Get your child to play WITH you and learn language!

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Language is learned through interaction and play!  But do you ever feel uncertain on how to play with your child?  

I know I would sometimes feel lost.  Blowing bubbles and saying “ooh ahh, bubbles!” gets boring quickly. Even worse is when a child is so self-driven or ‘own agenda’, that even when you try to play, the child ignores you.  Crashing my car into theirs, just to have them turn away, can feel like pure rejection. 

Playing and socializing may be easy with some children.  The more the child responds to you and tries to collaborate, the better.  However, in this blog I want to focus on what to do with the child that DOESN’T respond to you.  The one who you may say, “Oh, Johnny likes to play by himself”, or “Johnny likes to explore. He doesn’t want to play a full game.” 

It took 5 years of being a Speech Language Pathologist before I learned the secret to play, and with it the secret to teaching language!   Once I learned this simple format, ideas began to sprout up in each session and the children readily responded!  I didn’t feel lost anymore, which was an incredible feeling. 

Here is the three-step format that I learned. 

  1. The child has to DO something.  They have to take an active role. AND it has to be something they wanted to do of their own volition. 
  • I have to do something, and it has to in some way collaborate with what the child is doing. 
  • There has to be a pattern to the game. 

Activities can be adult led (we pick the activity and model how to do it and invite the child to join) or child led (we see the child do something and we join in).  However, the activity has to be like a dance; we both have steps to do, whether we are the lead, follow, or equal.  And, even more importantly, we cannot over direct or be over-directed. The goal is just to do something in response to what the child does, and visa versa. 

Ok, let’s get to some examples.  The other day, I worked with a mom whose 2 year old son was throwing all of the stuffed animals out of the large net on the wall.  I asked the mom if she thought an ‘in/out’ game with the animals would be motivating for him, and she decided to give it a try.  She beckoned her son to join her and modeled ‘shooting’ (he says ‘shoot while playing basketball) the animals into the net.  He did not try to imitate, and instead quickly took the animal out and walked away.  The Mom looked at me and shrugged; he was not interested in the game of shooting/throwing in the animals. I explained this three-step format to create a pattern game and asked what his role could be.  Well… he seemed to like taking the animals out. 

So, we tried again, and this time she responded with enthusiasm when he took out the animal and she continued to play by throwing in another animal. Soon, she was asking him which animal she should throw in next and how many.  Sometimes she would miss, and they would laugh together.  During this game, he said ‘out’ for the first time!  

The boy was happy because he had an active role to play, and it was what he had been doing on his own anyway. He then could see a pattern forming, and the random act of pulling out stuffed animals turned into a true game with a beginning, middle, and end. Now it was even better than exploring on his own; his mom was joining in and adding language and making the play that much more fun! 

Ok, here is another example. 

Same boy and mom.  The boy sat with his mom and began scribbling on a paper.  I asked if they ever drew together and mom said that he preferred just to scribble alone. She didn’t really know what to do with him anyway; when she asked him questions (what are you drawing? What color do you want?  Oooh, is that a circle?) he never responded.  And if she tried to draw with him or next to him, he just ignored her. 

It can be very easy to go back to that old narrative and believe he would prefer to play on his own.  However, in order to develop communication and social skills, we have to interact together! 

Cue in the 3-step play format to create a pattern game.  

His role: do exactly what he always does.  Scribble lines up and down. 

Mom’s role: Instead of asking questions or drawing next to him, she could take a quick turn. 

Pattern: Mom would say and draw ‘up down up down’ or ‘round and round’.  She would only use these actions to create a pattern. And she would say them slow or fast to make the game fun. 

So, Mom said, “my turn”, and got a new crayon. She drew on the paper the same way as the boy and said, “up down up down!”.  He smiled and she stopped and said, ‘your turn!’.  At first he did not want to take a turn and instead gave her a new crayon.  She said, “Oh! My turn again?  Ok! Round and round, round and round!”.   Then she put down the crayon, ending the game momentarily. He gave her back the crayon.  “More coloring?  Ok! Let’s do up and down.  Up down, up down!” 

The Mom responded perfectly in this situation.  The plan was that the boy’s role would be taking his turn scribbling.  But, once playing with his mom, he changed his mind and decided that his new role would be to give his mom the crayons.  THIS IS FINE!  In ‘free play’, where there is no specific end goal other than building social skills and communication (unlike cooking, cleaning, or doing homework), the roles we each play can change.  The important piece is that the boy still had something to do (giving mom the crayons) and Mom still had something to do (scribbling). We want to take a child who is ‘own agenda’ and help them play WITH us. 

If you would like a free printable of my top 5 pattern games, click below!

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