Let's Play: the speech and language way

Speech and language therapy ideas for playing at home



Where’s the speech in speech therapy?

“It looks like they are just playing.  Is that all they do?”

If you’ve ever watched a speech therapy session with a one- or two- year old, you may have asked yourself this question.  What looks like “just play” actually has a whole bunch of strategy and purpose that goes with it.

How do little ones typically learn to walk?  They explore.  They play.

How do little ones typically learn to talk?  They listen.  They watch.  They play.

Just as we don’t usually pick up a child’s foot and move it into position to teach walking, we also don’t take a child’s mouth and move it into position while simultaneously vibrating her vocal cords to create sound.  That just isn’t possible.

Children learn best through PLAY.  They are interested in play.  Play is motivating.  Play is fun.  They want to play… again and again and again.  Sometimes speech therapy starts with play and sometimes speech therapy starts before play.

I often wish that it was called “communication therapy” and that I was considered a “communication coach” but speech (and language) therapy is the name.  So, we have to explain.

In order to really play with others, the child first must be interested in others.  They have to learn the skills of making eye contact, imitating movements and sounds, taking turns, anticipating actions, smiling when things are funny, checking in with caregivers when things are scary, using gestures like pointing, and understanding that words and sounds have meaning.  When I say “uh-oh”, a child needs to know that something bad or messy just happened.  When I say “get your shoes on”, a child needs to anticipate that we may be leaving the house.  All of these things need to happen BEFORE speech and, sometimes, that’s where speech therapy has to start.  To figure out why a child isn’t yet using words we sometimes need to explore their PLAY skills.

“But my child plays just fine.  When do you teach him to talk?”

Great question!  If all of your child’s “pre-verbal”/play skills are developing on track then a speech therapist uses play to continue to engage your child on their level with a whole bunch of strategies to try and help little ones learn to use their voice.  Strategies might include offering choices, simplifying words, increasing meaningful sounds, reducing commands and questions, increasing visual attention to the speaker’s mouth, playing forgetful games, placing items just slightly out of reach, etc. etc. etc  (that’s a topic for entire textbook or two  – too much for one blog post!)  The point is, yes, we play.  However, we aren’t there to entertain a child.  We expect play to be a two-way street with communication as the ultimate goal.

So, the next time you watch a speech therapy session, look for the strategy behind the fun.  That’s the magic.

For a FREE, printable version of this post, go to: FREE Handouts you can print out

Need some ideas of WHAT to play with and HOW to play using speech and language strategies?  Check out:

Top 5 NON-toy Toys

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!

POWER words

Toddler Speech: unraveling the mystery


POWER words

BAM!  POW!  ZOOM!  If you were a superhero, those might be your “power words”.  When you’re a toddler, your “power words” are the ones that are:


When thinking about words that might be highly motivating for your little one to learn, stick with what their interests are and what they may need to say frequently or what they see frequently.  For many families, teaching their child academic words like letters and colors and shapes and numbers is a high priority.  If your child is interested in these concepts and you teach them to use them functionally “the red car, the ball is a circle, you have two crackers”, etc… then that’s great!  However, when you’re thinking about helping a little one learn to communicate who has no words or very few words, think POWER WORDS.  When you use the right power word at the right moment, you may hear your child attempt to imitate you – and then you know you chose the right word!  It’s a Magical Moment.

  • Start by making a list of your child’s favorite/frequent foods, toys, people, activities.
  • Add some functional/frequent words like “more, no, yes, hi, bye, all done, mine, go, stop, uh-oh (yep, that’s a word)”
  • Make a purposeful effort to use these words throughout the day

Seems simple, right?

When your child is playing with cars, say “car” many ways and many times – not in long, complicated sentences but just the single word.  Make car noises, wave hi/bye to the cars, and when the car successfully makes the jump you celebrate with “YESSSSS!”

