Sibling Play

January 13, 2018

I recently came across this video from a few years ago of my own kids, and it got me thinking about all of the skills infants and toddlers can learn by playing with their older siblings.

My then four and a half year old son thought he was teaching his 10-month-old sister the words “above” and “below.” But he was really doing so much more than that. As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I was so excited to see my daughter exhibiting joint attention (two people aware that they are both attending to the same object or activity for a social purpose, such as when a child points to an airplane and then looks to his mother to make sure she sees that he is pointing and what he is pointing to.) Not only is she engaged with her brother in this simple game, but she also looks over at me (behind the camera), as if to say “Do you see this awesome game we’re playing?”

In addition to the social communication skills my daughter was showing off, Nicole Winningham, an Infant Toddler Developmental Specialist and owner of Partnering with Parents, noted many other developmental milestones on display in this short clip:

  • Standing up (gross motor)
  • Shifting weight (gross motor)
  • Object permanence (cognitive)
  • Attending to an activity (cognitive)
  • Imitation (personal-social)
  • Index finger isolation (fine motor)

You can see from the video above how many skills are practiced in less than 30 seconds of sibling play. Kids with developmental delays need many hours of active engagement each week to help them catch up to their peers. Infants and toddlers learn best through natural routines. With support from a qualified provider like a Speech-Language Pathologist, Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist, or Infant Toddler Developmental Specialist, parents can learn how to help their children using strategies embedded in everyday routines, like playing with their big brothers and sisters.

Big brother and little sister

What if your child does not have an older sibling (or a typically developing sibling)? Joining a playgroup, going to kids’ play places like baby gym or the park, or spending a few hours a week in a childcare setting can all be great ways to give your child the opportunity to benefit from social interactions with role model peers.


Simple, but Effective, Communication Strategy

March 24, 2015

This simple strategy is easy to implement at home. At snack time, get down on your child’s level and offer two choices. Hold them about shoulder-width apart and far enough away so that your child cannot grab. Once s/he points to or reaches for the desired object, hold that one up by your face and say the name of it. Pause expectantly, giving your child the opportunity to imitate. After about 5 seconds (you can count in your head), say the name again and pause. Do this once more and then hand the item over whether or not your child has imitated. If your child does imitate (or attempt to imitate) the word, be sure to praise the effort.


Benefits of using this strategy:

  1. By offering a choice, your child has to intentionally communicate a want or need. This is an early step on the way to talking.
  2. By getting down on your child’s level, you get his/her attention and make it easier to watch your face.
  3. Children tend to look at the object they want, so bringing it up by your face while you say its name encourages eye contact and allows your child to watch your mouth as you form the word, so s/he can see how it is said.
  4. By pausing expectantly and waiting, rather than saying, “Say ___,” you are giving your child the opportunity to imitate without any pressure. This is important because many children with delayed language will shut down when pressure is put on them to speak. Please be sure not to tell your child to say the desired word.
  5. By saying the word 3 times, you ensure that s/he has heard the word 3 times in the immediate context of the item, which helps with understanding the meaning of the word.
  6. By giving the item to your child after the third time you have said it, you reduce everyone’s frustration. You, as the parent, do not have all day to wait for your child to say a word before giving a snack. By limiting yourself to saying the word 3 times, you get to move on. Your child also gets to practice being patient.
  7. When this strategy is used consistently, many children get tired of waiting for you to say the word three times, and learn to imitate after the first or second time.


  1. If your child points specifically to what s/he wants, you can skip the step about offering a choice, as your child has already used intentional communication to indicate a want/need. Go straight to holding the desired item up by your face.
  2. Once you’re comfortable with this strategy at snack time, try it out during other routines. (Green shirt or red shirt; play trains or blocks; milk or water)


Learning Language Through Natural Routines: A Walk in the Neighborhood

April 15, 2013

Now that spring is here, it’s a great time to go on an outside adventure with your child. Point to and label everything you see, feel, and hear, as you take a walk through the neighborhood. Below are some ideas that will help to build your child’s vocabulary. These activities are appropriate for young children with and without language delays.

toddler walking

  • Encourage your child to look for animals that are different sizes. This will help him learn the concepts big and little
  • If you hear a plane, point it out to your child, and say, “I see the plane. I hear the plane.” Encourage your child to repeat the word plane.
  • Talk about the weather: “It feels hot today, ” or “I see a lot of clouds in the sky. Maybe it’s going to rain.”
  • Help your child understand and respond to questions that begin with where. Ask, “Where is the red car?’ or, “Where is the stop sign?” If your child does not respond, you can point out the object, and say, “There it is.” If he points correctly, you can say, “Yes, it’s straight ahead,” or “Yes, it’s in the driveway.”
  • Talk about the words fast and slow. You might comment, “That car is going fast.” Ask your child to run fast or walk slowly.
  • Help your child understand the preposition over by asking him to jump over the cracks in the sidewalk.

