Benefits of Social Games as a Therapy Strategy

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Do you play games like Peek-a-Boo and Ring Around the Rosies in speech therapy sessions with toddlers? If you do, congratulations! You are using evidence-based practice. If you’re not using social games as one of your cornerstone strategies, then let me explain the benefits of using social games during therapy sessions with late talking toddlers.

(This information is from my course Early Speech-Language Development: Taking Theory to the Floor. If you’re an SLP and want a comprehensive overview of treatment strategies for toddlers with language delay, get it today! It’s pre-approved for ASHA CEUs for SLPs.)

Benefits of Using Social Games as a Therapy Strategy

Benefit #1:

Social Games motivate children to stay in close proximity and maintain interaction with you.

My favorite quote about this is from a book called Giggle Time by Susan Aud Sonders:

“Games increase a child’s staying power.” 

Staying power means that you’ll teach a child to stay with you, rather than running away or using other avoidance behaviors – a HUGE problem during therapy sessions. Rather than pleading with a child to return, or chasing around after her, or even trying to punish him (PLEASE don’t do that!!), keep toddlers so engaged that they don’t leave in the first place.

Don’t believe it’s possible?

This does take some finesse, but it can be done when you introduce fun social games as the primary activity during therapy sessions.

Begin by introducing one game and then playing it several (or even many!) times to help a child “learn” to enjoy the routine. If a child doesn’t love it at first, no problem. Keep trying! Many times, we quit too soon and don’t hang in there long enough for a child to begin to like the game.

Remember… repetition is your #1 strategy to help any toddler learn anything – including language!

Since social games will be your primary therapy activity, it also means that you’ll need to know more than 2 or 3 different games. During the courses I teach, I suggest that therapists know 10 to 15 different social games they can easily modify for any kid in any setting.

In my live courses, I ask therapists to make a list their favorite social games. If you’re a therapist, stop right now and list your own “go to” social games. If that’s hard for you, I can help!!

Learn my favorite social routines in my therapy manual Teach Me To Play WITH You. In the book, you’ll learn dozens of fun games to use with toddlers to help them learn to stay with you! These games are easy to teach parents and other caregivers  – even older siblings!

The best part of the this book is that I’ve done all the hard work for you. You’ll not only find the words and directions for these little songs and games, but you’ll also receive a list of GOALS for each game. This way, you’ll know exactly how to implement the game to get the best results. Read more about Teach Me To Play WITH You.

Benefit #2:

Social Games provide practical and natural ways to target joint attention and reciprocity with young children who are easily distracted, busy, or avoid interaction.

Any therapist will tell you that designing strategies and activities for working on these kinds of social interaction skills can be tremendously challenging. Read more about joint attention and reciprocity or turn-taking.

You can only say things like ‘Look at me!’ or ‘Pay attention!” so many times before a toddler begins to resist your efforts or tune you out.

However, when you use a social game, these goals are automatically built in.

You’ll be targeting improvements without adding a new “layer” for the activity – which is sometimes why playing with toys during therapy with these kids can be frustrating too. When the child avoids you in favor of the toy, you begin to suspect that you need to try something different.

Social games are the easiest strategy when this is a problem.

Not sure what I mean by social games? I can fix that!

My book Teach Me To Play WITH You will teach you dozens of games to play with toddlers. These games are easy to teach parents and other caregivers  – even older siblings! The best part of the this book is that I’ve done all the hard work for you. You’ll not only find the words and directions for these little songs and games, but you’ll also receive a list of GOALS for each game. This way, you’ll know exactly how to implement the game to get the best results. Read more about Teach Me To Play WITH You.

Benefit #3:

Social Games teach the power of an emotional connection with another person.

When kids seem to avoid others, there’s little opportunity for them to learn things from other people. This explains why toddlers with social interaction quirks NEARLY ALWAYS have communication delays.

Because communicating and interacting isn’t coming naturally, we have to give children REASONS to learn to want to be with you. If a child’s delays are significant, then we have to make those reasons for interacting practically irresistible.

One way to do that is by using little games and rituals that bond a child with you. Emotional bonding occurs anytime two people share a pleasurable experience. (For more about bonding, read here (an academic article) and here (parent-friendly). When that experience is memorable and fun, kids want to repeat it over and over. Social games provide a nice framework for this kind of emotional bonding and learning to connect.

Communicating always involves at least 2 people. If you’re working with a toddler who is slow to warm up to others, then you’ll need to address this before you focus on teaching them to communicate. My book Let’s Talk About Talking will help you understand what activities are most successful in helping late talkers learn how to interact and respond to others.

An extension of this bonding concept is benefit #4…

Social Games create opportunities to build in AFFECT which drives all communication. (Greenspan).

You may be wondering… what’s affect? A person’s affect is the expression of emotion or feelings displayed to others through facial expressions, hand gestures, voice tone, and other emotional signs such as laughter or tears. Individual affect fluctuates according to emotional state.

Kids with difficulty interacting do not always notice another person’s affect during day-to-day routines. Their eye contact may be minimal and they don’t appear to be watching your face or hands as you talk to them or go about your business. A child may be so busy or tuned out that they don’t seem to understand your words or “care” that you’re talking to them.

BUT… once you begin a social game – complete with big hand motions and animated facial expressions, a child may begin to tune in! Your affect will help him do this and is one step closer to helping a late talker begin to understand and use words.

These benefits translate nicely into practical goals for a child with language delays as listed here:

Goal #1 – Stay with you.

Goal #2 – Pay attention to you.

Goal #3 – Enjoy you.

Goal #4 – Begin to understand and use nonverbal communication.

So… there you have it…. 4 reasons for including social games as a primary goal for late talkers and 4 outcomes or a list of initial goals we work toward with late talkers. If you need more information about how to increase social interaction, check out the resources I mentioned in this post:

Teach Me To Play WITH You

Let’s Talk About Talking

Early Speech-Language Development: Taking Theory to the Floor



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