By Katrina Wasserman M.S., CCC-SLP & Lindsay Barret MS, CCC-SLP
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” -Fred Rogers
Play is an integral part of a child’s learning. It teaches them how to interact with their environment, solve problems, learn new motor skills, and acquire language. One great way to build language skills is to sit with your child and actively engage in play with them. The following strategies help to foster language development during play:
1. Choose open-ended toys and ask open-ended questions. Toys like blocks, Legos, dolls, and trains enable you to ask open-ended questions like “What should we create?” “Where should this go?” “What should we feed the baby?” This concept enables you to model language such as, “You put the block ON/IN/NEXT TO,” to help develop concepts.
2. Provide “communication temptations” to encourage the child to initiate communication.
- Keep desired items out of the child’s reach.
- Close items that the child cannot open independently.
- Pause in the middle of a routine or song.
- Wind up a toy and let it finish until it needs to be wound again.
3. Follow your child’s lead. Allow your child to take the lead while playing. This opens up lines of communication and allows conversation to flow, especially with older children.
4. Allow opportunities for the child to communicate by creating real-life play schemas. Children love imitating their parents or caregivers. This provides an opportunity to interact with your child while performing activities he/she watches you do every day. Have a pretend meal and “make” sandwiches, get a baby doll ready for bed by following your nightly routine, or create a pretend store to go shopping in, and don’t forget the pretend money! As you are playing, label objects/actions, ask questions, and model language.
5. Provide options for the child to choose from when requesting. This is easier than open-ended options.
6. If the child is easily distracted or inattentive, use phrases such as “find my eyes” or “look at me” before asking questions and make sure the child’s body is calm (“whole body listening”) to promote success when responding to questions.
7. Modify your language to match the child’s receptive language abilities. Model slow, exaggerated speech and give words to label, comment, request if he/she isn’t using them. Be specific and consistent with your language.
8. Use an utterance length that is one word greater than the child’s when requesting and commenting. For example, Child says “ball” and you model or repeat back “red ball,” “ball on,” or “want ball”.
9. Most importantly, give your child your undivided attention. Try to play with your child for 30 minutes a day without any interruptions like the phone or television. This will help create wonderful memories and make your child feel important! And, don’t forget to have fun!