Speech therapy. How to develop your child's speech with play.

Sep 17, 2014

Helping develop your child's speech through play.

We're always told not to compare children. They're all different and all do things in their own way, in their own time. In fact, a favourite quote of mine is,

"Not all children are ready to learn the same thing at the same time in the same way." 
- Kathy Walker

However, even knowing and understanding all of this, when my son did not start to communicate verbally in a similar way to how his older sister had, I admit that I felt quite concerned. 

I'd done everything the same. He'd been read to since birth (a lot), talked to and chatted with constantly. 

We made sounds, did rhymes, sung songs and played together. 

But, unlike his sister, he did not choose to naturally communicate verbally and would refuse to mimic sounds or try new words. 

His non-verbal communication was spot on and he was always able to get across what he wanted (which was encouraging) but oral language was not something that came easily to him.

My child is showing a delay in their speech development. Where do I start?

Being a teacher, I was aware that early intervention is very important when it comes to children and learning difficulties, so despite all the advice I was getting from people to, "Just wait, it'll happen," I needed to do something about it myself and ensure that I was giving him the best start that I could. 

My son was about 19-20 months old when I first sought out external advice. 

Many people will say that it's too early to really start getting concerned before 2 years old, but you know your own child better than anyone. 

If you're concerned for any reason, it's better to seek out assistance than possibly stressing out unnecessarily for months and months.

When concerned about your child's speech development the first people to speak to are your child's doctor and maternal health nurse. Through them, they can organise and refer you for any specialists and tests.

We started by getting an assessment of where his development was at, as well as organising for a hearing test. 

This is usually a good starting point. From there, doctors and professionals are able to see if there are any particular issues that might be delaying speech and start to rule things out.

As his hearing was fine, the next step for us was being referred to a Speech Pathologist.  

Many speech pathologists are private practice here in Australia and can be quite pricey if your child needs regular sessions. 

There are ways to get into government subsidised classes so talk to your GP or Maternal Health Nurse about how and where you can sign up for them. There is often a waiting list though and the spots will often go to children in higher need (such as older children).

We went to a few sessions with a private Speech Pathologist and after observing, listening and discussing the best ways to help my son develop his oral language, I was confident that I could take over and continue to help him myself at home without the added cost of a weekly therapy bill.

10 tips to help your child develop their speech through play at home

It was clear from the speech pathology sessions I attended, that my son was on the verge of talking but that helping him form those words was going to take a bit more of a concentrated effort than his older sister required. 

Having the speech pathologist confirm my original beliefs that learning through play was always going to be the best way was encouraging, and gaining the understanding of how I could go about better approaching this play time with him, in order to best help develop his speech, was also something of great value.

The main points that I learnt about trying to encourage speech development through play are:

1) For your child to develop their speech, they have to practice

It can be tricky getting reluctant speakers to talk, so engaging them in meaningful play and activities where they are naturally encouraged to participate in talking, is essential.

2) One-on-one play time is very important. 

Make regular times (at least once daily for a minimum of 10-15 minutes) to sit down with your child, without other distractions and engage with them. (This can be tricky with other siblings around but it's important that they have this uninterrupted time with you)

3) Look at your child's interests and try to engage them with these interests.

Eg. If they are really into animals, plan your one-on-one play times to involve playing with animals. 
If they are always very active and struggle to sit still, try to play together in a way that allows them to move whilst still encouraging them to talk.

4) When speaking to your child during these one-on-one play times, use clear, short sentences that are directly related to the play

Eg. While playing with your animals, move the cow and say "the COW says MOO. mooooo" 
When the cow is knocked over, "Oops, the COW FELL DOWN." 
When you jump the cow over a fence, "the COW JUMPED OVER the FENCE." You don't have to speak like this to your child all the time, just during your one-on-one play times.

Focus the language on useful words that will help your child communicate better.
  • Prepositions such as, "on, in, out, off, up" etc. 
  • verbs such as "drink, eat, jump, play, read." and 
  • nouns, eg. "Mum, Dad, hand, foot, cup" etc.

