The Power of Play

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

As a speech-language pathologist, I often get asked which iPad apps, DVDs, and flashcards are the “must have tools” to help young children learn language.  The short answer?  None.

The long answer?  The single most effective way to help children learn about their world, including learning language, is through PLAY.   The benefits of play are wide-ranging, covering physical, emotional and cognitive domains.  When children play, they are learning new concepts, learning how objects feel and move, and building their imagination.  Play also allows for learning crucial pre-language skills such as joint attention, eye contact, turn-taking, and referencing.   When we play, read books, or sing with our children, adding simple language to the play that is going on, we are providing them with the key to learning language in a fun and interactive way.

Creative, imaginative play also builds children’s self-regulation skills.  Self-regulation is the ability to control our impulses, either by stopping an action that we want to do, (e.g. not reaching for that second serving of dessert), or by starting an action even if we don’t want to (e.g. going for a run).  A child’s self-regulation skills are linked to academic success at all levels of schooling and this link carries over into success in adulthood as well.  The problem we are facing in our current digital age is that more and more children are spending more and more time in front of a screen, and less time playing.

So, to those well-intentioned parents I say: The best tool to help your child learn language and be successful in school and beyond is not found in an app, DVD, or set of flashcards.  It requires no fancy equipment (other than a bit of imagination).  It does not cost anything, and is available right now wherever you may be; and it’s a whole lot of fun.  So get out and PLAY!

Slow and steady wins the race

I decided to begin this blog with some reflections on how this phrase has proven true time and time again in my own life as well as in the lives of the families that I work with. It seems that we are always battling time. If you are the parent of a child with a speech delay, it can feel like there are so many sounds to tackle. If you are the parent of a child with autism, it can feel like there are so many areas to develop, that a sense of urgency and panic can overwhelm you. If you are the parent of a child who is not yet talking or has limited language, it can feel uncertain as you constantly wonder whether you will ever be able to have a normal conversation. Even as a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), I often feel overwhelmed. When a child sees me for the first time and is completely unintelligible, I see a clock ticking. Where do we begin? Can we make enough progress? Will this child be ready for kindergarten? How fast can we move? And the list goes on and on.

So, I am learning to put the brakes on. And I encourage the families that I work with to do the same. I have discovered that when you stop using some static timeline to which a child must adhere to, change will happen. This is the irony in what we do as SLPs. Too often, the faster we want change, the slower it happens. Yet, when we take the time to do a thorough assessment, make an accurate diagnosis, include parents/caregivers to create realistic goals, and trust that development will occur if we gently and strategically help it along its way, change does happen.

But this need for speed is all around us. It is our culture. We have been so focused on preparing children for the school system that we have forgotten that typical development presents us with a framework, steps to guide us along the right path. Children with speech/language delays need time to move and make change. And this is the beauty of what we do as SLPs. No, we do not follow a cookbook when treating a child with a speech or language disorder. It is dynamic – it is sometimes trial and error, but we always use the child’s current level of functioning as our guide and in the back of our minds we are combining theory, knowledge of typical development, evidence from research, and clinical judgment. At times, it is not easy – but it is worth it. There is nothing greater than seeing a child win the race.

More is not necessarily more

A recent article by Lauren Lowry from Then Hanen Centre® got me thinking about the concept of more.

With regards to child development, many parents and professionals often view more as a good thing when trying to expand their child’s language. More therapy, more books, more extracurricular activities, more play dates, more of anything language related should in theory result in a child having a larger vocabulary, as well as a better head start for school. But, this article suggests that while parents should repeat common words frequently during the toddler years (quantity), it is important that they move towards quality during the preschool years. During the preschool years, children have learned many common words and are ready for more sophisticated words. Here are some ways to improve the quality of language input when communicating with your child:

  • Create new experiences with your child – Allow your child to join in while you are baking/cooking or working on a project. Comment on what you are doing and allow your child to participate when able. Try and incorporate a few new words, repeating them in different contexts and sentence structures. Think about going beyond just object names – you could use action words, describing words, or questions.
  • Follow your child’s lead during play. Research has shown the importance of joint attention that focuses on children’s interests rather than requiring children to refocus their attention. This means that children will learn a word more readily when their attention is directed at a particular object/situation than when an adult requires them to shift their attention to something else (that the adult may find interesting!).
  • Consider who your child communicates with – The Developmental Psychologist Vygotsky used the term ‘zone of proximal development’ to describe where children learn best. With respect to language, children will learn language best if their communicative partner uses language that is slightly beyond their current level. For example, if a 3 year old is speaking in 3-4 word sentences, a parent or caregiver may use sentences that are 5-6 words in length.

Is two the new ten?

I have spoken to several parents of young children with speech/language delays who are getting mixed messages about the nature of language development. Our culture seems to be placing more and more emphasis on academic readiness and static learning – such as letter naming, matching, reading, and labeling flash cards. While teaching these skills is not inherently ‘bad’, we need to be cognizant of the fact that children learn language best when they see it function in the moment, particularly during the early years (toddlers, preschoolers).  Language is itself a social construct that helps people build conversation, share ideas and emotions, and direct the attention of others. Toddlers, for example, are beginning to build conversation when they point out things in their environment to direct a caregiver’s attention.

And the good news is that facilitating language development was never meant to be so complicated. Instead of opting for fancy computer games, talking books, apps on your iphone, or flashcards, here are some ideas to enhance your child’s language during everyday routines and interactions.

  • Offer your child choices during snacks or activities (e.g., Do you want crackers or cheese?)
  • Give your child a reason to communicate (e.g., Put a desired toy in sight but out of reach)
  • Spend some time playing face to face with your child, showing an interest in what they are doing or looking at. Try to minimize questions or direct the play. Use language to comment on what you or your child are doing (e.g., Uh oh the blocks crashed!).
  • Use language that your child could imitate if he/she wanted to – instead of speaking in long, complicated sentences, try reducing your phrase length and repeating key words frequently (while ensuring that your sentences are still grammatically correct).