When your child is eating, say “eat” many ways and many times.  Personally, I sing songs about eating, but that’s just me.  Give them only a small portion of what you think they will want and give them the opportunity to request “more” or respond “yes” when you ask if they want more.  Purposefully give them the wrong food or utensil and YOU say “oops, NO” (in a playful, mommy made a mistake kind of way).  Teach them words, feed them words.

When you are looking at a book, pick a power word and stick with it.  If you want to practice the word “hi” then just say “hi” to every person or animal on every page.  No need to read all the text.  If “ball” is a power word and it’s in the book somewhere then search each page for it asking “baaaalll?”  When you find it, say “BALL”.  That’s it.  No need for long sentences.  Focus on the power word.

In each example above, I wrote what YOU the adult should say.  Speech therapists like to call that “modeling” words.  YOU are saying words, your child is listening.  They are listening to words that are favorites and frequent.  There’s a much better chance they will try to imitate these words.

The same concept applies when working with preschoolers who might be working on saying specific sounds.

Recently I was looking for some words that have the “sh” sound and most of the pre-made materials included words like “sheriff, ocean, chef” – not exactly things this preschooler is going to talk about on a regular basis.  So, we had to make our own pictures for POWER words like “show” (to request a TV show), “shoe” (because he puts them on and takes them off at least 2-3 times per day), “sure” (because that’s how he likes to agree), and “push” (because he frequently needed his mother’s help to push something closed or to connect train tracks/race track pieces).  These words were motivating, interesting, useful, and highly repetitive throughout the day.  No need to carve out artificial “speech” time.  Just work on the words as you go through your daily activities.  The power words will give you plenty of opportunity to practice without needing to have 30 minutes of “speech” time.

What are your child’s power words?

For a FREE, printable version of this post, go to: FREE Handouts you can print out

Other posts you may like:

Toddler Speech: unraveling the mystery

Playing with…BOOKS!

Where are the WORDS?

Empower older siblings to teach

Your toddler doesn’t use many words.  If he has an older, very talkative sibling in the house you may have been told that this could be the problem…she is doing all of the talking for him.  So, you try to tell her to please let her brother have a turn to say a word.  She can’t seem to do that.  She wants to help.  She wants him to talk.  She wants to give him what she knows he needs and wants.  She’s his lifeline to the world of communication!

I love that.  Let’s use that.  She just needs some tools, some strategies…a game plan.

I often ask older siblings for their ideas about how to help their little brother say stuff or even just make sounds.  Their little brothers love to watch them, imitate them, be like them.  That’s hugely motivating!

In my experience, I’ve seen older siblings help little ones learn to use sign language, make meaningful sounds, say names of TV show characters that I never would’ve even known to try, produce new sounds accurately, and can sometimes even get their younger sibling to say a new word just by saying “say ______“.  This never works for anyone else.  Ever.

Older siblings who are learning about letter sounds or are beginning to read are even great helpers when it comes to identifying the sounds that the little one might be leaving out or saying incorrectly.  Encouraging the older sibling to identify and emphasize those sounds can help BOTH siblings learn.  Example:  Did you hear how your little brother said “doh” instead of “go”?  What sound do you think he needs to change?  Right.  The “g”.  That’s the sound that G makes.  

Rather than telling an older sibling to stop talking and give the little one a chance, empower that older sibling to help.  ASK THEM what they think might work to help their little brother make more noise or say more words.  They might tell you that their little brother always makes farting noises whenever they do!  Well, it’s a start.

Recently I had the opportunity to work with an older brother, let’s call him Jack.  He was his little brother’s favorite playmate.  Let’s call the little brother Max.  During the session I spent a lot of time with Jack talking about how he could simplify words into sounds so that Max might be able to say things just like him.  Jack was able to figure out that instead of saying train he could say “choo choo” and instead of saying dinosaur he could  “ROAR!”  Then we spent time chasing Max around with his shopping cart and saying “ready, set….” Jack easily figured out that he should let Max finish the phrase with “GO!”  Jack was so on board with everything that we were doing he even took the lead for the next 5-10 minutes.  Mom and I were an afterthought at best.  Speech “therapy” was happening without the therapist.  Yes!

Near the end of my time at their house, I asked Jack what he thought worked well and what he would like to keep doing with Max in order to help him talk more.  I was expecting him to say “use sounds” or “let Max finish phrases we say all the time”.  Instead, here was his response:

“Magic tricks”

Yep.  That’s what he said.  I was slightly confused and a little disappointed that my strategies weren’t immediately embraced.

I responded, “You want to practice magic tricks to help Max talk more?”

Jack:  “Yep, it’s just like magic.

Me:  “What do you mean?”

Jack:  “Well, when we were running around with the shopping cart we were like saying the things he should find.  Then I kind of took things away, hid them again, and he had to say something if he wanted it back.  Like magic.”

I started to get it.

Me:  “I think I understand.  You want to make things disappear and Max can make them reappear when he uses a sound or a word?”

Jack:  “Yep.  Like magic.”

Makes perfect sense.  Why didn’t I describe it this way to begin with?  Jack loved magic.  He made sense of what I was trying to help him learn by associating it with his favorite hobby!  When they were searching for objects to put in the shopping cart Jack would call out (in a sing song voice) “ba-aall” and “do-ggy”.  Max would imitate, not with an exact word, but definitely using that same sing song voice.  He was trying.  That’s what was important.  He wanted to be like his brother.  He wanted to make that object appear.  He wanted to see the magic trick!  Give an older sibling the right tools and they can be a powerful and motivating teacher for the younger sibling.

Sure, it might start with just imitation of farting noises or dinosaur roars, but older siblings understand silly.  Sometimes silly is what gets the magic started.


Tips for empowering the older sibling who wants to help:

  1. Ask what she does that the little one always try to do just like her
  2. Ask what she does that make the little one laugh
  3. Ask if she knows what some of the little one’s sounds or gestures mean
  4. Show her how to use a single word to confirm the meaning of that sound or gesture
  5. Encourage her to sing and teach her little sibling the songs she knows
  6. Praise her efforts to encourage imitation and not just provide interpretation

Want to know more about a toddler’s speech?

Toddler Speech: unraveling the mystery

Looking for strategies to use at home?

Two little words to encourage communication

Where are the WORDS?

Toy recommendations?

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!

Toys that do nothing

Be sure to follow my blog or “like” my page on Facebook for all of my play and language learning tips!

Thank you for reading and sharing.


Say it how you say it

Silent letters, “rules” that have more exceptions than the norm, and letters that make different sounds when combined with others… Ah, yes, the English language is a mess when it comes to spelling.  Why IS there an “e” at the end of so many words that makes no sound at all?  Who in the world decided that “I before E” was a rule or that I’s and E’s together were even necessary as they sometimes make the “ay” sound like “neighbor” – ugh.  Trying to help my kindergartner understand some of these AND that “ph” is actually an “f” sound (our most recent discussion)… whew, this is complicated.

BUT, this article isn’t about writing or spelling – thankfully.  This is about helping our little ones learn to talk.  As adults we often think of a word as it is spelled.  I want my little one to say my name so I think MOMMY in my head.  I want her to say “car” so I see this spelling in my head.  I don’t have to worry yet that sometimes it could be a “k” that makes that sound.   Visualizing the word in our minds is usually ok when we are helping little ones with talking, but I often find it creates confusion with the letter T.

It’s perfectly normal for a little one to say “wawa” when they want water.  Naturally we try to help her say it more clearly and repeat back “wa-TER”.  This is the problem.

Do YOU naturally say “waTer” with a “t” sound in the middle of that word?  Most Americans don’t.  We say something like “wadder”.  Most of the time we make middle “t” sounds like a “d” when there are vowel sounds surrounding it.  Examples (read aloud): little, better, bottle, batter, hotter, later, fighter, butter, cheetah, spaghetti, computer.  Did you use a “t” sound or a “d” sound?

Here’s another issue with T in the middle – sometimes we don’t say it at all!  Read these examples aloud: kitten, mitten, button, football, wanted, mountain, interview.  Did you say “t” in those words?

What’s my point?  Well, if we want to help our little ones say “water” correctly then don’t overemphasize the “t” if you normally wouldn’t say it.  If you wouldn’t normally say “t” when looking at the cuddly kitten in the book, then don’t emphasize “kiTTen” when you model it for your child.  If you want your child to say words the same way you do, sometimes we have to forget about how we spell and just say it how we say it!

Here are some other thoughts about letters and sounds and speaking and writing…

If your older child needs to correct the “s” sound be sure to include the word “ceiling” but not the word “shoe”.

If you’re practicing T words then include the word “toy” but not “train” as we usually say “tr” with more of a “ch” sound.

Lastly, if focusing on W words be sure to include the number “one”.  Yep, O-N-E starts with a “w” sound!

Gotta love the English language.  It’s a wonder anyone learns how to spell or speak! Ha!

For more information about a toddler’s speech development, you may want to read:

Toddler Speech: unraveling the mystery

For toys to help with talking, you may want to check out:

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!




Toddler Speech: unraveling the mystery

When little ones are learning to talk, words are rarely accurate.  This often leads to questions like: “Is that a word?”  “Did he just say…?”  “Did anyone else hear that?”  “Does that count as a word?”  “Is this normal?”

Toddlers are working hard to figure out how to make all those sounds in the right order at the right time.  It isn’t easy.  Most toddler words are generally simplified versions of true words (i.e. “wawa” for water).  Sometimes many of the toddler’s words are only understood by those who spend the most time with them.

Just take a look at this short sample of common toddler words (all of which are typical in development) and you’ll see how a toddler can be hard to understand:

  • “u”/up
  • “tah”/car
  • “bawoo”/balloon OR blue
  • “daw”/dog
  • “doh”/go
  • “mahmoh”/mower (lawn mower)
  • “dut”/duck
  • “dah”/star
  • “mitee”/Mickey
  • “pay”/plane (airplane)
  • “dop”/stop

With so many distorted, substituted, and omitted sounds, it’s no wonder some people have a hard time understanding toddlers.  So how do you know when your toddler’s speech is just typically hard to understand or when it might be time to ask a Speech-Language Pathologist?  It generally comes down to how often he is understood by familiar people (moms, dads, caregivers).  If a toddler’s mother (or most familiar caregiver) understands her 2-year-old less than 50% of the time then that could be a recipe for frustration…for all involved.

As an SLP myself, here’s what I tend to look for when deciding whether a toddler’s speech is on track (even if it’s difficult to understand at times):

1. Is there a consonant sound where a consonant sound should be?

It doesn’t necessarily need to be the right consonant sound.  For example, “top” for stop would be fine because there is a consonant sound at the beginning and at the end.  Saying “ah” for stop would mean that consonant sounds are being left out of the beginning and the end making this almost impossible to understand if the child weren’t also holding up their hand at the end of some movement.

HOW TO HELP:  If your little one leaves sounds out and says things like “u” for up, you can start emphasizing the missing sound when you repeat it back.  Use a visual cue (clap, tap, point, raise a finger, etc) when you say “p”.  Your toddler doesn’t necessarily need to try it again in that moment, they may just need to hear it again and again and again until they are ready.

2. Are there a variety of vowel sounds attempted in words?

For example, a child may say “dah” for dog, “da” for dad, and “doo” for two.  Using a few different vowels greatly improves how well a word can be understood.  If dog, dad, and two all sounded like “duh” then it would be really hard to figure out the meaning.

HOW TO HELP:  SING! Sing words slowly. Singing naturally elongates vowel sounds allowing toddlers to listen to them longer.  Call out to missing objects or people when you can’t find them or when you’re playing peek-a-boo “mooommyyyy, where are you?”

