourage children to look at them. You can use picture cards with eyes on them as a reminder and a visual prompt to begin to look. Any progress can be a great achievement.
How to help a child’s social skills – There are lots of games that you can play that encourage skills like saying ‘please’, and ‘thank you’, and learning to wait and take turns.
How to develop cooperation skills in children – Play lots of games that develop skills such as passing objects, and working as a team towards a common goal.
For some children learning to develop eye contact is a huge target. Playing fun games is one of the best ways of developing this skill.
Use puppets, toys and props, and really praise children for looking at others.
Good luck with these eye contact games.