Parent's Guide: Play and Communication Skills
How to Follow My Child's Lead in Play
Speech Language Therapy, Speech Language Development
“My child liked playing with the box more than the toy!”
As parents, we laugh at this because we have probably observed a child in this exact scenario. Also, children sometimes interact with their environment in unexpected ways. In our minds, we may have our own ideas of what play is based on our own thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and experiences. We may remember the games or scenarios we played in our own childhood, anything from pretend/imaginative play to sports and board games. Many of these experiences are shared or relatable in that if I were to share with you, “My brother and I used to play basketball and baseball at the playground near my house,” many of you reading this will either be able to relate to that exact scenario, a similar scenario, or you find it understandable because you know what basketball and baseball are and you could imagine siblings playing those sports.
But some of these experiences are more individual or unique, aren’t they? For example, as children, my brother and I used to play a game where we would shout, “Never!” And jump from a point in the living room to the couch. We would pretty much take turns doing this over and over again. You might be thinking, “OK, I never did that,” “sounds strange,” or maybe you are feeling indifferent and thinking, “Kids make up games and this is probably what you were doing.” Less likely, is that you played this exact game. It is fascinating that as common and shared as play is, it is also so variable and unique.
In therapy, I am often following the lead of the child I am working with by seeing how they interact with the environment and people around them. Specifically, I observe what the child is doing and how they react to different types of stimulation. Some children enjoy play with lots of movement and sound: swinging, crashing, animated voices, exaggerated movements. Others enjoy play that is quieter, where the energy I display is more soothing and gentle. By following a child’s lead, a rapport develops where trust is established because I am flexible to meet the child where they are comfortable in order to support the development of their communication skills.
Following your child’s lead can be used no matter what types of play your child enjoys. Here are a couple of examples to give you some ideas:
Your child is pushing a toy car on the floor. You can imitate what they are doing, by getting another toy car and pushing it as well. If your child is making sounds or talking while doing this, you can imitate what they are doing, or try introducing your own sounds (beeping, motor noises) or words, “Go!” As you imitate your child or introduce something, watch what your child is doing. What is their body language telling you? Now, some body language is fairly clear: if your child is smiling, giggling, looking at you or attending to your actions, you have an indication that they are enjoying it. However, children are unique and they may respond in ways that are more subtle and can take time and perhaps trial and error to figure out. They may simply stay near you and might look at what you are doing for brief moments, in which case, I would still continue to play in this way. Are they moving away from you? If so, they may need some distance or the stimulation might be a little too much. Maybe whispering or calmer play would be a better fit.
Your child is lining up colored building blocks. You can imitate what they are doing, by lining up blocks as well. Watch them and try to see if you can use the same colors that they are using. You can try imitating any sounds or words they may be saying, and then try to introduce language by narrating, using exclamatory words like, “Look!” Or “Wow!” or commenting, “I like blocks,” etc. You can try introducing a different action, such as stacking the blocks. In each case, watch your child carefully for their response. If they show displeasure in something you introduce, honor it. (“Oh ok, no stacking”).
Play may involve toys or objects like the scenarios mentioned above, but it can be so much more. Play really is any activity that is done for enjoyment. For some children, running, jumping, spinning, swinging, and/or dancing may be preferred. Play can also be moving objects in a certain way (spinning, shaking, etc.), feeling certain textures, listening to certain songs or sounds, etc. By watching our children, following their lead, and responding to their cues, we are validating their way of interacting with the world around them and creating a positive moment, even if the moment was finding out something our child doesn’t like (our dislikes are as important as our likes). Every small moment makes an impact and builds a foundation for communication, no matter how young our child or where they are in their development.
Please feel free to ask questions or comment below, or contact me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org