Playing with your child is one of the BEST things you can do to promote speech and language development; however, play can be difficult for some children and for some adults. Here are 10 things you can do at home, at school or in therapy to help increase your child’s play skills and speech and language development in fun, natural way.
1. Clean space
The first step is to make sure you have clean and organized space to play. This may be the most challenging due to lack of storage space and/or the amount of toys you have. The more toys that are out and available, the more difficult it is for your child to attend and play appropriately and the more likely they will move from toy to toy to toy.
When creating this clean space, try to think of the following:
a. What toys are not appropriate? What toys are too young or too old for my child? Try to place these toys in a box and store away to use later or give them away.
b. What rooms can we play in? What rooms do I not want my child to play in? It is easy to let your house become one gigantic “play room” but it best to pick out one or two rooms that are best for your child to play in.
c. What toys are too big to remove? Train tables, kitchens, etc. Leave these out but you will want to put away the toys that are involved in play such as the trains, pretend food, etc.
d. How can I hold or store the toys? We like to use plastic containers or plastic baggies to hold our toys.
e. Where can I put these toys? At the office we have our toys within baggies and plastic containers and then placed in big toy cabinets. Some of our clients have their toys in toy cabinets, toy closets, built in shelves and more. Also you can find ottomans that double as toy boxes in many stores these days. Baskets can work well too.
f. What is one preferred toy and one toy I wish my child would play with? Pick one toy that you know your child loves (preferred toy) and one toy you want them to play with (may not be as preferred by your child) that is always out and available to play with. Then every week/month rotate these toys out.
If this suggestion is overwhelming or you are unsure of how to do this in your house, start by doing one or two items on the list each month and then building up. For example, within January start by going through the toys and deciding which ones are too old or too young for your child and find a place to store them. Then in February figure out what rooms you want to play in and what rooms you don’t want to play in as well as which toys are going to be too big to remove. Continue this until you have gone through all of the above.
The below pictures are examples of the same room where one picture promotes play and one does not.
YES promotes play!
Not so much
2. Create a routine when you play
The next most important thing you can do is to create a routine when you play such as: you pick a toy, you play with a toy, the toy is finished and then you clean up before picking another toy.
This is a very important skill not only to increase their play skills but also to help them transition into a Parents’ Day Out, Preschool, Pre-K and Kindergarten environment.
3. Less is more with toys
Just like having a clean space to play, giving your child less toys will help increase their play skills. For example, while playing farm, give your child one or two animals versus ALL of the animals. While playing with cars, give them one or two cars versus all of them. As their play skills increase, you can slowly increase giving them more toys. When you give them all of the items at once, it can hinder play in a few ways: it can decrease their time with the toy because they are overwhelmed with too many choices (play for 15 seconds instead of five minutes) and it can make it difficult to share or play with others when they used to playing with them all.
4. Decrease questions
When adults play with children it is very natural to play by asking questions “What is that?”, “Is that a cow?”, “What does a cow say?” but think about when your child plays with other children. They rarely ask each other these types of questions. So when you play with your child, try to decrease the amount of questions you ask. Instead, try to label objects, actions and colors or use fill in the blank sentences. When labeling, label what you see using one to four words such as “cow”, “brown cow”, “hungry cow”, “big brown cow”, “big hungry cow”, etc. When using fill in the blank sentences try to point to the object/information you want them to fill in such: “look it’sa _______” while you point to the cow. While doing this you will also find that not only will your child play more, but they will talk more and learn language much faster.
SING! SING! SING! This is one of the best things you can do to help increase your child’s play skills; however, if singing doesn’t come naturally to you, this can also be one of the most difficult. So start with songs that you know: Old McDonald, BINGO, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Five Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, Wheels on the Bus, Row your Boat, etc. Next begin to use these songs but change them up. You can sing Old McDonald had a Zoo, Five Cows jumping on the farm, etc. When you are more comfortable, start singing anything and everything. The more you sing the more your child will attend and participate.
6. Give choices
Choices are wonderful way to help your child feel that they are in control but really the adult is. You can give them choices between play objects “farm or zoo” as well as choices within the play “alligator or elephant”, “red or blue.”
Once your child becomes familiar with making choices, this is a great tool to help them sustain play (play for longer periods of time). For example, if you are playing with the farm and they start playing with the pig and the cow, after a few minutes you can take the pig and cow away and then give them choices to pick out two more animals. You can do this over and over again within one play interaction. Not only do they feel like they are in charge but it also feels that they are getting a “new toy” every few minutes while sustaining their play with one toy.
7. Model play by creating/changing routines
Another wonderful idea is modeling your play. This just means that you take a turn with the toy first and show your child what to do using your actions and words. Here are a few examples:
Coloring: Pick a crayon (“red”) and start coloring the page while singing a song or talking about what you are doing (“circle circle circle” while making circles). Then give the crayon to your child and sing/say the same words and see if they do the routine.
Zoo/Farm: Pick an animal and then pick one pretend play act while singing. At our office they love it when the animals go “up up up” the ladder and then go to sleep in the barn while we sing goodnight. Then give them the animal and sing/say the same words and see if they do the routine.
Then as your child begins to participate more you can add to these routines. Within the farm/zoo, animals can go up the ladder, sleep, wake up, go down the ladder, eat and drink. Within the coloring routine you can begin to create other shapes or lines.
The more you work on modeling and creating routines, the more your child will be able to initiate these types of play with you and with others as well as the more they will be able to increase their overall play skills.
When you are not sure what to do OR when your child doesn’t let you into their play……narrate! Narrate what your child is doing using one to four words. Play next to them with the same toy and narrate what you are doing using one to four words. If they are playing with cars you could say “go car go, fast fast fast, oh no crash, drive drive drive”. If they are playing with puzzles you could say “in, out, green alligator, blue hippo, silly bird”.
9. Start slow!
If these suggestions do not come natural to you – that is OKAY! The best thing you can do is to start slow! Pick one or two things to focus on for that week or month. Then when you feel comfortable with those add in one or two more things to focus on.
10. Have fun!
For some you will start having fun playing right away! But for others it may take a bit. Once you feel comfortable using these suggestions – play should be fun!
Enjoy building up your child’s language and play skills and don’t forget to HAVE FUN!