What Play Skills Should My Child Have and How Can I Help Them?

Welcome to my conversation with Rose Griffin, Speech Language Pathologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst. We’re talking about play skills in young children. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it and find it useful.  You can check out her channel called ABA Speech Your Autism Resource

Watch this interview between Kayla Chalko and Rose about play skills.

Rose: "So Kayla, can you tell us a little bit about how you got started with Speech Therapy?"

Kayla: Yeah, absolutely. So I didn’t know anything about Speech Pathology until mid-College. I’ve never really heard of it, but I knew I wanted to work with kids. Knew I had a knack for that. This started out as a preschool teacher while going to college for music. Not sure what I wanted, maybe like music therapy. But at that same time, I had three little brothers that needed speech therapy. All in different types of speech therapy, but specifically the youngest, he was 2, he was talking up a storm, but we cannot understand anything he said. He started going to speech therapy and I started attending and I was amazed.

The speech therapist did some very simple yet effective things and all of the sudden, I can understand what my 2-year-old brother was saying, and we were building the connection more easily that way. So I was so inspired by that, and switched my major over. 

Rose: Wow! That’s really fascinating because I don’t, I have a new backdrop today. I was previously taping in my office, my home office. If you’re watching this on YouTube, and I have a harp in there, so I actually grew up playing the harp, and I thought at one time, I didn’t know what a music therapist did. That’s so interesting that you said that, but I thought it one time too when I first started in the field because I actually never had a speech therapist. I didn’t know anybody that went to speech therapy. My mom actually gave me a career test. That’s how I kind of got on speech therapy. Yeah, but I always kind of thought music has always played a part in my life. So that’s so fascinating. Did you play an instrument or did you play piano or what kind of thought, when you started out on the music? 

Kayla: I was learning the piano but I was a vocalist, and so I was interested in trying to be an opera star, broadway star, but maybe I’ll work with kids on the side as a music therapist. At that time though, there wasn’t a lot of research to support its effectiveness. So I was worried about job security and I’m really glad I found Speech Pathology, but I have got to say I use music every day with my kids and I’m sure you do. So I’ve still integrated that.

Rose: That’s amazing! Okay, so that might be why you have the super helpful killer YouTube channel. That’s kind of a performer at heart. I love that so much.

Kayla: Yeah.

Rose: It’s really interesting. I’ve had a lot of different speech therapists and professionals on the podcast, but it’s so interesting because I feel like a lot of us are really creative spirits. So, Chris Winger, I don’t know if you know him, but he lives in California, he’s a speech dude, and he is into music. I think he might be a DJ or something. Everybody kind of has their own creative outlet, which I think is so interesting with speech therapy because I feel like it’s definitely a science, but everybody’s application and how they plan therapy sessions is going to be very different.

I just got off a consult call. I do a lot of these international consults with parents and I was saying, 1 professional may tell you that therapy should be at the table. Another professional may tell you that you know, I subscribe to more of a play-based approach and so it could be the one science, but everybody is going to have a different application of it.

Kayla: Isn’t that true. Yes, and I love to hear different people’s backgrounds coming into play. And so music is one of those things for me.

Rose: "So can you tell us just a little bit about why focus on play can be so very instrumental for communication-based skills?"

Kayla: Yeah, absolutely! Learned that, firsthand as a preschool teacher when I was 18, 19, 20 that I could sit in front of kids with a book and instruct all day. I could get down on the floor and I can play with them, and introduce those concepts while using a silly bear voice. And guess what’s going to stick? The silly bear voice was also teaching the alphabet. So, I learned that first hand but then the science supports it, and that’s a really exciting thing, the amount of time that someone could spend doing something more formal, more instructional versus the amount of time someone can spend playing with a child while sneaking in concepts, so much more effective, so much more impactful and meaningful as well as bringing the connection between the adult and the child. Even if you’ve got multiple children around too. Then you’ve got the social skills playing into there. So the science supports it. My experience supports it, and I’ve seen it on a daily, be the most effective way to teach a young child. 

Rose: Yeah and I love that idea about the connection, the social connection. I know we talked a lot about joint attention as a speech therapy term and things like that, but what I’ve been trying to tell parents about is that we really need to just focus on these shared activities because I think sometimes parents can feel so very overwhelmed and therapist too. Especially when you’re working with autistic students, or students who are struggling communicators about where do we get started? Like how do I plan a therapy session with a child that maybe is not easily engaged with the tasks that we plan? And so I keep going back to this idea of these shared activities, and how that can be really impactful. And I think sometimes it’s really just hard for people to conceptualize. What does that mean? You know, like I have a lot of parents that I work within the home environment and I’ll like have a book and I’ll be like Pete the Cat and I’ll be reading the book, and parents are so worried about the child needing to sit there the whole time that I’ve been doing a lot of coaching about just like you said, like let’s get down, let’s do a silly voice. The child will come back. I think that’s what’s so important. We can’t make the students learn. We have to just be really engaging. I’ve been saying play partners, not play directors.

