Every time a child cries, points or gestures, makes eye contact, or uses a facial expression, they’re communicating through the use of language. Maybe they’re hungry, upset, uncomfortable, or want to express their thoughts. This is a great sign! As parents, it’s our job to recognize and encourage this nonverbal communication, helping set the stage for early language acquisition.
Comprehension, nonverbal language, and use of sounds are precursors to using speech. Even before your baby says their first word, they make connections between vocalizations and getting their needs met. When a child cries and points, and you hand them their desired object, they’re beginning to cement these relationships so they can better communicate their needs later.
Language development is an essential skill that will turn your child into a lifelong learner. It will help your child's communication, literacy, reading, and comprehension, and ultimately improve their academic success and emotional development.
In babies and toddlers, language development is often best done through the use of play. Here are some fun and interactive language activities you can use at home to develop your child’s skills. Let’s jump in!
1 Make animal sounds
What do children love even more than animals? The sounds that animals make! Cut out pictures of animals from magazines or print them out. Take turns showing these pictures to your child and either (1) make the sounds yourself, or (2) have your child mimic the sounds. If you’re feeling really creative, act out the animals as well. You can stick your tongue out and go “woof woof” like a puppy, or get on all fours and say “bahhhh” like a sheep.
2 Sing songs
From “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” to “The Wheels on the Bus,” children love singing simple songs and nursery rhythms. Not only do they provide some great family bonding time, but songs can build vocabulary and help children learn and recognize the natural rhythm of speech. Best of all, there are so many opportunities to break up boring activities with enjoyable songs, such as during long car rides or bath time.
3 Play the Telephone Game
This perennial favorite should be an active part of playtime. You can get a toy telephone or, if you're feeling ambitious, make and decorate one to appeal to your child’s imagination. Pretend that the phone is ringing and have your child “answer.” Whether they’re just babbling into the receiver, or perhaps using simple language like “hello,” this activity will help set the foundation for early conversation skills.
4 Label objects
It’s important to remember that everyday activities, such as going for a walk, brushing teeth, and prepping for bed, are all opportunities to incorporate language. One simple way to do this is to name objects in your environment and have your child practice repeating new words. While you don’t want to overwhelm your child with new vocabulary every waking moment, try to find opportunities to introduce them to themed or categorized words in each location. For example, next time you go to the grocery store, focus on labeling vegetables. Or when you go outside for an afternoon stroll, point to different types of plants or wildlife.
5 Put on a puppet show
Who doesn’t love a good ol' fashioned puppet show? Not only will your child have a blast decorating their puppets--brown lunch bags and googly eyes, anyone?--but it’s a great way to strike up a mock conversation between two lovable characters. Make sure that your puppet asks your child’s puppet all sorts of questions, using fun and imaginative voices of course.
6 Use complete sentences
If your child has started to speak, encourage them to respond in full sentences when you ask them a simple question. This will help your child string words together and better express their thoughts. For example, let’s say you ask your child “Want to go outside?” If they would normally nod their head, or give you a simple “yes,” repeat back to them: “I want to go outside.”
7 Curl up with a book
It’s hard to overstate the importance of reading--even with infants and toddlers. Children take the first steps toward reading and writing in infancy, so it’s important to establish a reading routine and build good habits that will last them a lifetime. Make reading enjoyable by choosing fun books that stimulate their imagination. For youngsters, make sure to point to and label the pictures, saying, for example, “dog.” You can even ask questions like, “What sound does a dog make?” This will improve your child’s comprehension and expand their vocabulary.
8 Play “I Spy” using sounds
Put a few common, everyday items on the table. This can be anything--a toy, an orange, a block, cup, or utensil. Next, say to your child, “I spy something that starts with ‘bbbbb.’” Really exaggerate your sounds and give your child enough time to find the item that starts with the matching letter--in this case, a block. Provide encouragement and a little assistance if needed. This game helps expand your child’s vocabulary and make associations between sounds, words, and objects. And of course, if your child guesses the right item, make sure to reward and congratulate them! This positive reinforcement will help with confidence building.
9 Play "What’s in the Box?"
For older children, fill a bag or box with mystery items. Have your child reach their hand inside (without looking) and try to guess what’s inside, using nouns and adjectives to describe what it feels like. “It’s hard, round, and small--is it an apple?”
10 Know when speech therapy might be needed
If your child’s language growth is going slower than expected, and you think they may not be keeping up with other children their age, consider speaking with a speech-language pathologist. Speech therapists are communication experts, and they'll work with you and your child to evaluate, diagnose, and treat a potential language disorder or other communication challenge. Both in-person and online speech therapy can be helpful for children of all ages--even infants and toddlers. The earlier these issues are recognized and treated, the more progress your child will make. Make sure your speech therapist gives you additional language-building exercises that you can use at home with your child.