Play therapy is commonly used to foster a child’s speech and language skills. As a parent, under the guidance of a speech and language professional, you can support your child’s communication development during play as they continue through their long developmental journey.
There are 4 types of play:
Exploratory: Exploring toys
Relational: Using two objects together
Functional: Playing with toys as their intended function
Symbolic: Pretend play, using symbols in play
The good thing about play therapy is that your child can have fun during engagement. Additionally, you don’t need an abundance of objects/toys to use. A few objects and you are on the road to helping your child with playing towards increased communication.
As a parent, you first want to think about your child’s favourite toys. Parent-led therapy just like traditional speech and language therapy should focus on the objects the child enjoys the most, as the first steps of communicating are attention and engagement. Motivation is what drives the process.
5 ways to incorporate play therapy into day-to-day:
Based on the skill that you want your child to develop on their journey towards optimising their day-to-day interactions!
If you are working on encouraging your child to develop their social skills, play is a great opportunity to develop turn taking. Staying on topic, using body language to communicate their needs and emotions, and attending to you, using both verbal and non verbal communication. An example of how to make this actionable, is to take their favourite object/(s) or game and allow your child to engage with you. If you are using their favourite toy cars and building blocks for a track, you can sit with them and model appropriate body language while facing them. Make sure you are sitting within eye length of them, so they can initiate eye contact. Once you are facing each other, you can facilitate playing with a toy car and allowing it to go on the building blocks and you can build the tracks together in parallel play. If the child tries to get up and go away from the game, you can allow them some time to come back by reminding them that they will get to choose their favourite car. Always use wait time/pausing to help the child initiate their turn when they seem to be reluctant. It is usually a better option than telling them to “take a turn!” Once you are finished placing the car on the tracks and moving it back and forth with a destination in mind, they can then have a turn with their car and see how far it goes. In this competitive set up, you both can take turns moving the toy car and see who can reach the destination quickest! Remember that their body language should include looking at you when confused, facing you to engage and using facial expressions when frustrated or excited. You can show the child with your own body what they can do when you see they are being frustrated based on their body language. You have just worked on attending to task, turn taking, and using body language to communicate appropriately. Congratulations!
If you are working on expanding language with your child, play can be a great opportunity for this growth. It provides a lot of modelling opportunities for you as a parent, but your child will be more likely to be motivated and engaged to communicate, while utilising their favourite toys and games! If your child likes to work in the “kitchen”, you can have food items or visuals available. You want your child to start engaging with these food items by communicating with them in a more meaningful way. In order to get from “red apple” to a more complete sentence. You can work alongside your child, and say “Oh, I see a red apple, what do you see? The child may then respond with “red apple” again. In this case, you can use a sentence starter and model for them “I see a…” and let them fill it in and repeat the sentence in completion!
You are working on getting your child to increase their ability to follow more complex directions. Play is the perfect format for this! You know your child loves to “make cupcakes.” Take out the cupcake components, and the toppings. You can do this with any food, but desserts are a great opportunity. Build it with them, but first… start by telling them that they are going to build a cupcake. You can proceed to ask them what components are needed to make the cupcake. If they are unsure, you can tell them “we will need eggs, sugar, flour, a bowl and a mixer”. Preliminary directives will include telling them to “go wash their hands and come back". Keep directions simple. You are now ready to make the cupcake, it has come out of the “oven”. They can now add toppings to their cupcake. You can continue to guide them by telling them “take the cupcake out of the oven, let it cool, and put on toppings. This interactive tactile activity that requires you to show them how you follow the directives as needed will allow them to increase their capacity for processing directives coming in. Vocabulary was targeted indirectly since so many words are needed in the involvement of making the cupcake. Job well done!
You are working on your child’s attention. Many children will display challenges in this area. The first step while engaging is to limit distractions in the environment. TV off! Gestures and non verbal communication may be helpful. For example, you are working on putting a puzzle together. Make sure that you have given them the steps for putting the puzzle pieces together so they can transition from one step to another. The child can then be drawn into creating the puzzle by facing them and looking at them as you take a puzzle piece and add it in. Once they know the beginning and end point of the puzzle piece creation, you can start putting the pieces together. Let them have a turn and if they are not engaging turn to them and bring the puzzle to them. As they continue to complete the puzzle, they will be sustaining attention. The goal is to increase the duration of their attention and starting out small in shorter durations will assist with this.
You are working on specific speech sounds that your child is having difficulty producing. Play will incorporate words with target sounds in the objects, toys or games that you are using. For example, take Mr. Potato Head - a true classic that has held up for this generation of children. They get to build this Mr or Mrs Potato Head and you are being mindful of the sound/(s) they are having difficulty with. You want your child to get better at producing the /b/ sound, an early developing sound. As you build Mr or Mrs Potato Head, think about all the “b” sounds in the initial position of words. There are “bones", a “body”, a “back", maybe you throw him a ball. The list goes on. Before you start the activity, model the “b” sound either with your own articulators/mouth or by showing them how to move their mouth, lips, jaw, and tongue respectively - a video model can go a long way for the both of you. Then as you build Mr or Mrs Potato Head, ask them for words of objects they are using or actions they are taking. For example, point to Mr. Potato Head’s back and say “look at that, we have his/her..”. If the child produces “back” incorrectly, you can model how to move their mouth for the correct pronunciation of “b”. Continue with this way of questioning as you go through different words. Make sure you have a mirror out so the child can see what they are doing.
In conclusion, don’t underestimate the force and impact of play on your child’s speech and language development. Don’t think about their age, but think about if and how play will motivate them. In fact, some individuals will engage in some form of play through adulthood!