There's a lot of talk about using play to teach young children new concepts and language. And it’s true, children learn best when they are happy and engaged. Play is a great way to introduce new concepts, and I use it every day with my clients. But you’re a busy parent! You might not have time to slow down and simply play with your child, let alone plan out how you are going to help expand his expressive language during that play session. I’m going to let you in on a secret: it’s okay if you don’t play with your child.
But if I don’t play with my child, will it hurt his language development?
No. There are so many opportunities to work on language throughout the day, you just have to know how to tweak them a little bit to get big results. Think about your day, and all the activities you do with your child. Routines that come to mind include mealtime, getting dressed, toileting, bath time, going to the store, cooking, diaper changing, going for a walk, feeding a pet, getting the mail, brushing teeth, and going to bed. Find activities that your child enjoys. If he despises getting his teeth brushed, that’s probably not a good time to work on language learning!
When you first start out, think about just one routine that you can manipulate to focus on language learning. Let’s use mealtime as an example. If you’re putting your toddler in a high chair and plopping his entire meal down on the tray, he won’t need to communicate very much to get what he wants. Try preparing a number of things he likes, cutting them up into small pieces, and holding items out of reach but in view until he communicates to get what he likes. For example, it’s breakfast and you have some toast, a scrambled egg, and an orange. Put your child in his seat, but put the food on a plate in front of you. Give your child choices instead of asking open-ended questions. So instead of “What do you want?,” say “Do you want toast or eggs?” Wait for your child to communicate for what he wants. If for your child, that means he points to the toast and makes a sound, that’s great! Communication is communication. Say “toast” as you give him a little piece. Give small amounts at a time so he has to ask for more. Next time he reaches for the toast, say “more toast” as you give him more. If you are trying sign language with your child, sign the word while you say it.
If your little guy wants the orange, hand him the whole thing and see what he does. He probably can’t open it, but maybe he’ll hold it out and look at you. That’s joint attention, and it’s an important skill for building communication. You can say “Open orange?” and then open it for him. It’s also a great time to model the sign for “open.” After you’ve separated the orange into slices, you’ve created about 10 new opportunities for your child to make a request!
If your child wants something to drink, make sure to give options again (even if you know what he wants)! You know he always wants juice, but hold up the juice and the milk and say the name of each one. Maybe your child will say “ooh” for juice. Wonderful! Maybe your child will reach and look at the juice, then look at you. Amazing. The goal is not perfection, the goal is small improvements every day that lead to big changes over time.
I know it can be a challenge to incorporate language learning activities into a busy schedule. So start small. Pick just one routine and try to increase the opportunities for your child to communicate during that time. If you’re having success and noticing more attempts at communication, try modifying another daily activity.
If you are trying these strategies and your child’s communication skills are not improving, it may be time to reach out to a speech-language pathologist to see if they can help. Find a licensed SLP in your area who specializes in early intervention. And make sure they want to work with both you and your child, because parent involvement and education is vital when it comes to increasing communication.