3. Are there a variety of consonant sounds?

Having at least a handful (or two) of consonant sounds when attempting words is important, just as with vowel sounds.  Typically the earliest consonant sounds toddlers will use in words are: b, d, m, n, h, y, t, p, and w.  That doesn’t mean these sounds will be accurate all the time and it doesn’t mean a toddler can’t say additional sounds.  I get really excited when a toddler can say a “k” or “g” or even a messy “s” sound in word attempts!

HOW TO HELP:  In general, make sure you always repeat words back to your little one accurately.  You can slightly emphasize the sound that he should change.  If your toddler is stuck with only 2-3 consonant sounds you might want to play with consonant sounds rather than trying them in words.

4. Do the word attempts mostly have the right number of syllables? 

I’m not expecting a toddler to use 3-4 syllables in a word but familiar two-syllable words should have two syllables (maybe not the first few times they try it but shortly afterwards).  For example, when trying to say bubble, does the toddler use two syllables “buhbuh” or just one “buh”?  “Dinosaur” is a long word.  Many toddlers will shorten it to “dino” or “disaur”.  That’s fine.

HOW TO HELP:  Clapping, tapping syllables is a fun way to emphasize two parts.  Singing can be helpful too.  Another idea would be to give an action to each part of the word.  Making words active might be more interesting to active toddlers!  Try dinosaur by putting your arms up high for “di” on your hips for “no” and on the ground for “saur”.

5. Do the words become more accurate over time?

The first time a toddler says “da” for daddy, everyone cheers!  In the next weeks or months to follow we would expect that word to change to “dada” and then eventually “daddy”.  As long as words are changing and becoming more accurate, that’s what’s most important.  They all start off a little messy!

If you’re wondering at what age all of these things happen, I’m generally referring to the 18-30 month age range in speech development.  However, the range of normal is so huge that I hesitate to attach a specific month with a specific sound (others may disagree).  The progression of sound development and the variety of sounds are the most important factors during this age range.  Again, most words are simplified at first.  A doggy is often a “doddy”, the color blue is often “boo”, and a spoon is frequently a “boon”.  These are all typical.

One of my favorite messy toddler words from my own son was “wibedy”.  It had the right number of syllables, a variety of consonant and vowel sounds, and it eventually changed over time (much to my dismay) into “library”.

As a final note, I wrote this as a guide for parents.  It is not meant to be a complete examination of speech development and is by no means a substitute for an evaluation by a Speech-Language Pathologist.

For a FREE, printable version of this post, go to: FREE Handouts you can print out

Other articles I’ve written that you may be interested in:

Two little words to encourage communication

Magical Moments

Wondering isn’t the same as worrying

Looking for PLAY ideas?

Toys that do nothing

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!

After the rain…PUDDLES!

Be sure to “like” and follow me on Facebook for all of my play and language learning tips!


Two little words to encourage communication

You want your toddler to say a word.  What do you do?

You get out their favorite book and open it up to the brightly colored picture of the ball.  You know he knows this word.  It won’t fail, right?

Parent:  “What’s this?”

Toddler:  blank stare

Parent:  “Say ball”

Toddler:  looks at the picture of the car

Parent (goes to get a ball then shows it to toddler):  “Do you want the ball?  Say ball”

Toddler:  leaves the room

Sound familiar?  The two most common ways we try to get children to say words may be asking “what’s this” and commanding “say…”.  However, these don’t always seem to work and they rarely work with new words.

Being asked to perform on demand often backfires, especially with little ones who are still learning new skills or those who just don’t want the spotlight.  Direct questions and commands place a lot of pressure on your toddler to talk or at least try to talk.

Taking the pressure off may be one of the most effective strategies we can use to open the doors of communication.  We can do that many ways, but one of my favorites is to start with two little words:

“I wonder”

Rather than ask your toddler “what’s this”, try wondering aloud while YOU look at the picture of the ball: “I wonder what this is.”  Sounds simple and maybe you’re thinking that won’t work.  Try it.  Take it a step further and wonder aloud if it could be “a car? no.  a bird? no.”  Keep wondering “hmmmm”.  Maybe even wonder aloud if it could be one of two things (this way you are reminding your toddler of the word without telling them) “I wonder if it’s a car or a ball…hmmm”.  You may be surprised when your toddler tries to help you by saying “ball!”

