Let’s Talk Toys The Gifts that Keep on Giving… Language
The Gifts that Keep on Giving… Language
So, the holidays are over and your child has a pile of new toys. Before you just chalk them up as more things he can do independently (well, almost), let’s take a look at how you can use them to build interaction and communication.
Play is the work of children. They learn so much about the world through play and the exploration of things. Additionally, so many toys are made to represent real-life or daily activities that children can, not only familiarize themselves with but can also “be the boss of.” Children build motor, cognitive, and language skills; they learn problem solving; they learn social interaction.
Children can be great imitators. They will not just watch and listen to what you do with toys, but they will imitate what you do – and what you say. If you talk to your child while you are playing, if you narrate what you are doing, if you comment on what you and your child are doing – you are building language. You are creating opportunities for your child to learn and to use language.
The ‘old fashioned,’ pre-technology toys are some of the best for developing language skills, because they are more open-ended and require some action on the part of the user. But, so many of our kids with special needs prefer the technology with all its bells and whistles. What on earth CAN you do with video games?
Well, keep reading, because I’m going to give you some ideas on how you can use those toys and games to build your child’s language skills. Whether your child has mild difficulties with formulating language and social interactions or he is nonverbal and uses – on occasion – an AAC system, I hope some of these ideas get you playing together in a snap.
As I said, the open-ended play sets and building toys are the most flexible in how they can be used and what kinds of conversations you have. Examples of these include kitchen or house play sets, farm or store or garage sets, building toys from blocks to some of the newer lock-together pieces, themes play sets from pirates to space stations, dolls with accessories that mimic activities of daily living, and others.
Think about what you can do with your child with these. Is there more than one way to play with this toy? Can I have my child give or follow directions? Ask or answer questions? Is there an opportunity for creating dialogue with this toy?
Can my child construct a narrative around what (s)he is doing with the toy’s components? Can my child name/label the toy’s parts or tell the function or action of the pieces?
To decide what language to focus on during play, think about your answers to the questions above. Then think about what your child is able to say now. What should she be able to say next; what’s the next step in language development? If you need help, ask your child’s speech therapist or teacher.
If your child can follow single-step directions, then focus on 2-steps or 2 critical elements (such as ‘the red ball’ or ‘the big red ball,’ instead of just ‘the ball.’
If your child can answer “What” questions, but not “What, Doing, Who or Where” questions, then focus on asking those questions about what the figures are doing or which figure is doing something or which figure is where.
If your child can name objects, but doesn’t use descriptors, ask them to choose one of a group of items, then ask them to tell you which one they have; i.e. “the pink one.” You might have to model it first; “Oh, you picked the pink one.”
If your child uses 2-3 word phrases, then focus on using simple complete sentences; such as, “I like this one,” or “I see the dog,” or “No, don’t do that!” or “Put it here.” Use high frequency words as much as possible rather than object names.
Use temptations and sabotage; two strategies for language stimulation that are two sides of the same coin. With temptations you have something the child wants but can’t access. You might even play with it yourself, but keep it out of reach. When the child is tempted by what you have and wants access to it,
he will need to communicate that to you. Take this opportunity to rephrase what he says into a more acceptable or ‘next step’ form.
With sabotage you deliberately make a mistake, get the wrong toy, hold the book up-side-down, provide something in a clear container the child can’t open independently, or in some other way engineer the environment so that the child needs to communicate to you in order to gain access to what he or she wants.
Here are some more specific examples for popular toys:
- Receptive – Ask the child to find a block of a specific color or shape.
- Expressive – Ask the child to tell you the color or shape; to describe the block.
- Receptive – Ask the child to put a block in a specific location (on top, next to, etc.).
- Expressive – Ask the child to tell you where to put a block, or where he is going to put the next block.
- Receptive – Ask the child to follow a multiple critical element direction; such as ‘put the big red block on top of this one,’ or ‘find the round blue block.’
- Expressive – Ask the child to tell you what he is doing; which one is picking and where it is going? Have him describe or narrate his actions
- Receptive – Ask a specific Wh question, where the child can point to the answer
- Expressive – Ask a specific Wh-question that the child needs to answer verbally
- Expressive – Tell me about what you built
Play building of any type (house, farm, fire station, etc.):
- Receptive – Ask child to get a specific named object or figure.
- Expressive – Ask what object or figure the child wants you to get.
- Receptive – Ask him to find a figure based on description or location
- Expressive – Ask him to describe a figure in the set
- Receptive – Ask the child to put something in a specified location (‘Put the baby in the bed.’)
- Expressive – Ask the child to tell you where he is putting something.
- Receptive – Ask, “Can you make [figure] do X?” where X is an action.
- Expressive – Ask child to tell you what a figure is doing.
- Receptive – Ask the child to follow a multiple step or multiple critical elements direction with the figures or object in the play set; such as, ‘put the black sheep inside the barn,’ or, ‘put the sheep in the barn and the cow behind the barn,’
- Expressive – Ask the child to tell you what he is doing as he plays with the figures and pieces.
Have him create a narrative of what he is doing.
- Receptive – Ask Wh-questions that can be answered by pointing or demonstrating with the play set pieces.
- Expressive – Ask a Wh-question to be answered verbally.
- Expressive – Have the child create a narrative or story about the play set and what he did.
Cars and trucks:
- Receptive – Follow directions
- Expressive – Answer Wh questions; such as Where are you going? What color car do you want? Who is in the car?
- Receptive – Understand concepts of fast/slow, up/down, straight/curvy or straight/turn, etc.
- Expressive – Give directions
- Expressive – Make car/truck/train/
- Balls of all types can be used in many way; not just for a specific game. Even a football can be used multiple ways.
- Receptive – understand ‘you’ and ‘me’ and take turns
- Expressive – use pronouns
- Receptive – follow directions: who to throw it to; whether to throw, roll, or bounce; where to put it
- Expressive – give directions
- Expressive – label colors
- Receptive – recognize colors by name
- Expressive – comment about the game
- Expressive – use pronouns I, you, me, him, her
- Receptive – follow directions
- These are a bit harder. Apps often seem to be interactive only for the user, and many times the user doesn’t want any interference.
- Take a look at the structure of the app.
- What can you find to comment about?
- To describe?
- What questions can you ask?
- Can you ask your child to describe how the game is played or what the story is?
- Can you have the child move items or people around in the app?
Videos or other on-screen activities:
- Expressive – answer What doing or What’s happening questions
- Expressive – tell how to play
- Receptive – follow directions for playing
- Receptive – choose an item or figure by description
- Expressive – describe the character/item
- Expressive – comment about what’s happening
Any toy or game can be used to build vocabulary and concepts. All have unique objects and actions inherent in the play. Whether your child can verbally tell you a story about what he is playing with when using just some scaffolding or is an AAC user, just beginning to build core word use, take advantage of the holiday bounty of toys and games, and go build language!
Susan Berkowitz has been a speech-language pathologist for over 40 years, working primarily with augmentative-alternative communication. She is the author of “Make the Connection!: A Practical Guide to Parents and Practitioners for Teaching the Nonverbal Child to Communicate – with AAC”. firstname.lastname@example.org
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This post originally appeared on our January/February 2020 Magazine