Children communicate in many ways before they ever speak their first true word! During the early stages of communication, a child may communicate using eye contact, joint attention, crying or protesting, or pulling an adult’s hand. Parents, caregivers, and therapists can build upon a child’s current level of communication to help them expand their skills. Remember, children learn through play! Here are some ways we can do so:
Manipulate the Environment: When your child has access to all of their favorite toys and activities, they may not be motivated to communicate because they can meet their wants and needs independently. We can encourage children to communicate by creating communicative temptations. Place highly desired items in sight but out of reach of children so they need to communicate in some way to get their desired item. Your child will have to request assistance by looking at the item, pulling a parent to the item, pointing to the item, signing for the item, or verbally requesting the item. All of these are means of communication and should be acknowledged.
- Place highly desired items on a high shelf that your child can see but not reach.
- Put highly desired items in clear bins with lids that child is unable to open.
- Put highly desired items in clear bags that the child is unable to unzip. (Zipped delicate laundry bags work great!)
Use Parallel Talk: Parallel Talk refers to narrating what you and your child are doing. Use few words and high affect to explain your child’s actions and feelings. You can also describe what you are doing. Narrating what is going on around your child helps them to learn that their actions and feelings can be labeled and expressed. Simply hearing language also helps grow your child’s vocabulary!
- “You are driving the bus. The bus says beep beep.”
- “That song makes you feel happy!”
- “Daddy is going to make lunch. Let’s take out the bread…”
- “We’re walking. I see a car. I see a duck. Look!”
Respond to Your Child’s Babbling: Babbling is your child starting to learn and experiment with the sounds that they are able to produce. Engage with your child when they are babbling as if they are speaking to you! Make eye contact, exaggerate facial expressions and respond back to your child with real words. “I hear you!” “You have so much to tell me!” “Tell me more!” This helps your child to begin to understand the turn-taking of communication. You can help also create an imitating, turn-taking game with your child by imitating their sounds back to them. Expand their sounds by slightly changing the sounds you make and see if they imitate you!
Song and Finger Play: Songs and finger play are great for expanding early language skills because they present an expected routine, allow us to pair actions for increased engagement, and many kids love them! Model the actions that go along with these songs for your child. If they are unable to imitate use hand-over-hand assist to help them complete the actions. Pausing songs at unexpected times is also a great way to encourage your child to use communication to request more (remember this could be simple eye contact with you, pointing, signing “more” or verbally asking). Some of our speech team’s favorite songs to use for early language expansion are:
- Wheels on the Bus
- Old McDonald Had Farm
- Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed
- Five Green and Speckled Frogs
- If You’re Happy and You Know it
Imitative Play: Before your child begins imitating words, they likely will imitate in their play. You can encourage this by showing your child how to interact with toys with your actions, then providing hand-over-hand assistance to help them interact with the toy, then waiting to see if they can interact with the toy in a similar way. Great toys for working on imitative play include:
- Stacking blocks
- Cause and effect toys (toys that you push a button and something pops up)
- Popping bubbles
- Simple puzzles
- Rolling a ball or car back and forth
- Animals in a barn
- Dolls in a dollhouse
- People in a bus
Some silence is okay: When working on communication with your child, some silence is okay! Waiting 3-5 seconds after asking your child a question gives your child time to process what you’ve asked before deciding how they want to respond.
The key to increasing a child’s communication skills is meeting them where they are and building on current skills! Foundational skills of communication are crucial before we can expect a child to communicate verbally. Parents, caregivers, and therapists can all work together to help expand these skills!