Remember, young children need to hear literally several thousand words per day in order to become proficient communicators. By commenting on the things you and your child see, even if you don’t ask your child to say anything in response, your are providing good language input.

What other words and concepts can you think of to talk about as you take a walk with your child? Leave a comment with your thoughts.


Learning Language through Natural Routines: Brushing Teeth

March 5, 2013

What’s more routine than something you do with your child at least once a day? In this article, you’ll find a few strategies to support language development while brushing your child’s teeth.

Pre-linguistic/Play Skills – Your child will use objects in appropriate play or self-care.

At toothbrushing time, bring a doll or stuffed animal into the bathroom. Let your child watch you pretend to brush the doll’s teeth. Then give the toothbrush to your child and see if he will pretend to brush the doll’s teeth. You can prompt by saying, “You brush baby’s teeth.” If he doesn’t respond to the verbal prompt, you can provide hand-over-hand assistance.

Receptive Language – Your child will follow two-step related commands.

At the beginning of the routine, give your child the instruction, “Get the toothpaste and open it.” If he is not able to follow the two-step command, give one part at at time. Tell your child to, “Get the toothpaste.” After he has completed that part, tell your child to, “Open the toothpaste.”  As always, you can provide a physical prompt by providing hand-over-hand assistance, if needed. Another two-step command you can give your child during this routine is, “Close the toothpaste and put it away.”

Expressive Language – Your child will use word combinations.

(This task assumes that your child already regularly uses single words without prompting.)

Allow your child the chance to brush his teeth either before or after you do it. Ask, “Whose turn is it first?” You are looking for a phrase like, “My turn,” “Daddy do,” or some other two-word combination appropriate to the situation. If your child responds with only one word, model a two-word phrase for him to repeat. If you need to use the words me or my when modeling the phrase to refer to your child, be sure to point to your child as you say it, so he will not think you are correcting whose turn it is. After the first person has had a turn, ask, “Now whose turn is it?” Model the desired phrase as needed.Toothbrushing

By adding any of these strategies to your toothbrushing routine, you’ll give your child extra practice with his developing language without having to invest a lot of extra time. The next article in this series will give you suggestions to foster language development during walks around your neighborhood.

Learning Language through Natural Routines: Cleaning Up Toys

February 21, 2013

In this, the third article in my series about teaching language to children through everyday activities, you will find some simple ways to enhance your child’s language development through the routine of cleaning up toys.

Pre-linguistic/Play Skills – Your child will sort objects.

Start by having your child sort two different types of toys (ex: cars and blocks). Provide a bin for each type of toy with a picture of the toy on the outside.  Model the activity by picking up a toy and saying, “It’s a block. I’ll put it in the box with the blocks.” Then have your child pick up an object, tell her what it is, and ask her to put the toy in the correct box. Continue taking turns a few times. Once your child can complete the task accurately, have her finish on her own.

You can make the task harder by increasing the number of toys to be sorted.

Bonus: If you label several toy bins with pictures, your child may be able to clean up on her own after playtime.

Toy Bins with Pictures for Sorting

Receptive Language – Your child will put away toys on request.

Cleaning up is the natural end to playtime. Tell your child it’s time to put away the toys. (If you keep your toys sorted and you have worked on this with your child, she should sort the toys into the appropriate bins. If all of the toys go in one big box or basket, she can put them all in there.) Wait for her to start putting away the toys on her own. If she does not, repeat the direction. You can model by putting away one toy yourself. If that doesn’t work, you can further prompt by physically assisting her to pick up a toy and drop it into the container. By consistently requiring that your child clean up after playtime, eventually less prompting will be necessary, until all you will need to say is “Clean up.”

You can also help the routine along by singing the Clean Up Song: “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.”

