“So what do you DO with them?” -everyone ever, when they find out I work with toddlers on speech and language.
As a practicing early intervention speech pathologist, I get a lot of questions about language stimulation that parents can do at home with their kids. The philosophy behind SoonerStart (the name of our state’s early intervention program– different from the state’s Medicaid program which is called SoonerCARE) is such that parents are meant to be the main provider of therapy for their child, so I give a lot of homework to my clients.
My work is centered on making language play a part of a family’s daily routine. I’ve compiled a quick set of activities you can do right now with toys you already have, in order to practice language skills with your toddlers. Please note, this list is far from exhaustive, and if you have a concern about your child’s language, please contact a speech pathologist and have him or her evaluated. I’ve included age ranges for which each activity is especially beneficial, but most can be used at multiple ages.
0-6 months: Play with Songs
Pick a tune you like and sing it often. It sounds simple, but you are activating all the best parts of baby’s brain and giving them a foundation for language. Babies can attend to and recognize familiar melodies as young as 2 months of age! Singing is an easy and enjoyable way to learn about prosody (rhythm, pitch, tone, inflection) of speech before learning actual words; this is why many children go through a phase of babbling that sounds like they’re having a real conversation in total jibberish. If you can’t hold a tune in a bucket, don’t worry; babies tend to be the least judgmental listeners on the planet. Just don’t do it in range of a vindictive spouse who will record you and use it as blackmail.
I really like “This is the way we ______ (wash our hands, drink our milk, change our diaper)” because you can fill in the blank with whatever you’re doing and the tune becomes a familiar part of transition or routine. Other favorites include “Twinkle Twinkle”, “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”, “Wheels on the Bus”, and “Old MacDonald”. Adding motions to the songs will set you up for gross motor imitation, which is also foundational for speech imitation. But we’ll get there in a minute.
6-9 months: Play with Balls
Almost everyone can find a ball in their house, and in fact, you can probably find closer to one million balls. Large pom poms, Oballs, rubber balls, soccer balls, ball pit balls, soft fabric balls; I love balls! *Those of you who are laughing right now are never allowed to come to a therapy session with me*
The list of activities here is endless: throw them, roll them, make them fall off your head, take them in and out of an empty Kleenex box, cover them up with a blanket and play ‘peekaboo ball’, boop them on the nose of your child or a stuffed animal, push them through a tunnel made out of an overturned board book.
Playing like this naturally lends itself to motor and sensory development (gross motor–throwing, rolling and catching; sensory–touching and feeling different textures and vestibular input from gross motor movements), and adding a language component is just bonus! Imitating different actions with a toy is the base of the imitation hierarchy, and one of the best things you can do to prepare your child for learning verbal words. Imitating motions in songs or using baby signs is actually a step up from gross motor action imitation, because these motions are more complex.
9-12 months: Play with vehicles and animals
This is my favorite age at which to start working on environmental sounds imitation, the next step on the imitation hierarchy, and vehicles and animals are usually the most motivating items to elicit them.
Examples of environmental sounds include vroom (car), moo, cluck, neigh, uh-oh, yay, growl, boop, and chugga chugga. Get out your farm set and make that duck ride on the dump truck!
12-18 months: Play with verbs
The latest research tells us that late talkers who received verb-focused speech therapy had much larger overall vocabularies than those who received traditional noun-focused speech therapy. We know that nouns are typically easier to acquire, and it’s pretty instinctive to work on labeling the things we see in our environment. That’s why emphasizing verbs can be so useful; practice the verbs and the nouns will come.
At 12-18 months of age, your child should be laying the groundwork for combining words into phrases, and learning verbs is a great way to kickstart that process. Some of my favorites to target are: stack, pour, throw, walk, eat, whisper, sleep, go, squish, wiggle, shake, pat, and clap. A sensory bin (dry beans or pasta, water, sand, slime) with items buried in it is a great way to get started on some of these. You can add a motor development component by using a ladle to scoop or dig out the items!
18-24 months: Play with relationships
Your child has probably already started lengthening her utterances, so finding play activities that naturally incorporate 2+ words is key. Families (baby shark, mommy shark, daddy shark….. yeah, I’ll see myself out), possessives (my foot, your foot), comparisons (big square, little square, fast car, slow car) are all good ideas to encourage this skill.
Following two-step directions is also important to work on at this age (ex: Find the little ball and put it in my cup), and you could make it motor-focused by incorporating gross motor actions like “Jump with both feet and then clap your hands”, or fine motor like “Pick up the cheerio and put it in the bowl.”
24-30 months: Play “I spy”
When we start working on imitating 3-4 word phrases, I like to use a carrier phrase (a starter phrase that remains the same throughout the activity). “I spy” is great because you can play it anytime, anywhere, with no additional materials needed other than your surroundings. “I spy a sleeping doggy! I spy a big basket of unfolded laundry! I spy an empty bottle of mommy’s wine!”
30-36 months: Play with categories
Sort everything you own. You can put anything into a category and label it! Colors, foods, shapes, people, zoo animals vs. farm animals. It’s even more fun if you have sheets of paper with a label or a color taped to the floor and you make it a race for them to find 5 things for each sheet!
Pre-school readiness, here we come!