During lockdown we, as parents, are faced with the daunting prospect of keeping our children entertained for hours on end, while simultaneously keeping them healthy and educated. One of the most common things I hear from parents is 'you want me to just play?'
The importance of play is hugely underestimated! In my speech and language therapy sessions, I absolutely love doing communication activities that are based around play. Play by its definition is fun and there is lots of research around the importance of play for learning and development.
Play can sometimes be thought of as something that is done outside of, even opposite to, learning. However, children need play to support their development and thus it should be included in their everyday learning environments. My mother once told me about children that ‘play is their work, work is their play, ’ and this has stuck with me through my years as a speech and language therapist. It really highlights how important it is.
The good news? - Unstructured Play is Best
If your child has never come to you with that wonderful phrase (trust me we’ve all heard it!), ‘I’M BORED’, then you are in the minority. For those times, then rest assured that free play using anything they can find, and their imagination is best, as well as just being outside playing.
Unstructured play is good news as it means you don’t need to think of specific play activities all throughout the day. It may even mean you get the chance to put your feet up and have a cup of tea whilst your children play, safe in the knowledge that you are supporting their development and education.
But What does Play have to do with Communication?
The skills focused on in play include attention and listening, speech and literacy skills, understanding language, vocabulary development, auditory memory, social skills and inferencing and prediction skills. The idea is that the children will be so engrossed and having fun that they will not even notice they are developing these skills.
These activities can be done with all children to support communication in general and also if you have more specific communication goal in mind for your child.
Here are some play ideas to get you started:
1)Bored? Then play a board game!
Board games have long been a staple of childhood development. There is a host of academic functions being put to use when our children play board games. Some skills used when we play board games are reading, drawing, describing, acting, as well as counting and adding up. It is wonderful the educational value found inside the good-natured competition of a game.
Board games are also fantastic for developing your child’s social skills and behaviour. Every child will at some point have a tantrum if they don’t win, but eventually they will get used to fair play, honesty and the value of playing just for fun. Learning to take turns, share and be a good sport all come from playing games with the family.
Some of the best board games for speech therapy on the market today are the same ones you played when you were a child, so you may recognise some of the names below.
· Story Cubes – The player throws the dice and must make up a story that incorporates all the pictures.
· Headbandz– Children use yes/no questions to guess the identity of the card they’ve been dealt.
· Taboo - Get your team to say the Guess Word at the top of your card by giving them clues, without saying any of the banned ‘Taboo’ words
· Guess Who – Players use yes/no questions to identify the character their opponent has.
For younger children these can be great fun:
· Crocodile snap/dentist – Try to take out/press all the crocodile’s teeth without being the player to trap their finger when his jaws spring shut.
· Pop up pirate- Take turns to push the plastic swords into the slots in the sides of the barrel until the pirate “pops” out.
· Jenga - Take turns to take a block from somewhere on the tower and place it on the top, building higher and higher, until the tower collapses.
2)Hands on - make mess and memories
Messy play is a sociable activity, whether with family or other children, so naturally, it will enrich relationships through social interaction. As young children can’t explain things verbally, it allows them to share their discoveries in different ways through the use of objects and gestures and in order to do this, they need to think through their actions so they can communicate this explanation which also helps develop their cognition.
Depending on what you make the messy play activity, you can also use it to develop language skills and encourage speech. For example, using letters in the activity helps develop an understanding of the written language, by describing sensations and textures to your children you can help them build their vocabulary, and by talking through what you’re doing you are providing speaking and listening opportunities and encouraging problem solving skills.
· Fill a large tub full of jelly or coloured and flavoured water or cooked rice/cooked pasta, cereal etc…
· Hide different toys, cups, knife and forks, spoons and/or other utensils your child enjoys.
· Encourage the child to play with the toys in the food with other children and/or yourself, do not encourage the child to pick up and/or eat the food but just to play with it at their own pace
· Hopefully, the child will copy your behaviour, so eat and play to your hearts content!!!
· Put some objects in a Tupperware box
· Fill it with water
· Put it in the freezer
· Work with your child to explore the frozen block and explore ways of getting the toys out.
· Let them play there with your supervision, model some playing, and vocabulary again don’t force them to copy you; your modelling will be enough.
3) Pretend play - you do not need to be Shakespeare to make stuff up
One of the greatest benefits of engaging in play-based activities is the opportunity for language development. For pretend play, children learn to verbally express their ideas and opinions through this form of storytelling. They build their vocabulary of descriptive words as they explain their setting and plot. When engaging in pretend play with friends and siblings, they also develop important social communication skills such as back and forth communication and listening skills.
For those children with special needs, that find accessing their imaginative play difficult, then a simple starter from you can help. For example, you can set up some train tracks with trains, cars on a track, some play food in the kitchen, a pretend restaurant, a pretend post office, shops, superhero play, etc.
4) Outdoor play – enjoy that fresh air!
· Simon Says. For younger children, leave out the actual Simon Says part and just take turns to give instructions for each other to follow.
· Skittles. You can get some lovely sets of outdoor skittles. However, if you don’t have any, you can use bottles. Attach pictures to the skittles and give each other instructions to knock them down.
· Listening walk. If you are walking somewhere and trying to keep the children going, try a listening walk. Listen for as many different sounds as you can hear and talk about them. Can your child point to where the sound is coming from? Do they know what it is?
· Obstacle course. Set up an obstacle course in the garden. Talk about what the children have to do. This is particularly good for prepositions
· Water guns/ nerf guns. Most children love these! Try a describing game with these. Describe something in the garden and your child has to shoot it!
· Hide and seek.Hide objects or pictures around the garden and get your child to find them and name them/ talk about them.
· Ball games. Play a “hot potato” type game. Choose a category, for example, animals. Throw the ball to the next person, and say an item in that category. See how long you can keep going before someone runs out. You could play a similar game with words starting with a particular sound if your child is working on speech sounds.
· Scavenger hunt. Give your child a list of things to find from around the garden or wherever you are (eg find a leaf, an acorn and a stick). Start with two things and work your way up to find the right level for your child.
· Hopscotch.This is another good one for speech sounds. Put a picture on each square (or write the words if your child can read). See if they can say the words as they play hopscotch.
Here is a great resource I found online if you would like to learn more about play and the role it has in developing children’s communication skills: