Encouraging language through play

Toddlers aren’t much for sitting down and having long conversations about their day. In fact, it may seem difficult to learn even the most basic information about what your child does, likes and thinks. This type of reciprocal conversation requires some pretty complex skills that most toddlers have yet to master. The type of language required for conversation is called “intraverbal language” and it readily occurs in small forms at the toddler stage (e.g., what’s your name? how old are you?) but may be more challenging for most toddlers when the language becomes more complex, particularly if a response requires the recalling of past events – for example: what did you eat at lunch today? That’s because this type of language requires someone to talk about things that aren’t present and to do so without any environmental cues to help them navigate the right answers.

As your kids get older, language can be encouraged through ways you probably more commonly think about like flashcards, and educational games. But the toddler phase can be a bit trickier! Although full on conversations might not come as easily, there is something your toddler is a master of that you can use to facilitate and encourage language: PLAY! Kids in the toddler phase play constantly. They play with their food, in their car seat, with all the toys, and with everything in between. So, the great news is that you can use play to encourage language, and even get them responding to those questions they might not otherwise respond to in just a basic back and forth exchange. It’s helpful to know the basic kinds of language you can consider in the context of play: receptive and expressive. Receptive language involves listening to something someone else says and responding to it. Examples include a child listening when you give them an instruction such as “go get your shoes.”  The second type of broad language is expressive language that involves your child saying something, for example answering the question “what’s your favorite color?”

Here are some ideas to encourage both types of language through play.

  1. Talk through dolls, puppets, stuffed animals, or other pretend characters. Talking to an adult through a character or toy is a very effective strategy because kids typically get excited about their new friend in a way they might not if they are just talking to you or another adult. My son owns a dinosaur book and at the end of the book, the dinosaur pops out of the page and has a moveable mouth like a puppet. I’ll never forget the day we were choosing books to read, and he said in a fun voice “oh, dinosaur wants to talk today,” grabbed his book and proceeded to have a full on conversation with the dinosaur about what he did at preschool, his upcoming birthday and his new friend, Abby (things he hadn’t yet shared with me!). So, grab a toy, change your voice slightly (please try and sound just like a T-Rex for fun) and get going on some toddler talk!
  2. Chat through art. Art can offer a distraction for kids, help them relax and talk more readily. You can use simple projects like fingerpainting, coloring with crayons or markers. I’m a big fan of craft kits, because of their novelty. These craft kits also typically have a clear objective (i.e., let’s make a turtle) which can help your little one focus. To encourage language, begin the project or activity and incorporate questions or comments that make sense given the activity. For example, when coloring a picture, it is natural to talk about colors, so ask about their favorite color. You can also simply state your answers – for example “my favorite color is green,” and your child will likely respond “mine is orange!” or simply learn through you modeling typical language that makes sense given that activity.
  3. Expand language through reading. Books offer a beautiful example of language for your toddler, and you can use them to creatively encourage even more language. Most kids enjoy interactions during reading, so you can stop and ask questions about the book (what did that bear just do??) and make silly games out of the text. My husband successfully taught my son the military alphabet at the age of 2 through his favorite chicka chicka boom boom book. Use the visuals contained in books to ask questions, make statements, and label the things you see. And remember, not everything has to focus on expressive language. Receptive language is important – you can point to things yourself and then ask your kid to point them out too.
  4. Encourage speech through singing. Even if you can’t carry a tune, the language opportunities that exist through your singing voice are endless. Consider the hokey pokey and teaching your child the difference between left and right through those motions. You can also establish new expressive skills by pausing in a known song and allowing your kid to fill in the blank – for example, old McDonald had a ____. Choose songs that involve things your kid is interested in, get up and move around!
  5. Move with them. Kids are constantly moving through play – not one second passes in the day that my son doesn’t have something with wheels he’s pushing around. Get on the floor and engage in these activities! In doing so, you can encourage all kinds of language: “What color is mommy’s car? My train is going to the station!”

Finally, try not to put too much pressure on your little one! Not everything has to require a response. Simply modeling and engaging without the constant requirement for your child to talk can teach your kid valuable language and interactive skills.  So go – Have fun with your “toddler talk” today!

Disclosure: I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links that at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission. You can read my full disclaimer, here.

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