By stating “I wonder” you have opened the door to communication without demanding it.  Your toddler does not have to do anything, but if they choose to then it will have so much more of an impact and they may even remember that word more quickly the next time.  By putting the pressure on yourself to remember the word, you have taken all the pressure off of your toddler.  He will thank you… and then maybe feel sorry for you because you are so forgetful and even help you remember!

When you are hoping your toddler will say a word you think they already know, start with “I wonder.”

For a FREE, printable version of this post, go to: FREE Handouts you can print out

For more play ideas for early communication you may be interested in:

Indoor play with an active toddler

Magical Moments

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!



Talking… at the Playground!

No toys necessary for helping your little one learn to talk at the playground.  Slides, swings, climbing things, other people, mulch… so much to explore!  It’s also a great place to offer choices.  “Slide or swing?”  “More swinging or all done?”  IMG_20171022_151702If your little one is running around too fast to ask him where he wants to go then just follow him and don’t worry about making a choice first.  Ha!  When my own son (who couldn’t stop running) was little, the baby/toddler swing was the perfect place for imitating sounds and words, making silly faces at him, and teaching him the sign for “more”.

Slides are great (when not too hot) for “up, up, up” and “ready, set…(go)” and “wheeeee!”  The slides might be fast “whoosh”, slow “aaaaaah”, curvy “round and round and round”, or in a tunnel “ooooooo – echo echo”.  Sometimes the slides are bumpy “bump bump bump”.

Climbing things can be opportunities to teach asking for “help” or saying “pull”, “push” or “one more”.  Action and movement words may be the key with playground activities: run, jump, spin, step, go, stop, higher, lower, fast, slow, up, down, in, out, wheeee, uh-oh, kaboom!  You’ll also find plenty of opportunities for peek-a-boo.IMG_20171022_151719

Whatever skill your little one is learning make sure you throw in “tada” or “you did it” or “hooray”!  Cheers of accomplishment are important – and much appreciated by your little one for noticing her achievements.

Playing hide-n-seek or tag/chase are also great ways to use playgrounds for language learning “I see you” and “gonna get you”.

With preschoolers, making up an obstacle course “first, then, last” or having a scavenger hunt are fun playground activities.

One fun feature at several of our local playgrounds is a matching game (photo).  Once little ones figure out how to spin the pieces around and notice that the parts make a whole, add in some words or sounds “turn, turn…stop”.  To keep it simple just play with “yes” and “no” when you find the matches.  Change your voice, repeat the word several times, or sing the word to make it playful and keep your little one engaged.

In this particular matching game, IMG_20171022_125348 there are six animals to complete.  Make sure you name what your little one is searching for: “monkey’s belly” and “bunny’s feet” and “bird’s head”.  Take turns: “my turn” and “your turn”.  Remember that the more help YOU need to complete the match and the more INCORRECT matches you find, the more opportunities your little one has to correct you!  Then model a silly “oh mom…” (with a heavy sigh).  Don’t forget those cheers of accomplishment!

In this video (below), you’ll hear how she talks herself through finding the right body parts and then proudly announces her accomplishment!  With younger children, think of using single words or short phrases to accomplish the same task.

Transcript: “I did the monkey and now, elephant.  We already have the head, now just the belly, and his feet.  I got the whole elephant!”

Simpler version to use with little ones who aren’t yet using sentences:  “All done monkey.  Now elephant.  Head.  Hmmmm… belly…aaaaannnd feeeeet!  Tada!”

Playgrounds can also be a place for little ones who are struggling to talk to just play and have minimal pressure to try words.  They can just enjoy laughing, making meaningful (happy, silly, excited) sounds, and interacting with their parents who may be falling off of the balance beam or getting stuck on the slide.

For more outdoor play ideas check out:

After the rain…PUDDLES!


