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Nurturing children's play skills, in support of communication development, is not just for speech-language therapists and educators. With the right tools, parents and caregivers can play a pivotal role in the development of their child's play and language skills. As discussed in last month's article, a child with solid play skills is well-equipped to make strides in the areas of communication, social skills, social-emotional development, cognition, and more. Over the years, many parents have shared with me that although they understand the value of play, they aren't sure where to start. As a result, many have asked, how do I help my child develop strong play skills? How can I become more involved in my child's play times? And, how can I use play to support my child’s development?
See below for a list of highly effective tips and strategies for supporting play and communication:
1) 1) Follow your child’s lead
Go with your child’s interests and motivation. If he or she loves trains, then start out playing with trains. The idea here is to join alongside kids in their play experiences, rather than trying to get them on an adult’s agenda. If your child sees that you are joining in the fun, the stage is set for interactive play exchanges that promote communication development. Don’t feel pressure to show your child exactly the “right way” to play with a toy, especially in the beginning. Instead, try saying, “Hmm…it looks like you have an idea. Let’s see what happens…” Giving kids time to make their own discoveries during play facilitates independent exploration, problem-solving, creativity, and makes for many language opportunities.
2) 2) Use simple, concrete language that is accessible to your child
As adults, we tend to use lengthy, complex sentences and more advanced vocabulary. Often, we need to pare down our language when speaking to children to support their comprehension. This also makes our language models more accessible to kids who are developing imitation skills. You can start out simply by using language to narrate what your child is doing. For example, “I see you are making a tall tower with those blocks. Nice job!” or “You are cooking food in your kitchen. That looks yummy.” By narrating what your child is doing, you send the message that you are enjoying watching his or her play ideas unfold. As your child becomes open to interacting with you during play, you can use other language strategies as well. Some examples include:
-Expansions (ex. “That’s right, that’s a giraffe. The giraffe has a long neck.”)
-Modeling (ex. “You can say, ‘more blocks, please.’”)
-Comments (ex. “Uh oh, the tower fell down!”)
-Questions (ex. “What are you cooking?” or “Where did the elephant go?”)
(Please note, the above language strategies are general examples, but check in with your child’s teacher or SLP for ideas that are individualized to your child’s age, level, and specific needs.)
3) 3) Get face to face
Getting down on your child’s level can be very helpful in establishing interactive play. If you can, sit on the floor or pull up a chair next to your child’s play table. Often, simply positioning yourself in a way that makes you more accessible during play time lets your child know you want to be involved. Being face to face with adults, kids are more likely to attend to language, take in facial expressions, follow directions, and respond to nonverbal cues.
4) 4) Focus on one toy at a time
Focusing on one toy or activity at a time facilitates attention skills and creates sustained opportunities for interaction and communication. For example, 10-15 minutes spent playing with a pretend picnic set lends itself easily to a variety of language-building goals such as, labeling vocabulary, responding to questions, and sequencing events. Depending on your child’s age, he or she may be spending more or less than 10 minutes playing with one toy and that is okay. However, keeping toy areas well-organized is important. If there are toys your child no longer plays with, take these out of view into storage or give them away. Kids tend to play optimally when they aren’t overwhelmed by too many choices. They are also less likely to get distracted by another toy if clutter is minimized.
5) 5) Keep it simple
Many toys these days come with too much going on. Limit the number of toys that have sounds, lights, and screens. These toys often do too much of the playing for kids, rather than involving them in active symbolic play. For example, if your child has a fire engine that makes all of those life-like sounds already, then he or she is less likely to try to make these sounds independently. You can also consider rotating the availability of toys, especially if there are many options. This keeps play time feeling fresh and, again, cuts down on clutter. Encourage your child to make choices during daily routines as well. For example, choosing 2-3 toys for bath time rather than playing with all of them every night.
6) 6) Keep it short
Playing with your child doesn’t have to go on all afternoon or evening. There is plenty of value in the times that he or she is playing independently while you make dinner or send out some emails nearby. Especially when you are first trying out these play strategies, have a goal in mind of 5-10 minutes of interactive play. This way, both you and your child won’t feel overwhelmed or pressured. Don’t be afraid to take a break or suggest to your child shifting to a different toy or activity, if you feel it isn’t working.
7) 7) Reduce background noise
Pay attention to background noise. Is the television on in the other room? Are there electronic toys creating an intermittent hum or buzz after your child is finished playing with them? While as adults most of us are able to tune into important information amongst a sound-filled backdrop, young children are often still learning to manage auditory stimuli. For a few minutes a day, just making the effort to cut back on a single noise distraction, can have a positive effect on communication and play. Kids are more likely to fully “tune in” to a playful moment with you, if there are fewer noise distractions in their environment.
8) 8) Have fun!
Sometimes, there is nothing more powerful for a child than seeing an adult act like a kid. It becomes even more meaningful when that adult is a parent, a grandparent, a babysitter, or other key figure in his or her life. Being silly and spontaneous during your child’s play time creates a sense of wonder, curiosity, and connectedness that goes beyond what any structured learning activity can accomplish. In these very real moments, you establish a context in which you and your child can approach an endless variety of skills, including, but not at all limited to speech-language development.
I hope the above strategies will guide you on your play journeys with your kids. Remember, that above all, play should be about connecting with others and having a great time. Once you feel confident in these strategies, be sure to check in with your child’s teacher or SLP on specific learning or communication goals that you can incorporate into play times. As an active participant in your child’s development, you can make a huge difference in carrying over and solidifying many emerging skills.