5) Give your child a chance to respond

Often it will take children longer to process your question or what is being spoken about and for them to think of an appropriate response and say it. 

It's easy for adults and other children to jump in with the answer after a couple of seconds when it seems as though the child is not going to respond, but you need to allow a good 10 seconds or more for them to attempt to answer verbally.

6) Find new and engaging ways to play with them that allow you opportunities to practice other words. 

Eg. Blowing bubbles with them will allow you to practice the language that will come naturally with that activity, such as, "more," "bubbles," and "blow." Playing with cars can encourage language such as, "go," "stop," "drive," "brrrrrroooom," and "beep beep." 

(Here are 10 ideas you could try)

7) If your child has particular sounds that they are struggling with, eg. saying "wewy" instead of "very," try and find ways to play that will naturally include that language. 

Eg. Build a tower together. A tower that is VERY, VERY tall! Use that time to say and practice the language as much as possible.

8) Repeat what your child says, clearly and correctly so that they can hear how it should sound and reinforce the language that goes with the action. 

Eg. If your child indicates you to blow more bubbles by saying, "mor," you can say, "More. More bubbles?" and wait for their response. 

Trying to engage them in conversation and take it further is important. Your child might now nod, or say "yes," or say "more" again. You could then say, "Yes, yes you can have more bubbles."

9) Praise your child for their efforts. 

Positive reinforcement can work wonders on children so be sure to acknowledge their efforts at communicating verbally and encourage them to continue.

10) Be patient. Try to remember the message at the top of this post, that all children learn at their own pace. 

Your child's development may seem slower than others but so long as it's improving, you should get there. 

Who knows, it may suddenly click for them and you won't be able to stop them talking. Just remember to give them time and not to expect things to suddenly change in an instant. 

Your child might be reluctant to your one-on-one play times at first or not be able to stay focused for a very long period of time, but so long as you keep persisting with it, you should see results.

Please remember that if you are feeling concerned at all about your child's development, if their development stalls or especially if their development starts going backwards, you should seek out advice from experts in these areas. 

Some children will require or greatly benefit from a joint effort from a specialist and parents so it's important that any concerns you have are addressed and you know the best way to go about it with your child.

For practical activity ideas, along with the key vocabulary that you might focus on with each activity, see our 10 activities for helping develop speech post.

For more info and ideas on helping your child develop their language through play, check out these great sites:

Happy playing,
Debs :)

Look where else we are. Are you following along? :)


  1. Excellent tips - thanks so much for sharing your story, this is a great list of ideas.

  2. I think it's great that you shared your story; especially for those first time moms and young ones who may not have many people to refer to. I also agree with the many of the points you've made; all children do learn at different paces and in different ways and its our job to find the best way for our children to learn.

  3. Thank you for such a great post. It is so good to know that other people are in the same situation as me. As a teacher myself with a toddler who doesn't speak 'like his older brother did', I am starting to worry. Thank you for reassuring me that I am doing all the right things and I feel positive that he will get those words out eventually!

  4. Thank you so much for this post! I am starting to get worried about my 18 month old, he's hardly saying any words at all. I know that all children are different and try not to compare to his sister (who was joining two or three words into sentences by this age.... whoops.... just compared!). I really appreciate these tips x

  5. Great tips! As an SLP myself I would add one word of caution - although you want to use shorter sentences for language models, still make them grammatical, or at least follow them up by a grammatical sentence. For example, instead of "cow says moo" you can still use the as in - "The cow says moo" - and you can always emphasize the words you're teaching, to highlight them (e.g. "the COW says MOO"). I would recommend using correct grammatical tenses - "Oops! the cow FELL DOWN!" Those little grammatical markers (like "a", "the", "is", etc.) can be easily missed by children, and leaving them out makes them even more difficult to pick up. It's not making your sentence that much longer, but it's providing a much better model for your child and will help your child pick up those little words when he or she is ready for them!

    1. Thanks for those additional tips! I did wonder about speaking like that during the activities but was assured it was fine so long as the rest of the time I was using correct sentences. I might edit the post to include your suggestions. Thanks! :D

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