Card Games: Playing Concentration with Very Young Learners

Teacher playing cards with children

Time to play cards!

Card game time!


But wait: which one? And how to play with very young learners (preschool-aged and younger)?

Let’s start with Concentration, also known as Memory. It’s that game where a whole bunch of cards are face down, and players turn over cards 2 at a time to try to find matches. It’s a great game for building vocabulary, focus, logic skills, and pattern recognition (very important for developing reading skills).

There are variations of this card game in most cultures, so most older children will be familiar with the game and be able to dive right in. However, many new teachers of children 5 and under will attempt to play this game and run into lots of problems. Younger children may not understand the game and may not react well to competitive elements of the game. So, here are some ideas for how to play Concentration with learners 5 and under.

Step 1. Teach how to match things in general. One great way to do this is to use several pairs of matching cards (we’ve got a whole bunch of downloadable flash cards at our website.) Before your lesson starts, place one card from each pair at various places around the room. Sit down with your young learners with the other cards. Show them one of the cards (for example, a picture of an apple.) Say, “Look, an apple!” Give the apple card to one of the children and say, “Can you find another apple?” Look around the room to show the child you are looking for another apple. The child goes and gets the other apple card. (You can lead the child by hand for the first one if s/he needs help.)

After the child brings the card back, place the two apple cards next to each other and say, “Look, they’re the same! They match!”

Give another card to another child and have them find the matching card. Do this until all of the cards have been matched.

Step 2. Introduce the memory element of the game. Take 3 pairs of matching cards. Show each card to the students, name it, and place it face down. Talk about each card as you show it. For example, you can say, “Ooh look! A nice red apple! Do you like apples? Apples are yummy!” (Place the card face down.) “Let’s look at the next card. Mmm! A banana! I love bananas. How about you?” (Place the card face down.)

After you have placed the six cards face down, turn over one of the cards, and ask the children to help you find the matching card. For example, turn over an apple card and then ask, “I wonder where the other apple is. Which one is the apple card?” The children will help you find the apple card by pointing to it. Turn over the card. If it is the apple card, say, “Yes! We found the apple! Good job!” If it not the apple card, say, “That’s not an apple. Let’s try again!” Continue until you have matched each of the cards. Add a couple more pairs of cards and try again, finding the cards together.

Step 3. Introduce turn taking. After introducing the concepts of matching and remembering where the cards are, kids are ready to start taking turns finding the cards on their own. Spread out several pairs of matching cards face up, so all of the children can see them, and then turn them all face down. You’ve just added an extra element of challenge. There are more cards now and the children don’t have as much time to remember where they are.

Say, “Let me see if I can find a match.” Turn over one card, and then turn over another card. It’s a good idea to intentionally turn over two cards that don’t match. You want to show the children that it’s no big deal. It’s okay if you don’t find a match. It’s still fun. You can say happily, “Ooops! No match. These cards are different.”

Turn to the child next to you and say, “Can you find a match?” If the child needs help, show her/him how to turn over one card. Look at the first card and name it. “Hey, a peach! Can you find another peach?”  The child turns over another card. If it is a match, say, “Great job! You found a match. You have two peaches!” Put the two cards in front of that child. If it is not a match, say “Ooops! No match! Good try!” Either way, turn to the next child and say, “Can you find a match?”

Continue around the circle. Make sure that whether the children find a match or not, the tone is always upbeat and positive. Involve yourself in the game, taking your turn and intentionally NOT finding matches, so that each time the children can see it’s okay if they don’t find a match. This is really important for playing card games with young learners. It’s very common for children this age to become upset if they feel like they are “losing” a game. By showing them that even the teacher can’t find matches sometimes, and laughing about it, it lets them know it’s okay.

Step 4. Collect the cards. When using playing cards or flashcards with young learners, always remember to make cleaning up a part of the activity. Have the children count their cards. When they give them to you, have them name each of the cards. Or, you can ask for cards by name and have the children bring them to you. Don’t make a big deal out of which children have the most cards. There are no winners or losers, it’s just an activity. Have fun with it!

As children get older, you can add extra elements to the game. You can make it more competitive. You can adjust the rules so that if a player finds a match, s/he gets to continue her/his turn. But with very young learners, you don’t need these competitive elements to make games fun. Just make sure to slowly add a little more challenge when necessary (more cards, new vocabulary, help the children a little less, etc.) to keep the interest high.