Rose: "Could you talk to us a little bit about some of the different milestones at some of the different ages for play skills?"

Kayla: Sure, and I want to say up front that some parents can get a little bit nervous when they start hearing the word, milestone. Have you experienced this? And they already feel like, ” Oh, no, my kids not measuring up.” But these are guidelines as you know, and so I just want to express that to the parents. These are guidelines based on lots of years of research. They’re not exact, and every child is different but this gives us a guideline to go, “Maybe that’s an area that I can work on more.” One area of weakness doesn’t equal disorder, doesn’t equal autism. It’s just something to identify and work on, but we’re going to work on it through play, just like you said, as a play partner, so it should be, hopefully, something fun for the parents and for the therapist as well. Yes, what age group do you want to start with Rose?

Rose: "How about itty-bitty's, like 6 or 12 months? What is something that would be kind of typical at that age?"

Kayla: It’s amazing how playful the itty-bitty’s are, and sometimes parents wishing new parents, don’t notice those little moments as play. And so, if they’re willing to learn more and become more aware then they get more involved often. So as a speech therapist I try and point out those little moments like, ” Look! Do you see that little tie-dye that the kid gave you? That’s expressing probably this emotion.” 

But to be detailed about this 6 to 12 months. They’re definitely starting to engage with some social games and speech therapists call those social games, but parents would be familiar with them as peekaboo and patty-cake. So they’re involving the hands or they’re involving the face. There is some word, some songs with it, but the idea is I as the adult, I’m doing something and the child’s doing something, together, connecting. I do it. She does it, and it’s this back and forth. The child’s learning is an imitation skill along with those kinds of games. American parents are super familiar with peekaboo and patty-cake. There may be other games, other cultures have and that’s great. But the idea is a little something silly that’s about connection and about a back-and-forth copycat kind of thing between the parent and the child. 

Rose: That’s so fun, and I have 3 kids of my own. I remember when my firstborn started playing peek-a-boo. It’s one thing to be a speech therapist and talk to parents about what typical language development looks like, and how we can help support their students, but then to see typical language development unfold is really the most amazing thing. I remember my daughter had a little blankie and she was in the car and her car seat. And I was kind of turned around looking at her, probably as a passenger in the seat, and I remember her doing peekaboo. And what I found to be the most absolutely amazing thing is that she was so reinforced by my excitement. Like, we would play it. She was playing it. It wasn’t actually me doing the blankie. I think I probably had modeled it, probably, thinking back to my mind, but she wanted to do it and she thought it was so cool that she could do it on her own. And when you see things like that, I am just immediately really in awe of that because I understand how really powerful that is and that social awareness and that kind of activity. So I think that’s really really cool to be able to start with something like that. And I think sometimes our kids just need us to model it first. And then my daughter was like, ” Oh, I can do this! ” And she really loved it when we would laugh and it reinforced that behavior, and then she would do it more and she thought it was a game.

Kayla: Exactly! And that’s wonderfully age-appropriate as well. That showing off is what professionals may call it like, they’re doing something on purpose to get a reaction from you because they’re interested and they care about what you think of them. 

Rose: Yeah.

Kayla: So that’s an age-appropriate expression as well that we pick out and I try and point a parent. Like, ” Look at that! That was great.” We want more of that. 

Rose: "What about like 18 months of age? So students that are a little bit older, what can we expect from their play?"

Kayla: That is a fun age and a lot of kiddos that come to me are right around that 18 months mark, and that’s where I find parents realizing that some things are a little bit behind and they need some professional help. 

So, kids are going to be doing certain kinds of play skills, like using tools, and parents may not even think of this, but using a spoon to pretend mix in a cup or a bowl, or pretend pour or in the bathtub pouring from this container to that container. Playing with some sensory activity like beans or rice or noodles, things like that. A Hammer with the hammer and Peg toy. Those are like super classic toys, right? And while they might look boring in the store because they don’t light up and sound, they’re really great developmentally as you know, because I do something with my hand here and this happens over here, this idea of cause and effect. So that 18-month-old phase, they’re getting really interested in cause and effect. And that’s very important for their brain development. They’re even starting to introduce some pretend-play into their place game like feeding a doll and I love to see that. I love to see their little imaginations start to develop, and they might feed the dog, they might be themselves, feed Mommy, and its Mommy gives a fun reaction, and that’s going to encourage the little one to do that more. So, that’s all brain flexibility, that’s creativity, that’s trying experimenting and being rewarded for trying something new. 

