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Monday, June 2, 2014

Increasing Language Through Play

A lot has been written about using a child’s play to build their language development.  There are formal intervention programs that guide parents and therapists.  And there are and have always been therapists and parents who know that engaging a child in what (s)he likes is the best way to interact with him/her.

The research - especially that of Carol Westby - has shown direct correlations between children’s language and their ability to play symbolically.  
Teaching language and play schemas go hand in hand.  We need for the child to interact with us, to become verbal/linguistic (for aac users) with us, to develop language, and- then- he will converse with us.

**Note here: Whenever I say “verbal” or “talk” please know that I am also including use of AAC as “talking.”  It will be too cumbersome to add that every time. 

A couple of key points to keep in mind: 
1. Don’t talk too much.  Make sure you are not talking all of the time. Make sure you give the child time to respond. 
2. Talk in  a way that matches what the child can do. Then model talking one small step above that. 
3. Reply to whatever the child is doing.  Is he making noise? Is he moving objects in a certain way or place? Make a response to it.  Ascribe meaning to what he is doing and act as if you are responding to some communicative intent. 
4. Enjoy yourself. This should not be work. It is play. For both of you.  Model without demanding.

Many of the kids I’ve worked with have been difficult to engage, and much of what they like to do is solitary and isolating. But even working parallel to a child can provide needed language stimulation.  So much of what we do involves being good models.  Providing the child with models of effective communication.  Providing those models just one step above their current language use.  Using symbolic or referential sounds to accompany their play.

Almost any one of us who has worked with young boys with autism has seen a child who can spend hours lining up cars or trains.  putting them in endless rows.  
Take a car or train of your own and start to move it purposefully, making appropriate sounds along the way.  “Beep,”  “CRASH,” “vroom,”  “chugga chugga.”  
Label them by color, or a simple determiner (that). 
Building with blocks - wooden or Lego - is another favorite activity of many of my kids.  It’s a great way to start to model color names, spatial locations.  I can’t count how many times I’ve simply sat and said, “On top‘ over and over. 
But none of this is fruitless.  And even if the child is not yet engaged with us, input is getting in.  The child is gradually moving from simple requesting to labeling, gaining attention with language, protesting, and even greeting. 
Many other children I’ve worked with engage easily, as long as it’s a preferred activity.  
And what else would I want to do to engage them?   Try providing communication temptations or need situations.  Hold onto an item they want or need, with a quick scaffold or cue for them to make a request (“I want_”), appropriate protest (“No!”), or comment (“I need that,” “Blue there,” - or even just “That” or “Help”). 

Modeling appropriate next steps is key to building language.  One sure fire activity I keep in my arsenal is the dreaded dvd pack.  It has a very convenient remote control, from which I can pause the movie at any time, reduce or increase the volume, or turn it on or off.  How far can I move the child?  “That” becomes “Want that,” or “That one.”  “More” becomes “More movie,” “Want more,” “More that,” “More go,”  Can I offer “Loud,” “No like?”  I can constantly modeling the appropriate language, simply and clearly.  Contextually.  Repeatedly. 

For more verbal and/or interactive children try role playing and integrating favorite toys and characters into games.  What would that character say or do?  Where is the doll going? How should she dress?  “Oh, no, there’s a fire in the block tower!”  Have the fireman put it out.  What does he say? What is he thinking? How does he feel?  

** Now another Note:  If your child/student is using AAC, you have some additional tasks to keep in mind.  Children who use aac frequently do not have the same experiences as other children.  They frequently have not had the same opportunities to access experiences in the environment. They may not have had access to many peers - especially typically developing peers.  Some may be unable to access toys or books. 
Those of us communicating and playing with these children need to remember  
1. to begin our interactions and interventions with these children as early as possible.  Do not listen to those who may tell you the child isn’t ready. 
2. to infuse our play interactions with sensory and language experiences the child may not have had exposure to, 
3. to make sure that the aac system is accessible and has sufficient vocabulary to interact with the child in a variety of play contexts, 
4. and to make sure that access to that aac system is provided all of the time, even when the child is alone, to allow for exploration and language practice. There are many opportunities to build language skills into whatever activity your child engages in.  Just start - or keep - talking.

For  a closer look at Dr. Westby’s developmental scale, see her chapter in this book: IW. O. Haynes & B. B. Shulman (1998) (Eds.) Communication Development: Foundations, Processes, and Clinical Applications. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins

For some more ideas for language in play for this summer, check out this page


  1. Susan, you make so many great points here about encouraging language development 'where kids are' are giving them a model just above that. I love that you give examples of how to do that through play. Much of our Reading Recovery Teacher training was about the importance of oral language. Great post.