May is Better Hearing and Speech Month – a yearly opportunity to raise awareness about communication disorders. Melissa Handy, our Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) Clinical Supervisor, shares her perspective and tips on how to encourage your child to communicate through play.
Children learn and develop communication, motor, and cognition skills through play. One way to encourage communication is with People Play. This form of play includes games like peek-a-boo, children’s songs, or playing “horsie” on your knee. As your child is demonstrating appropriate communication and interaction skills during these activities, a natural next step is adding in an object. The object can be a simple toy, book, snack, or basic application on a tablet or phone.
When introducing objects into play, get on the floor with your little one and let them show you what toys and activities they enjoy! Start off by playing beside them at their level. Then, join in their play to encourage them to interact with you. For example, if they are enjoying putting items in a bucket and dumping them out, you should do that, too. Add in fun sounds, words, or gestures to increase engagement.
As you are seen more as a trusted playmate and your child is engaged with you, encourage your child to imitate your gestures, sounds, or words by doing them or saying them repeatedly. If they are not imitating you on their own, try pausing while looking at them expectantly. Use play to encourage them to acknowledge you as a playmate and take turns as you shift from playing beside them to playing with them and follow your child’s lead!
- If your child is getting upset or is not enjoying the play, make some adjustments. You could go back to playing beside them, rather than with them, or use fewer words. Talk to one of your service providers if you need ideas!
- If your child is smiling and participating, they are showing you they are ready for this type of play. Do it more!
- If your child is spontaneously demonstrating a new action with the object that you showed them or using a new gesture, sound or word, they are showing you that they are learning through play! They are also showing you that they may be ready to learn another new gesture, sound, or word. This is the time to introduce a new action, gesture or word in the same fun, playful way!
Here are some other helpful tips for productive play:
- Set up the environment to encourage communication and interaction by limiting distractions (Ex. make sure the tv is off and have only a few toys or items around).
- Give your child time to participate and remember that words are not the only form of communication and that you should respond to all communication attempts. Some children need additional time to respond, so wait and give them a chance to respond. The length of time depends on your child and can range up to 5 – 15 seconds depending on their processing time and motor planning needs.
- If you would like to use an iPad to facilitate communication, some examples of repetitive applications that can be used to target this include – Peek-a-Boo Barn ($2+) and Nighty Night! ($5+), and First Sounds (free). Keep in mind the recommendations regarding technology – it should be brief and it should be done with others. There are also lots of repetitive, interactive books like Where’s Spot? that are preferred for encouraging communication.
- With children who are beginning to use words to communicate, include 1 or 2 verbal routines during the activity to give your child an understanding of how to participate. For example, “ready, set, ___ (go)”, “1, 2, 3, __ (go)”, “bye-bye ___ (noun)”, “night-night ___ (animal)”, “Look! (It’s) a fish.” etc… More tips for early talkers can be found in this article from The Hanen Centre.
- Ultimately we are targeting verbal speech, but if your child is nonverbal or only has a few words, include the basic signs (go, me, more, …), gestures (yes, no, give, …), or their communication device so that your child can participate at their level and build up to higher forms of communication. More tips for gestural communicators can be found in this article from The Hanen Centre.
- Talk to your SLP about which gestures, signs, words, phrases, sentences, directions or questions to include so that you are all using a similar approach. Progress doesn’t typically happen overnight! When a skill is delayed or disordered, we need to work at improving it repetitively and systematically to see progress so don’t give up and remember to always celebrate the little gains. Expect more notable progress after 3-6 months of consistent practice.
- Once the targeted words are being used by your child on their own, it’s time to make some changes such as adding more words, varying your play routine, maybe using less repetitive language. You can work through modifications to the play routine with your SLP. As your child starts to use basic sentences, these tips from The Hanen Centre may be helpful.
Integrating speech-language strategies throughout the day can help your child further develop their communication skills. Talk to your child’s SLP to better understand which approaches we have found to be successful during therapy so that you can use them during your day-to-day activities. Most importantly, keep in mind that children learn through play so have fun and Happy Communicating!