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Using Play to Model Purposes of Communication

Updated: Feb 5

A shark with a talking bubble saying "Let's Play" next to a box of toys.

Who still loves toys and games?! I do!! In fact one of my favorite things about my job is that I get to play and call it work. Well actually, there is a reason (other than having fun) that I use so many toys and games during my speech-language sessions. Children love to play! When a child is motivated by an activity, book, toy, or game, they are much more engaged which makes learning new skills more effective (and fun!). Play allows children to learn their speech and language skills in a meaningful and natural way. In fact, play-based learning is research-based.

This month, we have been talking about the different purposes of communication such as commenting, protesting, asking/answering questions, and sharing experiences. As we discussed, using a variety of functions of communication is important as it helps us to advocate for ourselves, socialize with others, provide and gain information from others, and even have our wants and needs met. Play provides an endless amount of opportunities for modeling these different purposes of communication. This week, we’ll continue our discussion by talking about how to use toys and games to support your child in developing and growing their language skills.

In honor of Shark Week later this month, I have chosen some of my favorite (and kids’ favorite) shark and ocean-themed toys and games and given examples of how I implement a few of our purposes of communication.

*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Shark Grabber: The shark grabber toy is probably one of my most used toys in therapy. I can almost always gain a child’s attention and help them to begin engaging in the session with this shark grabber. This is such a simple toy that has so many uses. Although I feel like I could dedicate an entire blog post just to using this toy in play, let’s talk about just a few ways to model communication functions.

  • Commenting: I often use this toy in combination with my toy food. I then try feeding the shark a variety of different food items such as a toy apple, broccoli, ice cream, and pizza. I then model phrases commenting about what the shark is doing such as “Shark eat apple” and “eat cookie”. After the Shark tastes the food, I model comments such as “Yummy!”, “Like ice cream”, “Yucky broccoli”.

  • Protesting: Continuing with the eating theme with this shark toy, I gather toy food items and non-food items. I then try to feed the shark some of these non-food items such as a toy turtle, a ball, or a shoe. I then model phrases such as “No! Don’t eat”, “No eat turtle!”, “Not food”, “No shoe”.

Shark Bite: This is a pretty popular game. Kids love the anticipation of waiting to see when the shark is going to jump up and bite. They love to see when I get ‘scared’ which usually gets lots of laughs.

  • Exclaiming: I love to pretend to be scared while playing this game. When it is my turn, I model the phrase, “Oh-no, oh-no” nervously while cautiously catching a fish. When the shark ‘bites’, I model exclamations such as “Ahhh!!”, “Yikes!”, “Ouch!”, “Oh-no shark bite!”

  • Requesting: This is a turn-taking game which provides great opportunities for requesting. I often model phrases such as “My turn”, “I go”, “You go”, “Want green fish”.

Sensory Bin: I love sensory boxes, and many kiddos love sensory boxes too. Sensory boxes can have rice, beans, sand, water beads, or water inside. I love to hide objects of all different themes in the sensory box.

*Note that supervision during play with sensory bins is recommended with little ones or kiddos who may put items in their mouth.

  • Asking/Answering Questions: I hide objects in the sensory box and model questions such as “Where is the octopus?”, “Where fish?” and “What doing?”. Answering question allows me to to model vocabulary such as spatial concepts like “under water”, “in sand” and action words such as “hiding”, “play hide-and-seek”.

  • Directing/Commanding: Kiddos love giving commands to others. I like to play a hide-and-seek game where I provide the child a chance to tell me phrases such as “close eyes” or even gesture to me to cover my eyes. They then hide the items. After they are finished hiding the items, they direct me toward what object they want me to find. Phrases used might include “Find crab”, “Get fish”, and “Ready, set, go!”

Bath Wind-up Fishing Toy: As most of my co-workers present and past will tell you, I have a love for wind-up toys. This toy takes wind-up toys to another level by combining water play, fishing, and wind-up toys.

  • Sharing Experiences: While playing with this toy, I like to model phrases about what I am doing and what the child is doing. Examples may include: “I catch whale”, “Look my blue whale”, “You got it”, “You catch it”.

  • Requesting Attention: I love pretend play, and I like to pretend play with this little family of whales. I use different little voices and model requesting attention such as “Mom, let’s go!”, “Dad, want race?!”.

Additional Tips for Modeling Communication Functions:

  • AAC users: While I am verbalizing, I point to the word/phrase on a Communication Board or activate the word/phrase on the AAC device. Please note that you do not need to model each word that you verbalize on the Communication Board or AAC device. You may choose the most important words or the words you are choosing to target on that day. We will discuss modeling AAC in a future post.

  • Nonverbal Communication (i.e. gestures, facial expressions, body language): When modeling, it works best when over-exaggerating your facial expressions and using gestures and actions to emphasize your words and phrases.I hope you and your child are able to take some time this week to have fun playing! I look forward to continuing our discussion on the purposes of communication one more week. We’ll talk about one of my favorite apps as well as real and virtual “field trips”.

I hope you and your child are able to take some time this week to have fun playing! I look forward to continuing our discussion on the purposes of communication one more week. We’ll talk about one of my favorite apps as well as real and virtual “field trips”.

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