Social Games for Babies and Toddlers
I have received lots of questions lately from mothers of babies who have older siblings with language problems. They are so concerned about providing the “right” kinds of early activities to target language in their infants and younger babies, hoping to “head off” the difficulties their older children experienced. This is a valid concern for these parents. Late talking and other language difficulties do seem to “run in the family” for some of us.
The best thing you can do to teach your baby language is to talk directly to him. It’s never “too early” to talk to your baby. I remember working with a woman in an office when I was fresh out of college, but waiting to go to grad school. She knew that my educational background “had something to do with teaching kids to talk,” (her words), so she asked me how and when I thought she should start teaching her daughter to talk. I made lots of general comments about talking to her daughter all day long during activities, reading to her, singing songs to her with hand motions, and I was just about to launch into a tirade about the benefits of signing (all new research then), when I noticed the shocked look on her face. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, “My daughter is only 14 months old. Do you think she’s ready for that?”
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know that I wanted to scream, “Are you kidding me? Fourteen months old and you’re just now concerned about language? Good grief lady, where have you been? What have you been doing for the previous fourteen months of her life?” But of course I didn’t. I managed to say, “Yes, she’s ready,” in as nice a tone as I could muster and then continue to suggest things she should (and should have already been doing) to facilitate her daughter’s language skills.
All joking aside, (Sadly this was a true story, so it’s really not a joke), the most important thing you can do to teach your baby to talk is to teach him to understand words. Many children whose parents think they are “just late talkers” also have difficulty understanding what’s said to them. The truth is that children who don’t understand very much aren’t going to say very much.
I have been reading parents’ message boards for speech-language delays and other developmental issues on several different websites. So many of them focus on their children’s language concerns as purely “expressive” issues, meaning that their children aren’t saying as much as their peers. When you read on about their individual children’s stories, many of them report “receptive” issues too, or difficulty understanding language. Sometimes they report that the receptive delays are greater than the expressive delays. This is a big, big problem.
Let me repeat that again for those of you who need extra clarification. This is a huge problem. In typically developing language, children understand more than they can say. If your child’s receptive skills are lower than his expressive skills, this is “atypical” development. You need to work hard on helping your child learn not only how to talk, but more importantly, how to understand what’s said to him. For more ideas for this, see the post, “Improving Receptive Language Skills.”
Now that I’ve finished today’s rant, here’s the down and dirty list of activities to do at home to work on language with infants and young toddlers:
1. Talk directly to him about what’s going on around him. Especially talk about what he’s paying attention to at the moment. Name people, objects, actions, and pictures in books frequently. Give him specific words to “link” to activities. Sometimes parents of think that they are doing a fine job of talking to their children when there could be a problem with HOW they are talking. I’ll give you an example to illustrate this point. I am working with a great set of parents right now who have been blessed with a set of triplets, all boys. Mom and dad both work outside the home, and they have a wonderful new nanny. These parents by natures are both very nurturing and both have quirky senses of humor. Consequently, when they come home or anytime they interact with their children, they spend lots of time greeting their children, “Hi guys,” and nurturing them, “I really missed you today. Did you miss Mommy too? I’m so glad to see you this afternoon.” Then the parents start talking to each other saying funny comments. “Wow – look at him! What happened to him today? What’s that facial expression about?” Even though technically the boys are hearing lots of words, it’s not kind of language they can learn from.
2. Play lots of social games. Games I make sure I remind parents to play include –
Peek-a-boo. For those of you who need a tutorial, cover your baby’s face with a blanket. Ask, “Where’s (baby’s name)?” Call him several times since this builds anticipation. Then jerk the blanket off with a big gesture and say, “Boo!” I specifically say, “boo,” rather than “peek-a-boo,” “pee-pie,” or even, “There he is,” because “boo” is a word your baby will more likely be able to say back rather than the other versions. I’m always planning ahead to make sure that I am teaching an eventual response so that the baby can join in verbally.
What you want to look for is that your baby is “learning” the game. For example, at first we want to see him look at you and smile and laugh when you take the blanket off his head. If he won’t laugh, try a tickle or jiggle to get him going. After playing this game for a while, we want to see him start to kick or move under the blanket and start to giggle in anticipation that you are going to surprise him by taking the blanket off. Then we want to see him try to participate by taking the blanket off his own head because he “knows” this comes next. Then we want to see him try to cover his own head when you give him the blanket.
An indication that he’s really “learned” the game comes when we see him initiating the game with you by reaching out on his own to get a blanket, getting your attention with a giggle or squeal to let you know he wants to play, and then performing all of the covering/uncovering by himself. Saying “boo” might not come for months, but if he’s doing all of the prerequisites, we know he’s understanding the routine, with or without the word.
