Talk & Play With Your Child – Creating Learning Opportunities During Playtime

  • Talk & Play With Your Child

    Creating Learning Opportunities During Playtime

    Patti Hamaguchi, M.A., CCC-SLP

    Joshua is an adorable six-year old boy who has been working hard on improving his joint attention and play skills. His parents are understandably thrilled that he is recently using toys and objects more appropriately. Instead of stacking toy animals or chewing on them, he is now moving his horse like a real horse across the floor. However, if we watch Joshua carefully, we will notice that he is fairly silent while he is playing, and it is done in a fairly solitary way.

    Playing with characters and pretending they have human-like qualities is part of imaginative play and it is often a struggle for children on the autism spectrum and a necessary skill to developing social interactions with other children. We often work so hard on the more obvious aspects of teaching language (wh questions, pronouns, verbs, etc) but forget that play has it’s own lingo and rhythm, and for children on the spectrum, these skills typically need direct teaching.  That is why one of the skills we check when we do our speech-language assessment is how a child interacts and talks with others while playing.


     So where does one start?

    Have some good toys!

    Imaginative play requires some well-chosen items to use as props. Start with a traditional farm set, playhouse, stuffed animals, puppets, dolls, and action figures or even dinosaurs. Other play sets include cash register, doll stroller, shopping cart, and doctor set. Have some dress up items such as, hats, costumes, and masks in your child’s play area. Legos, Lincoln Logs, and other building materials can be used to create an environment for pretend play scenarios. Try to get a sense of which ones your child has some interest in and start there.


    Model the right “play words” and actions that go with toys: 

    •           Exclamations: Uh-oh! Oh no! Oops! Wow!

    •           Imitation: Even if your child isn’t ready to come up with novel language, model the type of language that can go with a particular action and let your child imitate. Some examples: “Yum… this hay is good!” “Thanks for the corn!  Thanks for the water!”

    •           Make the character talk and use “I” phrases: “I’m hungry!” “I’m a lion…roar!” I’m tired…I’m going to sleep now!” I want some corn please.”

    •           Plan your play ideas: Negotiating roles and assigning toy items is part of a play date. Work on the idea that each child can have input and ideas but remember to also teach the words to express that: “I have an idea…How about you are the monkey (hand/point to the monkey) and I’m the elephant. Is that ok with you?”

    •           Change voices, pitch and volume: Modulating one’s voice is a real sign of getting into character—a great introduction to the concept of perspective-taking. Your child can “become” the character and talk and think like the character and so should you! So a pig will make an oink sound and talk “like a pig”, a baby sounds like a baby, and an old man sounds old too!

    •           Greetings: Work on simple greetings such as “Hi lion!” in character—so the cat meows and says it in a cat voice, etc.

    •           Work on getting the character’s attention: As your child moves his character around, work on having it simply turn around and say, “What?” or “Yes?” when your characters calls its name. E.g., “Mr. Elephant…?”   (child) “What?” as it turns around and faces yours.

    •           Hold and move the characters: Parents often tell us that their child “plays” with stuffed animals, but in actuality the play often entails swinging it around or chewing on the tail instead of moving it and personifying it. Other times, the child is talking to us (“I’m a monkey. Can I have a banana?”) but the monkey is on its lap and not part of the conversation, let along interacting with our character. Use hand-over-hand practice to show your child how to make the characters face your character and simulate walking. When the character talks, move it slightly. If it’s a puppet, open and close the mouth. Body position and physical orientation/proximity to others modeled by toys is another super way to reinforce these concepts and role-play!

    Work on back and forth dialogue between characters: Put out some play food. Your character announces, “Boy I’m hungry!”. Here’s where you can help your child learn to respond. In the beginning, it can be as simple as giving your character something to eat. Model saying, “Here’s a banana!” or simply, “!” Silently handing the food is a start, but the goal here is to pair the play with talking. Your character thanks his character, “Wow, thanks! I love bananas!”  Your character can wonder out loud. “I am looking for the horse…” Work on having your child listen and respond/react to what your character is saying rather than moving away and silently amusing himself with the toys.

    Repetitive play scenarios are ok, but…

    Your child may want to repeat play dialogues and plots over and over. That is all right in the beginning. Go with it. It is predictable and comfortable, and the nature of play is it should be enjoyable. But for every time you repeat a play scenario (e.g., “the birthday party” or “You get sick and go to the doctor”) you will want to make sure you keep pushing the envelope to also include a new one so it does not get bogged down into a very rote exercise. In other words, if your child already knows what your character is going to do and say every time, listening goes out the window and when an actual child comes over to play and doesn’t follow the “script” your child may fuss or not be able to have the necessary flexibility to make the playing work.

    Suggestion: Stay away from vehicles such as trains, cars, and buses if possible in the beginning because it is often hard for children to integrate them into the stories without abandoning the characters and getting overly focused on the vehicles. So for our purposes in facilitating imaginative play, try to avoid them in the beginning.

    Work backwards if needed!

    If your child is not quite ready for interactive play and talking, consider taking a little step back and strengthening the foundations of more basic play skills. One of my favorite supports for this is a terrific video series: Start with Volume 1 and work your way through the series. This video series helps support the language that might go with routine play/toys. The children will watch it over and over, and it gives the important repetition that is needed and sometimes too hard for us to find the time to do.

    Remember that play time creates many opportunities for building your child’s speech. With practice, you can turn your everyday interactions with your child into learning experiences.


    Patti Hamaguchi, M.A., CCC-SLP is a licensed speech-language pathologist and the Director at Hamaguchi & Associates Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologists Inc., (Cupertino) and the CEO of Hamaguchi Apps for Speech, Language & Auditory Development. She is the author of Childhood Speech, Language & Listening Problems: What Every Parent Should Know, A Meta- cognitive Program for Treating Auditory Processing Problems, and It’s Time to Listen.


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