The Passionate Pointer

Want indoor ideas?  I’ve got those too!

Playing with…BOOKS!

Playing with… PLAYDOUGH!

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!

Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page for all the latest information on my play and language learning classes, parent workshops, and play ideas!




Magical Moments

A pointed finger.  Such a powerful and meaningful form of communication.  In this photo, he has just created an amazing opportunity for an adult to say something…anything…about whatever has caught his interest.  What will have the most impact?  How should we respond?  This is a magical moment.

Learning to talk is a process.  Some children pick it up fairly quickly and seemingly without much effort.  Many others have at least some frustration about learning to communicate and the question of time is a concern of parents.  How much time should be spent working on speech and language skills?  How much time should parents spend playing with their little ones?  How long is this going to take?  I often respond with this:

It’s not the minutes, it’s the moments.

As a speech therapist in a clinical setting I typically spent 30 minutes weekly with a child.  With the little ones, especially, 30 minutes of therapy rarely meant 30 minutes of a child demonstrating their best communication skills.  In that time there would be moments of greatness.  Those were the moments I would capitalize on their efforts.  Sometimes I would get lots of these moments in a session; other days we’d be happy with one.  I get that children often have different agendas.  This is why the magical moments are so important and why we have to be ready to respond whenever these moments happen.

In the photo above, a common response might be:

  • What do you see?
  • What’s that?
  • What color is that?
  • What do you want?
  • Who’s up there?

If that’s our response, we may have just missed our opportunity.  The toddler needs a word and we just asked a question.

The toddler who is learning to talk needs lots and lots of repetition.  They need to hear words many, many times.  Questions don’t give them the words they want to say.  Questions ask them to recall words they may not remember in that moment or require them to say words they have never said before.  Questions may feel like we are testing them.  No one likes pop quizzes.

Instead, follow their eye gaze.  Name their interest.  Give them simple words, sounds, or phrases to describe their interest or request.  Use their words.  In the picture above we could’ve said “hi” to the person at the top of the slide or named the person for him.  He was pointing to the next person but he didn’t know his name.  Rather than say “wait your turn” or “move away and let him come down” or “who’s that”… just say “hi, Luke”.  Your toddler will thank you, possibly by attempting to repeat you.

To take advantage of these magical moments think about reasons for communication.  Your toddler might want to:

  • request something (use object name or “more” or “help”)
  • protest something (“no”, “stop”, “don’t”)
  • ask something (“where”)
  • show emotion (“tada!” “yea!” “hooray!” “uh-oh!” “oh no!”
  • give a command (“go”, “mine”)

If you use the right word at the right time, there is a much better chance that your toddler will repeat it or at least attempt to say it.  You’ll know you guessed correctly because they might smile at you or point at it again or even tell you “yes”.

Here’s an example of a magical moment:

Toddler attempts to open the door to the backyard and whines or otherwise makes noise while looking at you.  Parent tries a few questions/ words before finally hitting on the right word.  When you say what the toddler wants to say, that’s the magic:

  • Parent: “do you want help?”
  • Toddler grunts
  • Parent:  “open the door?”
  • More grunting, louder now
  • Parent: “open?  say open”
  • On the verge of a major meltdown
  • Parent:  “outside?”
  • Toddler calms, smiles, and jumps up and down, says “ow hi”

Toddler desperately trying to close a door that is difficult to push but then achieves his goal!

  • Parent: “push!”
  • Toddler grunts and pushes
  • Parent: “puuuuuussssshhhhh”
  • Toddler grunts some more then gets the door closed
  • Parent: “TADA!”
  • Toddler turns, puts hands in the air “tada!”

Sometimes we just have to give them the right words.

Look for some of these potentially magical moments in your day:

  • Toddler playing with older sibling and reaches for a toy that sister is holding
  • Toddler attempting to open a closed container with his favorite snack inside
  • Toddler pointing to a toy that is out of his reach
  • Toddler giggles after watching you do something funny
  • Toddler makes excited sounds after watching a car go by

For a FREE, printable (condensed) version of this post, go to: FREE Handouts you can print out

For more ideas about encouraging speech at home check out:

Where are the WORDS?

