We have fun spending time in the fresh air, running around, and believe it or not we can get language and relationship activities done at the park. Kids are very often on the move and that’s definitely developmentally appropriate. So, when we can find ways to enrich language skills and relationship skills while they’re moving, it is a win for everyone.
Very often when we think of speech and language skills, we think of words and the sounds we use to form the words. There are actually a set of skills children need before they use words; these are called prelinguistic communication skills. Prelinguistic communication skills include gestures, vocalizations, eye-gaze, and facial expressions. They include a set of skills called joint attention (when two people share an interest in an object and event) social reciprocity (or initiating conversation, turn-taking, and responding to communication). Most of the time babies are very skilled at prelinguistic communication by 9-15 months of age. Children with language delays and Autism may take more time to learn these skills and require specific practice.
The park can be a great place to work on these skills. The park allows your child to move around freely and engage their sensory motor skills, which may activate different parts of the brain, and help your child be more open to building relationships, and/or language skills.
Let’s start on the swings, because this is often the first thing a child can use at the park. Whether your child is sitting in a bucket swing or a regular swing try standing in front of them to push, this way you and your child are face to face. Once you’ve established swinging as a fun game, try holding the swing like you are ready to let go, but wait for your child to look at you. Once they look at you, let them go and say “swing”, “weee”, or “go”. That way you’ve established joint attention, reinforced the eye-contact and given a language model. To build on this and sustain the eye-gaze for longer you can say “ready-set-go” or “one-two-three-go.” Once you’ve established joint attention, you can build anticipation by changing the amount of time you wait between words in the phrase. Finally, wait until your child gestures, signs, or uses a word before you let go. Remember the rule of plus one/two: for every word your child says you repeat the phrase adding one-two words to help build language skills.
After the swing, the slide is a great way to work on language and relationship skills. Let your child climb to the top of the slide and then playfully block them from going down. Again, you can wait for eye-contact, a gesture, or a word to move out of the way. Great vocabulary words to work on with the slide include: go, stop, up, down, high, low, slow and fast. If you are at a park that has a double slide, try going down next to your child. At the bottom try to sustain their attention with a high-five and say “we did it!” See if you’ll child will request ‘more slide’ thereby building more social reciprocity into the activity by extending the turn taking. You can see how long you can keep the turn taking going by keeping the sliding game fun.
Another structure we like to play with at the park is the merry-go-round. My favorite thing to do with the merry-go-round is to sing a simple song:
“Round and Round on the merry-go-round
Round and Round on the merry go-round
Round and Round on the merry-go-round
You do exactly what the words say and then wait for your child to look at you, gesture, or request more. Songs are great way to help promote language learning. They have predictable words in a predictable order, they may have predictable actions your child can do, and they lend themselves to predictable turn-taking. Once your child is familiar with this song or any song, pause and see if your child will fill in the next word/phrase. If they do keep singing and try pausing in more places. If your child doesn’t fill in the word, fill in the words for them after the pause and try again another time. Another song you can sing with the merry-go-round is Ring-Around-the-Rosey, instead of falling down you can say, “stop.”
Once your child tries some of these activities at the park they will become part of a routine, or predictable pattern which young children and children with Autism and language delays love. The routine you build will not only help build social communication, and expressive communication but also comprehension. Once you have a well established routine try changing things up just a little. For example, try spinning the swing instead of pushing it back and forth. This may surprise your child, which may cause him to look at you and smile (i.e. joint attention), and it will give your child something else to request in the future (i.e. social reciprocity).
Other language building activities to expand park play include:
The most important thing to remember is to have fun with your child at the park. We all learn best when we are interested in the activity and when we are having fun.
Randi is wife and mother to three kids aged 12, 10 and 4. She was born and raised in West Bloomfield where she is currently a stay-at-home mom to provide language rich activities for her youngest, who has Autism. Prior to making the switch to full time mommy, Randi was a pediatric speech pathologist for the past 15 years.