Every time a child cries, points or gestures, makes eye contact, or uses a facial expression, they’re effectively communicating through the use of language. Maybe they’re hungry, upset, uncomfortable, or have a desire to express their thoughts. This is a great sign! And as parents, it’s our job to recognize and encourage this nonverbal communication with our infants and toddlers, helping set the stage for early language acquisition.
Comprehension, nonverbal language, and use of sounds are precursors to speech production. Even before your baby says their first word, children make connections between vocalizations and getting their needs met. When children cry and point, and then you hand them their desired object, they’re beginning to cement these relationships so that later they can more effectively communicate their needs.
Language development is an essential skill that will turn your child into a lifelong learner; it’ll aid your child’s ability to communicate, help with literacy, reading, comprehension, and ultimately improve their academic success and emotional development.
In young children, language development is often best done through the use of play. In this post, I’ve included some fun and interactive language activities parents can use at home to develop their child’s language skills. Let’s jump in.
- Animal Sounds: What do children love even more than animals? The sounds that animals make! Cut out pictures of animals from magazines or print them out. Take turns showing these pictures to your child and either 1) make the sounds yourself, or 2) have your child mimic the sounds. If you’re feeling really creative, act out the animals as well. You can stick your tongue out and go “woof woof” like a puppy, or get on all fours and say “bahhhh” like a sheep.
- Sing Songs: From “Itsy, Bitsy Spider,” to “The Wheels on the Bus,” children love singing simple songs and nursery rhythms. Not only do they provide some great family bonding time, but songs can build vocabulary and help children learn and recognize the natural rhythm of speech. Best of all, there are so many opportunities to break up boring activities with enjoyable songs throughout the day, such as long car rides or dreaded bath time.
- Telephone Game: This perennial favorite should be an active part of playtime. You can get a toy telephone or, if feeling adventurous, decorate one to appeal to your child’s imagination. Pretend that the phone is ringing and have your child “answer.” Whether they’re just babbling into the receiver, or perhaps using simple language like “hello,” this activity will help set the foundation for early conversation skills.
- Label Objects: It’s important to remember that everyday activities, such as going for a walk, brushing teeth, and prepping for bed, is an opportunity to incorporate language. One simple way to do this is to name objects in your environment and have your child practice repeating new words. While you don’t want to inundate your child with new vocabulary every waking moment, try to find opportunities to introduce them to themed or categorized words in each location. For example, next time you go to the grocery store, focus on labeling vegetables. Or when you go outside for an afternoon stroll, point to different types of plants or wildlife.
- Puppet Show: Who doesn’t love a good ol' fashioned puppet show? Not only will they have a blast decorating their puppets - brown lunch bags and googly eyes anyone? - but it’s a great way to strike up a mock conversation between two lovable characters. Making sure that your puppet asks your child’s puppet all sorts of questions, using fun and imaginative voices of course.
- Complete Sentences: If your child has started to speak, encourage them to respond in full sentences when you ask them a simple question. This will help your child be able to string words together and more effectively articulate their thoughts. For example, let’s say you ask your child “want to go outside?” If they would normally nod their head, or give you a simple “yes,” repeat back to them: “I want to go outside.”
- Reading: It’s hard to overstate the importance of reading - even with infants and toddlers. Children take the first steps towards reading and writing in infancy, so it’s important to establish a reading routine and build good habits that will last them a lifetime. Making reading enjoyable by choosing fun books that stimulate their imagination. For youngsters, make sure to point and label the pictures, saying for example, “dog.” You can even engage them by asking questions like, “what sound does a dog make?” This will improve your child’s comprehension and expand their vocabulary. For more tips on making reading fun and enjoyable, click here.
- Play “I Spy” Using Sounds: Put a few common, everyday items on the table that your child is familiar with. This can be anything - a toy, orange, block, cup, or utensil. Next, say to your child: “I spy something that starts with ‘bbbbb.’” Really exaggerate your sounds and give your child enough time to find the item that starts with the matching letter - in this case, a block. Provide encouragement and a little assistance if needed. This game helps expand your child’s vocabulary and make associations between sounds, words, and objects. And of course, if your child guesses the right item, make sure to reward and congratulate them! This positive reinforcement will help with confidence building.
- What’s In the Box? For older children, fill a bag or box with mystery items. Have your child reach their hand inside (without looking) and try to guess what’s inside, using nouns and adjectives to describe what it feels like. “It’s hard, round, and small - is it an apple?”
- Professional Help: If your child’s language acquisition is going slower than expected, and you think they may not be keeping up with other children their age, you should consider speaking with a speech-language pathologist. Speech therapists are communication experts, and will work with you and your child to evaluate, diagnosis, and treat a potential language disorder or other communication challenge. Both in-person and online speech therapy can be helpful for children of all ages - even infants and toddlers; the earlier these issues are recognized and treated, the more progress your child will make. Make sure that your speech therapist provides you with additional language-building exercises that you can use at home with your child.