Learning how to communicate is a very natural process. Babies are born with an innate ability to learn language as in the same way they learn how to walk. As a species of animal that uses language to communicate, humans are biologically hard-wired for this just as we are hard-wired to learn and adapt to our environments. Evidence of this comes from a wide range of research. Faith Brynie, author of Brain Sense for example, describes how infants just days old can detect changes in speech sounds and syllables in words. In addition, research shows that babies can perceive all 150 phonemes, or sounds, in all the languages in the world from birth. Further language development occurs through observation and social interaction with others. Since the most important way that children learn is through play and through the share of play with others, we want to not only engage in play, but also play with the language that we use.
Below I will share how you can facilitate language play and development. However, it is important to keep in mind that it does develop naturally and should not be forced. We strive to live in connection with our children and most of us want to support (not control) their life journey as much as possible. So, let go of expectation and agenda and just BE with your child celebrating who they are AS they are in the moment. Let go of the fear and pressure that you may hold onto regarding what might be expected according to your own beliefs or mainstream society’s standards. Your child will learn what they are supposed to learn in order to survive and thrive by absorbing the cultural norms of their environment when they are ready. With that said, if you ever do have concerns regarding their language development, never hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician for help.
How can I play with language with my kids?
Start with a shift in perspective. Shift perspective to your child. Consider life from their point of view. What interests them? What are they expressing or trying to express to you? How can I change the environment to better meet their needs? Honor them as capable, competent, and unique beings who need your support in their journey through life starting from the day they are born. They really depend on adults to provide them with the most nurturing physical and emotional environment possible This perspective shift can help you develop a respectful, trusting relationship where development and growth can flourish.
Here are 10 ways that you can play with language with your babies and kids.
- Model- What does life look like from your child’s point of view? Well, they love to watch others and learn. Model for them the behaviors that you want to see. Let them watch you talk, sing, read, make animals sounds, silly sounds, or letter sounds. Model for them how to speak with meaning and purpose. Model for them the value of the spoken and written word. Maybe turn up the music and sing some of your favorite songs and theirs. Ask them questions about their toys and wait for a response. Play cars, dolls, or super heroes with them modeling how to engage in conversations. Pick up a book or a piece of writing (maybe a recipe or piece of mail) and let them see and hear you find meaning in what you read and say. But again, don’t force it. Strive to be authentic with your kids. If you really don’t love singing, reading, or writing then you can try instead to create a cognitively challenging environment with books, music, and other toys available then just sit back, observe, and watch them play with words, and sounds trusting in the fact that they are capable of self-directing their learning.
- Make Up Stories– Even if it is just a short 2-minute story with a beginning, middle, and end, your children will be captivated by just the sound of your voice and look in your eyes as you connect with them. My kids love silly stories, so I always try to add in a little silliness to make them giggle and hold their attention.
- Rhyme- Rhyming is fun at any age! I will take any word and make real rhyming words or nonsense words and the kids will often chime in with delight. When kids rhyme they demonstrate the ability to listen closely to sounds within words. They can identify and manipulate the sounds in words. It is a skill that helps them learn to read. Start with simple CVC words with babies and toddlers. For example you might say, “who wants to have fun in the sun today? Hey guess what? Fun and Sun rhyme!” Then you can continue to rattle off more rhyming words. “Sun, fun, run, pun, nun.” Kids will catch on and will add in their own. Don’t forget about the tried and true nursery rhymes and of course books that rhyme! We are always looking for words that rhyme in books.
- Sing- Language is almost like a song if you really think about it. Consider babies who coo, gargle, and babble. The incessant vocal play sounds like singing! So chime right in and sing your favorite tunes. Singing and music have so many incredible benefits for growth and development plus babies and kids just love it! They do not care if you are off pitch or out of tune, they love the sound of their parents voice no matter what. You can even get creative and change the way you sing a song by singing more slowly, quickly, in a different voice, or changing the words.
- Be present– Yes, it is so hard to put down your phone or turn off the TV sometimes, but when you spend time with your child strive to limit distractions so that you can make eye contact and place your full attention on your child. They can better study your face, your mouth, and lips as you talk and also carefully attend to the sounds they hear in your words and voice.
- Point, talk, narrate- When your baby points to something, or even gazes at something, stop and tell them the word. As you say the word, you can point to it too. And tell your baby what you are doing, as you do it. You might say: “Will you come get the juice from the refrigerator with me? This is the refrigerator. Open the refrigerator and get the juice. Now close the refridgemeter and pour it in a cup.” This narration allows them to hear lots of language being used in meaningful ways. And if this seems too overwhelming to you, you might focus on the caregiving moments to narrate. Diaper changes, potty times, dressing, bathing, eating. These can be times where it might feel more natural and easy to narrate.
- Take turns talking- Talk to your baby from the day they are born. And, once they start cooing around 2-3 months, take turns talking with them! Give them enough time to respond if they wish. This wait time is critical because it allows your child to process what you have said and gives them the opportunity to practice their developing language skills.
- Talk with Expression and Interest– Parents of little ones are exhausted nearly ALL the time. Those days when you can’t think straight and your head is aching with exhaustion are common. But, showing interest and having expression when you talk, sing, rhyme, and read do matter. Consider what you would prefer: would you like to listen to someone who sounds tired and monotone all day or would you prefer a more expressive voice with varying inflections and tones? When reading a book, try adding in some different voices for characters to get in a few extra giggles as you read. Or, show enthusiasm when your kids want to share stories with you and sing (even if it is the 100th time you’ve heard it that day.) With that said, stay as genuine and authentic as you can.
- Read- Let them hear your voice and the way in which language is used. Get books and various texts of ALL kinds not just ones that may be considered on level or developmentally appropriate. Board books are not just for babies! Picture books with words, picture books without words, chapter books, nonfiction, thank you cards, recipes, To Do lists, calendars, instructions for how to put together a dresser, etc. Keep these easily accessible so that your child can see the value of letters, sounds, and reading. Let your kids choose their own books, but be sure to get some for yourself too. Excitement for reading is contagious. As you read, point to pictures,, wonder out loud, make predictions, talk about characters, point and talk about words and letters.
- Engage in Conversations- I love this one because it’s easy peasy. Talk with your kids as much as you can! Talk about what interests THEM the most. This way they can practice language skills naturally, meaningfully, and authentically! It will allow them to dive deeper into conversations that spark further inquiry, discovery, and joy! My kids currently love the PJ Masks characters right now and my 1 year old toddler loves just about anything he sees out our front window- birds, people, dogs, wind, leaves, trucks. We talk about what interests them and I listen to what they have to say!
I’d like to end with a reiteration of the caveat I mentioned earlier on language play which is to be authentic with your kids. They will know when you are feeling grumpy, sad, annoyed, or just plain faking it. In fact, it is important to model healthy emotional expression and regulation to your children because that is how they will learn to do the same as they age. So while I would never recommend being mad at your child, it is completely healthy and preferred to show them emotions of all kinds. Practice self-compassion and tell them you need a break when needed. And, it pays to be authentic, genuine, and true with your kids as much as possible so that they can learn to be genuine and true to themselves. If any of the above suggestions do not feel right or natural to you, then try something different to connect authentically!
What do you think? How did you play with language today?