Playing peek-a-boo is a time-honored ritual between babies and parents. Many times parents of young children with developmental delays miss out on this fun because they’re not sure how to modify the game for a toddler with special needs.
A mom may have instigated peek-a-boo a few times to try to quiet her fussy baby, but when her child didn’t seem to understand or respond, she assumed he didn’t like it and then she stopped trying. No one likes to do something when they think they’re not good at it…
Helping a young child learn to play WITH an adult is a huge first step in helping him learn how to communicate. ALL communication begins with social interaction. Learning to play social games, like peek-a-boo, is the easiest and earliest phase of social interaction and engagement as a child begins to pay attention to and respond to others. Once a child learns to enjoy being with another person, he forms the foundation necessary to help him understand and use language.
Many professionals have written extensively about using relationships and emotional connections as the underlying theory in the treatment of children with social communication delays. This focus is exactly where “speech therapy” should begin for many toddlers.
In my practice as a speech-language pathologist who specializes in infants and toddlers, I spend as much time working with parents as I do children!
As early interventionists, we should use early therapy sessions to teach parents HOW to play these games with their own children. We do this first by modeling how to play the game with the child demonstrating the strategies we use to help a child learn to participate. We invite parents to play along too, so that they are comfortable. We show them how to read a child’s cues and adapt the game to meet the child where he or she is developmentally building on each tiny success. Finally, we coach parents to reinforce a child’s attempts so that they can continue to play together long after the therapy session is over.
Let me give you an example…
I teach parents to approach a game like peek-a-boo with several different steps, or goals, we want a child to achieve. In sessions, I don’t leave the way a parent plays to chance. I tell them specifically how we’re going to set up the game so that a child can learn to do one small part and then gradually add another small part until he or she is participating in (and loving!) an entire game.
This is how the game peek-a-boo is written in my therapy manual Teach Me to Play WITH You and it’s EXACTLY how I teach parents to play when I’m treating their child. Again, I provide detailed instructions so there are no lingering doubts about what goals we’re addressing, or even how we play.
PEEK-A-BOO (excerpt from Teach Me To Play WITH You)
How to Play:
Cover your child’s head with a blanket and then ask, “Where’s _____?” Ask several times and build anticipation with your voice.
Jerk the blanket off with a big gesture and say, “Boo!” Specifically say, “Boo,” rather than “Peek-a-boo,” “Pee-pie,” or even, “There she is,” because “Boo” is a word your toddler is more likely to be able to say.
Watch his responses. We want him to connect with you by looking at you, smiling, and laughing when you remove the blanket. If he doesn’t laugh, be more fun! Smile bigger! Squeal! Increase your own level of energy, animation, and excitement. Try a tickle or jiggle to get him going.
After a while, we want her to move or giggle in anticipation that you are going to take the blanket off her head.
Next we want him to try to remove the blanket by himself. Help him if he gets stuck.
After a few days playing this game, we want her to try to cover her own head when you give her the blanket to begin the game.
You can help him learn to initiate the game by saying, “Where’s _____” when his head is even partially covered with a blanket at other times during the day.
An indication that he’s really “learned” the game comes when he initiates the game with you by reaching out on his own to get a blanket and then covering and uncovering himself. Place a blanket in front of him and ask, “Play boo?” If he doesn’t pick it up, point to the blanket so that he learns to get the blanket by himself to begin the game.
Toddlers learn through repetition. Young children with difficulty paying attention need even more repetition. Play this game over and over throughout the day with several repetitions each time so that he “learns” the game.
Saying “Boo” might not come right away, but if she’s doing all of the other parts, we know she’s understanding the routine, with or without the word. Keep trying to elicit this word by saying, “Boo” many times during play to help her learn to imitate you. Once you’ve played this game many times for several days, pause just before you say, “Boo!” Smile and look expectantly at your child as if to indicate that it’s her turn to say “Boo!” Since you’ve played this game many, many times now and she knows what comes next, your child may surprise you and say it on her own!
As with all of our play routines, eventually your child should play this game several times in a row before moving on to another game or toy with you during your 1:1 play time.
When we’ve established this game during sessions and parents report success with the basic routine at home, I make sure to give them great ideas for how to use this game in other ways. Therapists call this process ”carry over” and it’s very important that we address carry over with each new skill and activity.
So for a game like Peek-a-boo, here’s how carry over looks:
Ways to Expand the Game:
1. Hide under the blanket, and let your child take the blanket off your head. Say, “Where’s Mommy?” If your child doesn’t try to uncover you, uncover yourself. Better yet, have someone else help your child take the blanket off your head to teach him that he can do this part of the game.
2. Get a new person to play either role by being the person who hides or calls the child as he hides.
3. Play with another obstacle. Hide behind a pillow, a door, behind the shower curtain during bath, or behind the couch when your child is playing nearby. Call your child as you did before saying, “Where’s ____?” Or ask your child, “Where’s Mommy?” Then pop out and say, “Boo!”
4. When your child masters this game and can cover and uncover her own head easily, introduce the next activity, “Where Oh Where.”
By teaching a parent why and how to play these kinds of games, we exponentially increase therapy time for a child, and that’s when real progress occurs!
If you need more help using and teaching early and easy social routines, I’ve written the instructions for most of the games I routinely use in speech therapy sessions in my therapy manual Teach Me To Play WITH You. For more information about this book, click here.