Many children will actually start to sing the song to themselves as they engage in their clean up routine.

Expressive Language – Your child will use two-word combinations

As you and your child are cleaning up, model a two-word phrase to narrate what’s happening as you place each item in its container (car in; block in). Encourage your child to imitate. Once she starts to imitate after each toy, pause and wait with an expectant look on your face for her to say the phrase on her own.

I hope you can see that you can aid in your child’s language development by making minor tweaks to the things you and your child do each day. Look for my next article in this series where I will give you tips on how you can help your child’s play skills and receptive and expressive language during daily tooth brushing.

Learning Language through Natural Routines: Playing on the Playground

February 7, 2013

The is the second article in my series about teaching language to children through everyday activities. Children learn language best when it is in context and repeated often. The following activities provide plenty of opportunities for repetition.

Pre-linguistic/Play Skills – Your child will engage in turn taking routines.

Stand a few feet away from your child. If your child is not yet able to kick a ball, you can sit with him on a blanket on the ground with a short distance between you. Kick or roll the ball toward your child. Each time one of you touches the ball, say, “ball.” If he doesn’t kick or roll it back to you, you can prompt by saying, “Your turn,” or, “Kick the ball to me.” Play the game for as long as your child is willing, and then try to get just one more turn out of him. This will help with increasing his attention span.

This is also a great activity to involve older siblings. You can have the older child model the activity so the younger child sees what to do, or you can encourage the older child to play the game with his/her younger sibling, and you can assist and prompt as needed.

Receptive Language – Your child will understand the prepositions up and down.

If your child is able to go up and down small stairs without assistance, place him on the middle step of an age-appropriate play structure. Give your child directions that use the prepositions like “Go up the steps,” or, “Go down the steps.” Be sure to emphasize the preposition as you give the direction. If your child is unable to complete the task, you can prompt by pointing where you want him to go as you repeat the direction. You can also physically assist him to go up or down as you repeat the direction.

The play structure can also be used to expose your child to these words in context without expecting him to carry out an instruction. You can narrate what your child is doing, emphasizing the prepositions. Examples: “You’re going up the steps.” “Now you’re going down the slide.”

Toddler on slide

Expressive Language – Your child will use a word to request an action.

Place your child in the swing, but do not begin pushing him. Wait to see if he will use a word like “go” or “push” to request that you start. If he doesn’t say anything, you can ask, “What do you want?” You can also model the word for your child to imitate. Once your child makes a request and you start pushing, stop the swing after a minute, and wait for another request.

If your child is working on using signs (and is in an infant/toddler swing, rather than one that requires him to hold on with two hands), you can encourage the use of signs (please, more) to make requests.

Learning Language through Natural Routines: Laundry

January 24, 2013

This article is the first in a series I’ll be featuring about teaching language to children through everyday activities. Children learn language best in context, and they learn through repetition. Within each activity, there are numerous opportunities for repetition, and everyday routines are, by their nature, repeated often. Plus, you have to get the laundry done anyway, most likely with your child hanging around. Why not make it a learning experience?

Toddler helping with laundry

Pre-linguistic/Play Skills – Your child will match colors.

Give your child socks that need to be matched up by color. Demonstrate finding two socks of the same color and putting them together. Then, hand your child another sock and ask him/her to find the match. If your child has trouble finding one that’s the same, model holding the first sock next to each one that’s left until you find one that is the same color.

Receptive Language – Your child will understand the prepositions in and out of.

As you take clothing items out of the washing machine, hand them to your child to put in the dryer. As you do this, explain what you both are doing. Emphasize the prepositions. (“I took the shirt out of the washer. You’re putting the shirt in the dryer.”) When the clothes are dry, you can give your child simple commands like “Take the clothes out of the dryer,” or “Put the clothes in the basket.”

Expressive Language – Your child will name one color.

When sorting or folding your child’s laundry, pick one color to be the focus of the day. Each time you come across something that is the target color, say the name of the color. Do not label the other colors. For example, if you’re focusing on blue, name blue each time you pick up something blue, but don’t name any other colors. When you come across a piece of clothing that isn’t the color of the day, just say, “Not ____.” After modeling this several times, hold up an item of the color of the day and ask “What color?” If your child doesn’t answer correctly, model the correct word for him/her to repeat.