As a speech-language pathologist for more than 27 years, I have had the privilege of working with many parents in helping their children acquire speech and language skills. One of the first questions parents ask me is often, “what is therapy going to be like?” The answer is simple. Play or more specifically, play with a purpose!
Cognitive, speech and language, and social skills are all developed through the facilitation of functional and symbolic play skills. Functional play is defined as playing with toys the way they were intended, such as rolling a ball or stacking blocks. Symbolic play involves the use of pretend play, such as pretending there is food in a bowl when feeding a doll or stuffed animal.
There are many different ways parents can purposely play with their children to aid in speech and language development:
- Choose toys that don’t necessarily have all the “bells and whistles”. Simple, classic toys are my favorite therapy tools! I rarely use toys that require batteries. While manufacturers have designed toys that make every imaginable sound, I prefer to let my patients use their voices to make sounds. So…. scrap the batteries!
- Start with simple, functional play, as this is what children learn before they learn symbolic play. Stack simple wooden blocks with your child. Roll a ball back and forth. Encourage anticipation and expectation when playing. You can hesitate before rolling the ball to your child, waiting for a look, gesture, or word to indicate that he or she wants you to “do” something. This is great for socialization and turn taking.
- As your child masters functional play, move into symbolic play. Instead of just rolling a toy car back and forth, start making “car noises” and “crash sounds”. You can then take pretend people and put them into the cars, and talk about where they are going. Are they going to school? Are they going to the store?
- Choose toys that can mimic real life. Children learn by observing everyday routines. Child-sized household toys are a great way to teach function as well as encourage pretend play! Play kitchens placed in your kitchen allow your child to observe you and imitate you by stirring pots, pretending to feed babies, and wash dishes. As your child develops, you can add pretend food or play-doh to the play items, which will increase the complexity of the play skills.
- Toys such as play houses or farms are great for developing play skills. Animal sounds are often precursors for animal names. The family members that are included in play houses can “talk” to each other. Children can rehearse everyday routines, such as eating dinner, taking a bath, and then putting baby to bed when playing with pretend people.
- Puzzles are a great way to build attention to task, following directions, matching, and vocabulary. Many wooden puzzles are designed by category such as farm animals, zoo animals, cars, or colors. This helps with organization skills. You can ask your child to put specific items in a puzzle, and then build on that. For example, you could start by saying, “put the apple in,” and then add complexity by saying, “put the apple in first, and then put the banana in.”
When it comes to playing with your child, the sky is the limit. You and your child are bound only by the limits of your imagination! Have fun! Be silly! Most importantly, enjoy your child. As Fred Rogers said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” I think this perfectly sums up why play is so very important to your child’s development.
Learn more about Woman’s pediatric speech therapy services.