How to Expand Your Child’s Play!

Play is highly correlated to your child’s cognitive and speech and language development and is a great way to bond with your little one! Many parents are challenged by how to play with their little one and get involved in their world. Not only is learning to play important, but equally important is the expansion of your little one’s play.

Some toddlers get “stuck” in wanting to play with a toy in only one or two ways. Toddlers who play with a toy in a limited number of ways are showing us that they do not quite understand the function or multiple functions of a toy. Take for example a child who only moves a car back and forth on a table. This little one is showing us they understand that the car can move, but they are not yet aware of all the other things we can do with that same car. We can drive the car up the couch, it can crash or fall, the car can get gas or a car wash, pick up pretend toys and animals, or take us to different places like the grocery store or to see friends and family.

Why Do We Want to Expand Play?

Expanded play shows us your little one’s expanded understanding of the world. Play allows adults to label and model actions that your child is completing, in turn, helping your child’s speech and language skills develop.

The higher levels of play your little one demonstrates, the more they understand their world and the more language they have. If a child is playing with an object in just one way, there is a limited amount of words we can use to talk about that play interaction. For example: Your little one hands you a ball. You could say: “Ball!” “Look, ball.” “Red ball.” “Big ball.” If your child throws a ball to you, you can add “Throw ball.” “Bounce!” “Go ball!” “My turn!” “Your turn” and so much more. By expanding from showing to playing, there are SO MANY more words we can use to support your little one’s vocabulary development!

Tips for Expanding Play:

  1. Get on your child’s level:Sit on the floor or at the table together so you are physically at the same level as your child. Being on the same level also increases your eye contact and is easier to share attention with your child.
  2. Follow their lead:If your kiddo is playing with a car, you play with a car too! Try finding another of the same toy so you each have a toy and you don’t have to take turns.
  3. Add ONE play idea at a time:Sometimes we get a little over-zealous showing our kids 50 different ways to do something—it can be overwhelming. Remember expanding play is a gradual process and each child learns at their own pace. Your little one might need you to show something once or they might need some more help to copy your play—that is okay. Start by adding ONE step. Your child shows you a ball. You roll the ball back to them. Once your child is imitating one action, show them something new (try bouncing the ball)!
  4. Keep your language simple: We want to say one word above what our child is saying. If your little one says, “Ball” add an action word to describe how you are playing: “Ball go!” “Bounce ball.” etc. If your little one isn’t saying anything yet, just label the object or the action, or even just make a silly sound (slurping if you’re playing with a pretend cup)!
  5. Don’t force it:If your little one is getting frustrated that you are changing their play, show them one more time and move on. We want to keep play fun, exciting, and enjoyable for both of you! If your little one abandons an activity, move with them or take a short break and join them later to play again.

For more info on play and play milestones, check out some of PlayWorks’ previous blog posts:

Play in speech and language therapy: http://playworkschicago.com/toddlers-speech-therapist-playing-child/

Toy guide for babies through toddlers: http://playworkschicago.com/toy-guide-babies-toddlers/

Jessie Delos Reyes, MA, CCC-SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist

Image: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/want-to-boost-your-toddlers-development-put-a-toy-chicken-on-your-head-1.485117