Teaching Body Parts to Toddlers

Check out any milestone list for toddlers, and you’ll see some variation of “knows body parts.”

Assessment tools used by pediatric speech-language pathologists include the following age ranges for this early skill:

  • Points to two different body parts by 12 months
  • Identifies at least 6 different parts and/or clothing items on himself or a doll by 18 months

Parents often begin by trying to teach a child facial body parts, usually eyes, nose, and mouth, and all at the same time! It’s no wonder that many children with developmental delays mix these up!

I recommend to parents that we begin with body parts that are relatively far away from each other, and include at least a couple the toddler can see!

I teach belly (or tummy), toes, and hair first, and in that order.

To make this more fun, turn this activity into a little game. When the toddler is on her back, use your voice to build anticipation as you say, “Where’s your belly? I’m gonna get your belly! Show me your belly!” If she likes tickling, quickly tickle her stomach as you say, “Belly! I got your belly! There’s your belly! Belly!”

When she’s consistently reaching for her belly as you play this game, you’ll know she’s understood.

Only then should you move on and teach a new body part.

I also suggest to parents that they focus on helping a child learn to point to body parts on his or her own body, rather than teaching the body part on the adult. Many times toddlers, particularly those with developmental language lags, aren’t able to generalize this skill. A young child may grab mom’s nose when mom says, “Nose,” but not point to her own nose when asked, “Where’s your nose?”

Another important way to help a child learn body parts is to PRACTICE. When a toddler is having difficulty learning to understand and use words, repetition is critical to make sure that a child is exposed to new words and concepts many, many times throughout a day and throughout the week. Working on learning to point to a body part during a weekly therapy session or even once a day at bathtime may not be enough to help a young child learn to respond.

At home parents can faithfully label body parts and clothing items during baths, diaper changes, and while getting dressed.  These events are predictable and occur over and over in a toddler’s life, making them the perfect times to naturally work in these kinds of words. Helping busy parents incorporate language into their daily routines improves the likelihood that moms and dads connect with a child and remember to target new words?during these mundane tasks.

When a child has mastered pointing to belly, toes, and hair, select the next body parts to learn based on what a child likes to do. For a child who likes to clap, teach hands. When a child frequently mouths toys, teach mouth or teeth.

Make learning body parts as fun and interactive as you can. Teach eyes by blinking yours, and help a child learn to blink his own eyes. Pretend to sneeze, snort, or snore when you’re teaching nose. Teasingly act like you’re going to eat his feet when you’re teaching toes.

These strategies also help a young child learn how to imitate your actions, a very important precursor to imitating words.

If you’re using a body parts book, a baby doll, or a puzzle to help a child learn body parts,make sure that you’re also pointing out the REAL body part on the child and on yourself! Even when you’re using a mirror, be sure the child finds the body part on his or her own little body too. Since that’s how the skill is measured, that’s how we should teach it!

I have a short video in my Therapy Tip of the Week series about teaching body parts. Watch it here.

Not understanding body parts by 18 months is a red flag for a receptive language delay. Receptive language means what a child understands. For more information, check out a more detailed explanation of receptive language here and read for ideas for parents to use at home here.

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For more ideas for helping a child learn early language milestones, take a look at my book Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual! 

Teach Me To Talk Therapy Manual

For parents, Teach Me To Listen and Obey 1 & 2 will get you started working on LOTS of receptive language during play and games at home!

Listen and Obey

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