Rose: Yeah, I love that idea of pretend play and I think I might have told this story once on the podcast, but I had a student. I had these little Shopkins. They’re almost like mini objects. They were my child’s old toys.

Kayla:  Yes!

Rose: Yes! My finished basement is a gem of toys that I just go down and I use them all for therapy now. There was a shoe with all these Shopkins. I don’t know how a shoe got in there. It was like a doll shoe. I was working with an autistic client and is home, and he’s a very early learner, doesn’t have a whole lot of functional language. And we were just looking at the Shopkins, and we were talking about them because he thought they were very fun. And so, it got to the shoe and he picked it up and he said, ” Shoe! ” And he labeled it all on his own, which I thought was so cute because he wasn’t really talking spontaneously a lot and then he looked at the shoe because it was bigger than the Shopkins. So, it’s a little bit bigger. He’d look at the shoe and then he tried to put the shoe on his foot, which I thought was so cute. And then he tried to put it on my foot. And then he tried to put it on Mommy’s foot, and I was trying to tell the Mom, ” Wow, this is really amazing!” He labeled it on his own. He’s trying it. He thinks it might fit. I didn’t know if it was pretend-play or he knows that a shoe goes on your foot, but I was trying to show her like, ” This is exciting stuff! ” 

Kayla: And we’ve been trained to notice those things, and then you have your own experience but a lot of new parents, especially like ” My kid was just being silly again.”

Rose: Right.

Kayla: So I like that you out loud pointed out what was good, why it was good, and encourage it. So I’m excited about that. I love stories like that. 

Rose: “Let's talk about one more age range, like maybe about 2 years old. What play looks like and then maybe we can get into some strategies about how we could work on these things too. What type of play skills would we typically see?”

Kayla: 2-year-olds are going to be continuing those pretend play skills. And so we might see an activity like playing house or they’re imitating a lot of actions that they saw their caregivers do. So, maybe they’re pretending to clean up and they’re pretending to take care of a little baby and this isn’t going to be too intricate to detail that the 2-year-old level is going to progressively get more complex, but you’re going to see like, “She’s pretending to be like me right now.” She’s cooking. She’s having her coffee. So that playhouse is going to start to develop and of course, these kinds of things develop as they’re shown those things. 

So if a child is not exposed to this kind of play and maybe hasn’t been around Mom like doing activities or Dad or whatever caregiver doing these activities, then they’re not going to imitate them. So it is definitely connected to environment and exposure but at this brain stage of 2 to 3 years old, their brains are ready to start pretending what they see Mommy and Daddy do, and actually these days I stay a lot more with kids pretending to talk on the phone. 

Rose: Yes, scrolling. 

Kayla: Whatever they see, they’re going to start pretending to be just you.

Rose: I like that. I always try to put myself on a behavior plan every once in a while, when I need to, about my phone just so I’m present. But that definitely makes a lot of sense. Everybody has their phone, right? It’s interesting for me to be in line at Starbucks or wherever I am. And to see people scrolling on their phones. Everybody’s just kind of have a moment to themselves, instead of engaging in small talk. I mean, although the pandemic is probably affecting that too, right. We just kind of get our phones out and see what’s happening in the world. 

Kayla: It’s true and this 2 to the 3-year-old range is when children are watching other children, imitating what the other kids are doing and trying to join in with their play and play a little bit. They’re not quite cooperative in play yet, but they’re trying to get in there and play for a moment and then they’ll go away and watch and then come back. And so we’re seeing the pandemic affect those kinds of social skills.

Rose: "What are some strategies that we could do to incorporate play to work on some of these different skills that you discussed?"

Kayla: I think probably the number one best way to start for parents is

working on the mindset and that’s kind of a trendy word right now, mindset, but I found that it actually is really meaningful in this process because we spoke of it in the beginning. How we feel pressured even as therapists like ” I need to look professional and be at the table with the child.” 

Rose: Yeah.

Kayla: That’s not working so much. It’s down on the ground. Like we said, changing our mindset from like, ” I need to get my kiddos’ milestone up.” to “I need and want to have a moment of connection with my child where we’re in sync with each other and we’re giggling about something.” And so changing the mindset from instruct-instruct to I’m here connecting. And maybe play can be an intimidating word for some parents. I find that fathers are nervous sometimes in speech therapy when it’s time to play. And to take even that word, “play,’ away and just being about connection. 

