When my son was a toddler, I remember being concerned about speech and language skills at each milestone. I know this can be a common concern among parents of young children, so I invited Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP to share with us ways that we can help our children develop speech and language skills through play.
Guest post by Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP:
When children play, parents may be inclined to think their child is taking a break from learning. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Children develop foundational speech and language skills by watching, listening, interacting, and imitating those around them – namely their parents and caregivers. Engaging with your child in meaningful playtime activities, and narrating your actions and the world around you, creates authentic language-building opportunities that helps budding brains grow their communication skills.
What is Meaningful Play?
Researchers and educators have found that playtime can help enrich children’s learning experiences. They help children develop their critical thinking abilities, expand their vocabulary, express themselves through verbal and nonverbal language, and contribute to strong social and emotional development.
While setting “rules” around playtime is a little counterintuitive, there are simple ways that parents can ensure fun-filled activities are providing value learning moments for their child. This can include:
- Following Your Child’s Lead: Play should be on their terms. If you let your child decide what’s fun and enjoyable, and find opportunities to incorporate language development into activities they choose, they’ll be more inspired and engaged to learn.
- Evolve Spontaneously: Sure those blocks will have to be cleaned up eventually, but if your child decides it’s time to move on to the next toy, have at it! Let your child naturally bounce between what’s attracting their attention.
- Allow Experimentation: We want kids to be able to stack blocks on top of each other until they fall down, play on the swing set, and race their toy car across the room. Just make sure you’re providing a safe and risk-free environment for them to try new ideas.
Fun Games and Activities that Integrate Speech and Language Skills
Below are some fun games and playtime activities that can help develop your child’s communication abilities:
- Peek-a-Boo: The classic peek-a-boo game may sound simple, but it can actually help instill some fundamental communication skills. This game can help your child with turn-taking, exercising self-control (as they wait for the surprise “boo!”), and ultimately familiarize them with the rhythm and flow that’s necessary for holding a conversation. Peek-a-boo is also a repetitive game that’s used over and over again. Just like learning any new skill, repetition is key for language acquisition in children.
- Reading: Reading to your child can easily be turned into a game. While there’s nothing wrong with reading straight from the text, there are some fun and interactive ways to increase your child’s engagement. For example, use funny or dramatic voices when mimicking the characters; find books that capture your child’s imagination, whether that’s dinosaurs, space, or animals; and ask plenty of thought-provoking questions while reading, such as “what do you think will happen next?” Reading routinely to your child will expand their vocabulary and increase their language comprehension. You can read more tips about reading here.
- Songs and Nursery Rhymes: Singing fun and familiar songs with your child, such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” can improve listening skills and help with your child’s memory retention. Also, certain songs such as “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” can help them learn new vocabulary words.
- Direction-Taking Games: Learning how to listen for directions, processing information, and then doing the desired action, is essential for young children. Games like “Simon Says” and “Red Light, Green Light,” are fantastic ways to reinforce these skills. They make children listen attentively and then practice following one and two-step directions.
- Storytelling: Whether the stories are real or make believe, sharing fantastical stories with your child is a great way to let your child’s creativity shine. This can be as simple as taking turns describing your day. Or, spur your child’s imagination by drawing a picture together, using chalk art, or finding an image. Then, build a narrative around this visual, describing what’s happening in the scene or the adventures each character is embarking on.
- Make Crafts: Turn off the electronics and get your hands dirty! Making crafts with your child, whether it’s cooking a recipe, decorating sock puppets, or creating slime, is a great way to incorporate speech and language skills. For example, by baking cookies with your child, you’re helping them follow directions (“first take a cup of flour, then let’s pour in some water”), learn new vocabulary (“this is salt, this is sugar”), and promote active listening. Best of all, they get a tasty treat as a reward at the end!
- Homonyms: Using homonyms is a great way to promote language development, comprehension, and critical thinking skills. Homonyms are two words that sound almost exactly the same, but have different meanings. For example, the words “ant” versus “aunt,” or the words “bye” versus “buy.” Encourage your child to think of additional examples and have them do their best to define each.
- Word games: If your child is a little older, games like Scrabble and Pictionary can improve communication skills, critical thinking abilities, and vocabulary development.
- Tongue twisters: Sure, tongue twisters can be hilarious and infuriating, but they’re a great way to have some fun with your child. They also do a great job reinforcing the correct enunciation of words, helping train the tongue to promote proper pronunciation.
- Professional Help: If you notice your child struggling with their communication skills, missing age-appropriate milestones, or see them lagging behind their peers, consider speaking with a speech-language pathologist. Speech therapists are communication experts and work with families to help evaluate, diagnose, and treat speech and language issues. If you child does have communication issues, generally the sooner you can provide intervention the more progress they’ll make. Speech therapy can be delivered in many settings, including schools, clinics, and online. Online speech therapy is often more affordable, more convenient, and more accessible for busy families, while still being effective for children.
About Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP:
Leanne calls Austin, Texas home but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained her Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services. You can check out her blog here.