So Big. This game begins when parents ask, “How big is (baby’s name)?” Then mom or dad should answer, “Sooooo big” while holding both arms up over their heads. If your baby isn’t watching or trying to imitate holding his arms up, help him do this. Repeat this cycle for 5 or 6 times before moving on to a new game. Babies and toddlers need repetition to learn. When a baby has truly learned this game, he holds his arms up, grins, and looks at his parents to say the words for him.
Patty–Cake. This classic has so many different ways you can play. I say, “Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man. Bake me a cake as fast as you can. Pat it out. Roll it up. Throw it in the pan.” I clap to the rhythm of the words during the patty cake and bake lines, clap fast on the “pat it out,” line, roll my hands in a circle on “roll it up,” and then throw my hands in the air for, “Throw it in the pan.” Help your baby do the motions until you’ve done it for several days or weeks, but stop helping when she begins to start to clap by herself.
Row Your Boat. Sit down on the floor with your legs outstretched in front of you and place your baby on your legs. Hold your baby’s hands and row back and forward as you sing, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” I sing a cute second verse with better hand motions. “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. If you see an alligator, close your eyes and scream.” On the “alligator” line, let go of your baby’s hands and make a big alligator mouth by opening and closing your outstretched arms/hands. Cover your eyes for, “Close your eyes.” After you sing, “Scream,” SCREAM! Toddlers love this one! After you’ve played this one for a while, help your child participate and then initiate this game with you by putting him on lap and then asking what he wants to play. Don’t immediately offer your hands to “Row.” Many kids initiate this with me by reaching down and grabbing both of my hands and starting to rock back and forth. Also help start the hand motions for the second stanza, but let her do it on her own as soon as she can. Don’t forget to encourage the “scream” at the end. Many kids will imitate this when they can’t yet imitate a word.
Ride Little Horsie– Another game for sitting on the floor with your baby seated on your outstretched legs. Hold his hands, bounce him up and down on your legs, and sing, “Ride a little horsie to town. Watch out (name), don’t fall down.” On down, spread your legs so that he falls to the floor. When he’s learning this one, pause and exaggerate, “Dooooon’tt faaall” before you say “down” so he begins to anticipate the falling gag. When a toddler has learned this one, I have him say, “down” or even look down before I will let him fall. Kids can initiate this one by grabbing your hands and bouncing or asking for “horsie.”
I have kids pick between “Row Row” and “Horsie” once they’ve learned them and like them both.
Here Come the Tickle Fingers – For this game, I lean way back so it looks like I’m getting closer with every word. I wiggle my fingers and pause between every word to build anticipation as I lean forward closer and closer. Then I say, “Tickle, tickle, tickle” as I tickle them. Kids “ask” for this game by either grabbing their bellies and giggling like I’m going to tickle them or by wiggling their fingers toward me. When kids can talk, I wait for them to say the “tickle” part before I do it. Don’t forget to do lots of repetitions so she “learns” the game.
1, 2, 3, UP or JUMP! –For babies who can stand but not walk, I stand them on my lap and hold them under their arms counting, “1, 2, 3” and then lift them into the air on “up.” Hold their faces down to yours while they are still in the air and laugh/kiss them. When they’re too heavy for me to lift over and over again, or if they like to jump, I do this version. Be creative. Sometimes I hold their hands and let them jump off a chair or couch to me this way. Don’t forget to pause and build excitement. Let them fill-in-the-blanks when they can say the words. Pause to give them a chance to finish after you count, “1, 2, ___.”
Up/Down – Hold a child on the floor on your outstretched legs again. Lift up your knees saying, “Up,” and then lower them down to the floor saying, “Down.” Lots of times I repeat “Up, up, up, up, up” on the way up and then “Down, down, down, down, down.” Pause and wait for them to say, “up” or “down” once they have learned the game.
I’m Gonna Get ‘cha, Get’cha, Get’cha – I use this with runners who like to be chased. When they are far enough away from me, I exaggerate taking giant steps walking toward them with big arm motions and slowly saying, “I’m ,g o n n a ,” and then I run toward them and grab them on the get’cha, get’cha, get’cha part. Kids who start to initiate this will look at me with twinkly eyes, start to run, and then turn around to see if I’m going to follow them and start the game.
Sing songs with hand motions. My favorite ones are:
Itsy, Bitsy Spider
Wheels on the Bus
Open Shut Them
Head Shoulders Knees and Toes
If You’re Happy and You Know It
Ring Around the Rosies
Skinamarinky Dinky Dink
If you don’t know to remember the words or motions to these classics, you can find them in my book Teach Me To Play WITH You. More importantly, you’ll get a list of GOALS to help you walk through the games so you know you’re TEACHING a child how to play the game, how to interact with you, how to link meaning with words, and how to “do his part” during the game – all very important foundational skills for talking. So important in fact, that I can confidently say… NO CHILD LEARNS TO TALK UNTIL HE’S MASTERED THESE SKILLS.
The good news is…. when you help a child learn these things, language develops and a child learns to communicate!! No matter what age or developmental level your late talker is, these games help… I promise!
What are you waiting for???