By Maria Clark, MS, CCC-SLP

RLMC Speech Therapist

Language development is one of the most important skill a child learns, and the best way for them to do this is through play.  When children play with other children and adults, they learn how to get along with others, to problem solve, increases attention, and how to communicate and use language effectively.  Through play, children learn nouns (the names of things), verbs (what objects do or action words), and how to describe the various items they come in contact with.  They learn to explore objects and see how they feel, where you can put them, and how big or small they are.  Play face to face with your child – be involved, not an observer.  Play that your child’s level and share the activity while talking about what you and your child are doing during play.  Play should be active and allows children to use words to take turns. 

Play and language develop along a similar path.  As a child grows, play also develops, and language becomes more complex.  For babies, play means banging objects together, putting objects in their mouth, and examining items.  For toddles, play means building with blocks, pushing cars, and blowing bubbles.  For preschoolers, play means pretending to feed a doll, talk on a toy phone to grandma, and pretending to cook. 

Play and routines are great times to build language, and parents can often find opportunities that are motivating for their children.  Motivation and interest are key because children are much more likely to participate and communicate.  Make a game out of dressing by playing Peek-a-boo and naming clothing items and body parts.  Using kitchen utensils can be used to hide objects and gives the opportunity to learn the words “in,” “on,” “under.”  Making a game out of snack time can assist in learning about categories of food such as fruits and vegetables, names of food and how to describe different foods (examples how the food smells, tastes, the color, shape, etc.).

Four ways to facilitate language growth in the home:

  1. Play
    • Play the way your child is playing and imitate what they are doing.
    • If you had a plan, don’t be afraid to change it to focus on the child’s interests.
    • Use fun sounds, words, and gestures to go with what you’re doing (e.g., “beep beep” when playing with cars, “pop” when popping bubbles, “yummy/mmm” and rubbing your stomach when pretending to eat play food).
  2. Get silly
    • Repeat actions they think are funny
    • Switch up routines in a silly way (e.g., “forget” their favorite bath toy, give them a fork with their yogurt).  This encourages language when your child notices and wants to tell you something is different.
    • Change song lyrics or words in stories to be about your child, their interests and/or what is happening around you in the moment
  3. Pause
    • Slowing sing familiar nursery rhymes and songs and then pause at key words to encourage them to fill in a word or gesture.
    • Pause a familiar activity, such as pushing a swing, and wait for them to ask you to continue using words or gestures (e.g., “more,” “again,” “go”).
    • When looking for a response, stop talking, lean forward and look at them expectantly.  You can slowly count to 10 silently, which gives the child time to respond.
  4. Expand
    • When your child uses 1-2 words, turn it into a short sentence.  For example, if they say “up” wanting you to pick them up, you could say, “Okay, I’ll pick you up.”
    • Be sure to use correct grammar when expanding their message, even if your child is still using immature grammar. For example, if your child says “wawa” when they want water, you can respond “Okay, lets gets some water.”
    • Use a variety of words (e.g., describing words, action words, words for feelings, location words, etc.). Start with words your child would want to say to talk about the things they are interested in.

Many of these ideas are things you may already be doing throughout the day, but it is good to think about how doing so helps your child learn to understand and use language. If you feel that your child may be behind in their language understanding or production, talk to your Primary Care doctor and get a speech referral.  If therapy is warranted, your speech-language pathologist can make recommendations specific to your child and family and show you how to best encourage language growth in the home environment.

For more information on how our Therapy and Wellness team can assist you, please call 218-283-5420 or visit