How to target speech and language skills with cheap (or free) things around your house!
As new owners of the Aurora Speech Clinic, Jill and I have been keen to re-brand the clinic and redecorate the space. We have also been excited to buy some new assessment tools and a few of our favourite speech therapy toys. So it came as no surprise to me when Jill entered the clinic the other day and eagerly revealed her newest purchase for the clinic: a tot tube. For those of you who do not know what a tot tube is (I didn’t), it is a long tube, with a transparent middle piece, that can be placed up against furniture; kids can put cars, balls, or anything that rolls down the tube and watch them race. When I saw Jill’s latest purchase, I responded something to the effect of “How great! It’s pretty much like this” and pulled out an identical sized cardboard tube that our new wall decal had been shipped in several days prior.
Later that day, in my speech therapy sessions, I played with the real “tot tube” and the imposter cardboard tube and I was delighted to see that both of them were successful at captivating attention and targeting speech and language goals. So now we have two tubes for the clinic. Why is this groundbreaking enough to inspire a blog post you ask? It was a funny reminder to me that therapy and play are not all about having the best/most expensive toys, rather they are about being creative, making use of what you have, and focusing on the interactions themselves!
With that said, I decided to write about a few ways you can target speech and language skills with cheap (or free) things you find around your house:
If a speech-language pathologist practices therapy and never uses bubbles, are they really an SLP? OK, maybe that is a bit dramatic but this statement highlights the fact that SLPs rely on bubbles quite often (me-daily) to elicit communication when working with children. Bubbles are one of my favourite communication temptations. Communication temptations refer to things in the environment or toys that increase the likelihood that a child will be tempted to communicate. Speech therapists often set up the environment or use toys that increase the likelihood that a child will request for an item, ask for help, or express the desire for more of something (e.g., putting a favourite toy up on a shelf, having a new toy in a secured container that a parent needs to open, using wind-up toys or other toys that require adult assistance, or offering one small piece of a snack at a time).
Bubbles are a terrific communication tool because young children love them but cannot operate them independently. For children who are just beginning to use language, the activity of blowing bubbles provides multiple opportunities to comment or make requests. If you have a young child who is using gestures or beginning to use words, you can try the following. Blow the bubbles a few times to hook them into the activity. Use the same “script” or language throughout the activity so it is repetitive and your child begins to predict what will happen next. I like to introduce an activity with “Let’s play bubbles. Open. Ready, set…..”, and then I pause and wait with an expectant look to see how the child will indicate that they want more. This may be in the form of an eye gaze shift, a sound, a gesture, a wave of the hands- it could be anything. If and when they are interested (we know that children learn language when they are interested- not when you tell them what to pay attention to), they will communicate to you, in some way, that they want the interaction to continue. If we acknowledge their communication attempt and give them a word to use instead (“more”, or “bubbles”), over time, they may begin to say that word. Remember- this takes time and patience. Sometimes children need to hear a word hundreds of times in order to understand and begin to use it!
If children are reliably using a word, or several, during play with bubbles, use the repeat and expand strategy to add language. For example, if your child says “bubbles”, you could say “blow the bubbles”. Highlight concepts such as up, down, high, low, many, one, wet, dry, big, small, open, closed.
Balloons are awesome to use for language therapy for many of the same reasons as bubbles. For children who are in the early stages of language development, balloons are good tools to tempt wee ones to communicate. Try blowing up a balloon, holding it above your head and saying “Ready, set, go”. Watch with glee as the balloon soars around the room. And after a few times, say “Ready, set,…” pause and wait with an expectant look on your face with the balloon held up to your eye-line and give your child the opportunity to say “go” or an approximation thereof. After they run to collect the balloon, wait for them to bring it back to you and indicate they want more. Model the word “blow”. If you use the same language consistently, it is anticipated they will attempt to say the words over time. If they are already using words to communicate, use the repeat and expand strategy (see above) to encourage longer phrases. Highlight new vocabulary words such as soar, fly, sky, air, pop, stretchy, etc.
Everything but the Kitchen Sink
The kitchen cupboard is filled with exciting toys for children. So pull out the pots, pans, wooden spoons and make some music. Highlight vocabulary such as verbs (scoop, pour), quantifiers (all, some), basic concepts (wet, dry, full, empty). Experiment with sounds, rhythms, songs. When singing, use repetitive songs and sing them often. After your child has become familiar with songs, pause and wait to allow them opportunities to fill in the blanks throughout the song.
Preschool Age (3-6)
Fill a small container with shaving cream or spray it onto a surface that you can wash off later (a plastic table, for example). Hide different items in the shaving cream and have your children find them (e.g., small plastic animals). Try spreading the shaving cream in a thin layer and take turns writing letters and words in it to practice early literacy skills such as letter awareness and sound-letter correspondence. Don’t worry about the mess- a towel or two is all you will need to clean it up. For an elevated level of excitement, add some food colouring to the shaving cream and blend away to create different designs! Highlight vocabulary such as search, find, locate, reveal, camouflage, scent, wipe, squish, hue, blend, combine, texture, etc.
Homemade Play Dough
Make homemade play dough (one recipe from “Family Education” attached here). Read the instructions out to your child and have him/her participate in the measuring, scooping, mixing, etc. Take this opportunity to target following directions. First, give them one or two instructions at a time, then see if they can follow more complex directions that contain multiple concepts (e.g., “Before you add the food colouring, add the water and the cream of tartar”, or “First, get out the food colouring, a bowl, and salt and then help mommy get a pot from the bottom drawer”). Take note of which instructions your child is able to follow easily and which concepts or words seem to throw them off.
Take pictures on a phone or iPad along the way. Believe it or not, cooking, baking, or creating something provides wonderful opportunities to target sequencing and narrative skills. After your creation is complete, you can print out the pictures or simply use your phone and get your child to explain the steps in making play dough to a friend or adult.
At Aurora Speech Clinic, we do love toys. And to Jill’s credit, I use the tot tube in my therapy sessions on a daily basis! But it is important to note that in speech therapy, and at home, you can use things you already have to target speech and language skills in creative ways that will be memorable for you and your child. Ultimately, the quality of the interaction matters most.
If you have concerns about your child’s speech or language development, or need more suggestions regarding what you can do at home, please get in touch with us!
Stephanie and Jill
Registered Speech-Language Pathologists
Aurora Speech Clinic