Every parent knows how to connect with their child somewhere, and tickling is almost the easiest way to get it started. So if that makes people comfortable, start with some tickles, and then we’re feeling silly, were feeling loose, and let’s say we’re about to have snack time. So we’re feeling silly, we’re feeling loose. It’s our favorite snack. We’re already in like a play connection mode. And so that opens us up to feeling comfortable. What I was trying to say is mindset is the most important for therapists and parents to be about connection. If you’re not connected with the child at the moment, then you’re just talking to the wall. Teaching, ABC’s, like, good for you, but not good for the kids. So having that positive mindset of like, connect with my child right now. 

Rose: Yeah, I love that. That’s such a good idea and the mindset is so good because I think sometimes, as a school-based therapist, you’re just so nervous about getting work done on all the different IEP goals, but I always talk about it too. We really just have to build a rapport with the child and make sure that we kind of understand what they like and things that we can present in therapy and I think it is. 

I was talking today with a parent who was definitely coming from the thought of, work has to be done at the table, this is where we do work, and she has a child who is not even 3 yet. And I said, “Oh, you know, everybody’s going to tell you something different. This is my two cents. I can do so many different things through play and fun therapy.” Therapy should be really fun for the clinician and for the child, and I know that when I first started in the field and especially working with autistic students who potentially had problem behavior that was a barrier to their learning, even really young students that would come in. I just felt like I’m not sure what to do with this client. And I remember talking to my supervisor and she said, “Well, you should just work on joint attention.” As a 23-year-old speech therapist, not having my own kids then, I just didn’t understand what she meant. How do I even get started on that? So, if parents or providers create this atmosphere where things are really fun and functional. 

Rose: "What are some of your favorite toys we can work on joint attention and this type of engagement? Do you have a couple of go-to's that you kind of coach people on using?"

Kayla: My philosophy is that it doesn’t matter what you’re playing with, it’s how you’re playing. But I do find that a lot of therapists want to know, ” Tell me your top 5 toys because I’m nervous and I’m scared and I need things.” I’ve made a lot of videos with a lot of toy recommendations, but again it comes down to that mindset. Are you watching the kid? Are you about connection or are you working on your own agenda? But my go-to toys and I try and use them in a variety of ways, there’s this balloon pump that I love. I’ve got like 7 different videos on 7 different ways that I use this balloon pump. I can play for a full hour with a child with this 1 balloon pump and a guest is going to have just as much fun. So, I love a versatile toy, a balloon pump. I love a ball. I love bubbles. I love having some pen and paper and washable markers or something like that. 

I usually don’t have a lot of books for 2-year-olds. If it is a book, It’s a puppet book. It’s silly and it moves and I’m tickling the kid. Let’s say I went into therapy with a kid and I forgot my backpack. That happened to me one time. I forgot my backpack and the parents didn’t have a lot of toys. My go-to toys were hands, body, facial expressions. And I was just being a goofball with the kiddo and I did a lot of songs, and we did a lot of movements, and it’s a great session, and it was good for the parents to see that it’s not about THINGS. It’s about you.

Rose: I think speech therapists are very creative in the sense that we could make anything therapeutic.

Kayla: Exactly. An example popped into my mind with my little brother actually when he was 2 years old and you know, I wasn’t a speech therapist, but I was learning a lot in school and as a preschool teacher, and he didn’t have any actual understandable words and sure we could play with toys, but sometimes we’d just be silly and be sitting on my lap and we count freckles, he couldn’t even pronounce any of the words, but he had a lot of cute little freckles. We counted them, “one…” and then he went along with it and we had a lot of connection at that moment. And that’s a memory that I still have. He’s 16 years old now and no toys involved, counting freckles. 

Rose: That’s cute and that’s what I tell people too. Once you kind of understand a little bit more about the foundational skills that you want to work on with students and how they typically learn a language.Especially for parents. They’ll start to understand these foundational skills, and then they’ll feel more comfortable realizing that communication doesn’t just happen at the table or doesn’t just happen in some therapy, but it really happens across the whole day. And I think that as anybody gets more comfortable with understanding that, then they see all these little moments that we get so excited about.

Kayla: Yes, those moments become memories.

Rose: "What is the most important piece of advice that you would want to pass along to parents or professionals about communication?"

Kayla: My advice is to take any pressure you feel and say “GOODBYE!” Take that pressure out! Take it off you as a parent, because ideas of needing to be “perfect” or “impressive” are not going to help anyone. The most important thing, in my opinion, is connection. If I could get a parent to focus on connection for one week over any other goals, I guarantee the child’s going to have improved play skills, improved social skills, and improved early language communication skills. It’s 100% about connection.

Rose: I love that, so great, so true. Well, thanks so much everybody for tuning in and make sure to visit us at abaspeech.org!

(Content this post is adapted from the video interview between Kayla and Rose.)

Looking for more help? Consider my online course called, How to Teach a Toddler to Talk. Now available with English and Spanish subtitles.

* indicates required
What best describes your role?