Thinking of Play as the Avenue to Grow Speech and Language
Playing is one of the most important ways for children to learn and this is no different in early language development. In addition to supporting language and communication development, play also has a plethora of other positives; it also shapes growth with social skills, cognition, problem solving and reasoning, and flexible or imaginative thinking. Before children ever learn how to hold a conversation, have a friend, pick up a paper and pencil, or read a book, they know how to play…and this is their key to learning.
By recognizing the value of play, as parents, we can strategically enhance our children’s early language development by making sure they have the right types of play opportunities. Here are some ideas of how to play with your little ones in ways that enhance learning and how to shape early language development.
- Slow down and pay attention to the everyday moments. Play doesn’t have to happen with toys. Simple interaction with your little ones can count as play too. Toddlers learn the most during everyday moments, when you’re shopping for groceries with them in tow, taking a walk outside, changing their diapers, feeding them, dressing them, etc.
During these moments, slow down and talk to them about what you’re doing and their role in the event. (E.g. “I’m putting your shoes on,” or “Eat the yogurt with the spoon.”). When you narrative what you are doing, this is known as self-talk; you can even narrate what your child is doing to continue to expose them to valuable language in the moment. Make sure you speak slowly enough so they can understand what’s happening. Consider emphasizing the nouns, verbs, and descriptive words to call attention to these new vocabulary items (E.g. “I see apples,” or “We put in the cookies,”). This is how your little one will learn new words and sentences.
- Direct your face toward your child. Whether you’re playing with toys or enjoying everyday moments, make sure you have your child’s attention when you’re speaking. Speaking to your child when his back is turned or when he’s distracted won’t have the same impact on his learning. Kneel down to his eye level, look him in the eye, and speak slowly so he can understand you while allowing him to watch your mouth as you pronounce words or to see your facial expressions, too.
- Language development isn’t all about numbers, colors and shapes. It’s common for parents to think that children first learning to talk must learn colors, shapes, and numbers quickly. While some may think it’s impressive to hear a child of 2 ½ count to 50 or say the alphabet, this shouldn’t be the focus if your child is lacking more functional words and vocabulary.
The most important thing for your child in early toddler years is to learn how to communicate about her surroundings and communicate her basic needs. Then, focus on numbers, colors, etc. If numbers and shapes make their way into play organically, great…but don’t force it.
- Choose non-electronic toys. Toys that play music, say the names of shapes and colors, and speak to your child are fun, but they aren’t the best for speech development. Why? Because the toy does more mental heavy lifting than your child does. Of course, toys don’t “think”, but they sometimes prevent your child from having to think. With the toy speaking, lighting up, and saying the words your child needs to learn, there’s nothing left to give your child the motivation he needs to think and act on his own.
Remember, too, the iPad doesn’t count as a “toy” because it’s often used as a solitary activity and doesn’t require much language use by a child; research also supports limited screen time for little ones (stay tuned for a future blog on these topics and how to use the iPad in ways that can promote language).
- Question, don’t interrogate. We all ask our children questions as a method of teaching them. However, instead of asking your child many questions, one after another, make sure you share information first and ask questions that react to what your child is saying. It should be a back and forth between you and your child while interacting, with a nice mix of both comments and questions.
For instance, asking your child what a cat says, then what sound a truck makes, then what animal your child sees outside, then what color the ball is, one after the other, can be overwhelming. This interrogation style of questioning can cause a child to shut down. Instead, incorporate questions into conversation balanced with comments too, like you would with any adult. A great rule of thumb is to add 2-3 pieces of information for every 1 question that you want to ask.
For instance… (refer to the language technique in [ ] brackets)…
Child: (Pointing to the cat) “Cat!”
Parent: “Yes, I see a cat. He is so fluffy! What does the cat say?” [REPEAT/EXPAND WHAT YOUR CHILD SAYS; COMMENT; QUESTION]
Parent: “Yes! Great job! The cat says ‘meow’!” [PRAISE; REPEAT/EXPAND WHAT YOUR CHILD SAYS]
Child: (As the cat jumps onto the couch) “Cat up!”
Parent: “Right, the cat is jumping up onto the couch. Hmm, I wonder what color the couch is?” [EXPAND YOUR CHILD’S UTTERANCE; INDIRECT QUESTION]
Parent: “Yes, the couch is brown! It looks comfortable! Do you think the couch soft or hard?” [REPEAT/EXPAND WHAT YOUR CHILD SAYS; COMMENT; QUESTION WITH A CHOICE]
Child: “Couch soft!”
The above type of conversation is much better than, this type…
Parent: “What color is the car?” [QUESTION]
Parent: “Does the car go fast?” [QUESTION]
Child: (No answer)
Parent: “Is the car hard or soft?” [QUESTION]
Child: (No answer)
Parent: (Pointing to the wheel) “What’s this?? What color is it?” [QUESTION]
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