For play ideas using toys to encourage talking at home check out:

Playing with…BOOKS!

Playing with…pop toobs

Best toys and gifts: a speech therapist’s list!

Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page for all the latest information regarding my play classes, parent workshops, and in-home play sessions.  Send me a message with any questions.




Wondering isn’t the same as worrying

“My 16-month old doesn’t really talk.  Is that normal?”

“I don’t understand what my almost two-year-old is saying.  What should I do?”

These two questions (or very similar questions) are asked frequently by many parents.  Typical responses from well-meaning friends and family (and maybe even the pediatrician) might go something like this:

  1.  He’s a boy.  They talk later.  Don’t worry.
  2.  My child didn’t talk until he was 3 years old.  Don’t worry.
  3.  Just keep talking to her all the time.  Don’t worry.
  4. All kids develop differently.  It’s normal.  Don’t worry.

It’s wonderful to be supportive of people who are worried, but does the original question have to be asked only when someone is worried about their child?  Maybe the parent just wants some strategies to use at home to help with speech and language skills.  They may simply be looking for information and by giving them the “don’t worry” response we haven’t really helped at all.  My fear is that telling people to not worry means they don’t need to do anything and nothing they do at home would change anything anyway.

Many parents may not necessarily be worried about their child but they just want solid information about how to help communication develop at home.  Their toddlers might be frustrated about communication even if there is no speech delay at all or at least not enough of a delay to qualify for an Early Intervention program.  These parents still want to help their children and we should give them the tools.  Thank you to the parents who ask “what can I do at home to help my child learn, to help my child talk, to help my child develop?”  Being a parent who wonders is not necessarily a parent who worries.

Yes, we should talk to our babies and toddlers –  A LOT.  However, you’ll have much more of an impact when you talk WITH your baby and not just AT her.  The way in which we interact, play and communicate with our little ones has a significant impact in how they learn to talk.

Some parents may have been told to wait another six months or wait until a specific age before they seek out help (which usually means calling an Early Intervention program or a speech therapist directly or getting a referral from the pediatrician).  So what do you do while you’re waiting?  Nothing?

Oh, right, just keep talking to your toddler and don’t worry.

Instead of taking a “Wait and See” approach… let’s call it “Do and See”.  Not every parent needs to have their 18-month old child evaluated by a Speech-Language Pathologist, but every parent could think about how they talk with their child at home and not if their child is talking.

This waiting period is the best time to start doing SOMETHING.  There are so many great resources online (and books and videos) about how to communicate and interact with your little one – even before speech develops.  Early communication skills like imitating, gesturing, and understanding language are essential to the foundation of speech.  This is where the best at home play and practice can really make an impact.  Wondering how to best help your child during this stage is fantastic!  THIS is why I started my blog and THIS is why I have a passion for helping parents who just want some support and ideas.  I don’t want parents to have to wait until they are truly worried or wait until that first word doesn’t develop before they learn how to be the best speech and language teacher for their own child.

Where to start?  At the beginning.  Words are not the beginning.


Social games like peekaboo, imitation skills like taking turns making raspberry noises, gestures like lifting arms to be picked up, understanding words for baby’s favorite people, objects… ALL of these things should develop before words.  If you want to help your little one, don’t do nothing… Start doing something.  How you play, interact, make sounds, use words, use silence, give choices…there are many ways you can make a difference at home.  Wondering is just the first step!

Here are some posts I’ve already written about communication before speech:

The Power of Peekaboo 

Two little words to encourage communication

Communicating before words

Magical Moments

Playing with…NO toys

Where are the WORDS?

Say it how you say it



Be sure to “like” and follow my Facebook page for all the latest information regarding my parent workshops, baby and toddler play classes, and in-home play sessions.  Looking for play ideas at home?  That’s what this blog is all about!  You’ll find them in the folder “play ideas”.



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