Sneaking Some Learning into a Board Game

June 9, 2014

My 5-year-old loves to play the classic board game Chutes and Ladders. The numbered squares on the board make it an obvious way to work on math skills. However, it seems like every time I play it with her, I find another skill that can be addressed using this game.

chutes and ladders

Math Skills:

  • For preschool and early elementary age children, following the numbers in sequence on the board can be a challenge because of the way they zig-zag across the board. You can show your child how, after the number 10, the numbers start to repeat again, only this time with a 1 in the front. After 10 comes 11, 12, and so on.
  • For older elementary age children (about 2nd grade and up), you could challenge your child to use addition to figure out what square to go to next, rather than counting the squares. For example, if your child is on square 47 and spins a 5, she would need to add 47+ 5 to find what square to go to next.
  • Also for older elementary children, when they go down the slides, they could use subtraction to figure out how many spaces they had to go back. For example, if your child lands on square 87 and has to go down the slide to square 24, she would need to subtract 87 – 24 to find how many squares she went back.

Language Skills:

At the bottom of every ladder is a child doing something good, and at the top is the child earning some sort of reward. The top of each slide shows a child misbehaving, and the bottom shows the child earning a negative consequence. Here are a few language skills that can be targeted with these pictures when your child either has to go up the ladders or down the slides. The first one would be appropriate for children as young as three or four, while the rest are appropriate for older elementary age children.

  • Ask your child a “why” question corresponding to the picture at the end of the slide or ladder. Your child should be able to answer with the help of the picture at the beginning of the slide or ladder. (Why did the girl feel sick? Because she ate too many cookies.)
  • Have your child use the past tense to talk about the pictures. (She helped the dog.)
  • Have your child form a complex sentence by telling what happened to one of the children. (He mowed the lawn, so he got to go to the circus.)
  • Ask your child which picture is the cause and which picture is the effect. Cause and effect is a skill that frequently shows up on standardized tests. (Cause: He broke the window. Effect: He had to use the money from his piggy bank to pay for it.)

Social Skills:

As with any board game, your child will naturally practice these skills by playing with others:

  • Turn taking
  • Waiting patiently
  • Being a good sport (whether as the winner or the loser)

Board games are a great way to interact with your kids. Try out some of these ideas the next time you sit down for a family game night.

My Favorite App: PicCollage

March 12, 2014

Despite the plethora of speech and language apps available for phones and tablets, I actually don’t use them that much in therapy. This is mainly because I find that most of my little clients are so proficient at using touchscreens that they tune me out as soon as they get their hands on a phone or tablet and all meaningful interaction ceases. However, there are times when I find that a specific app either makes my job a little easier or keeps the child engaged a little longer, and that’s when I pull out my tablet.

PicCollage truly is my favorite app to use in speech and language therapy sessions. I initially downloaded this free app (available for iOS and Android devices) just to make collages of pictures that my own kids could bring to school for show and tell. Then one day I had an epiphany; I could use PicCollage to create a picture schedule. Prior to that, when I needed to create a picture schedule for a session, I had been taking pictures of the activities for the day, printing them out, cutting them out, and attaching them to a board with two-sided tape. With PicCollage, I can either use pictures that I’ve taken or search the web (through the app) for a suitable picture. Then I just add them to the collage, line them up, add a heading, and I’m done. At the beginning of each session, my 4-year-old client looks at the schedule and tells me everything we’re going to do for the day. After each activity, he gets to swipe the picture into the trash to show that the activity is finished. (This is definitely his favorite part.) When all of the activities have made it into the trash, the session is over. This method is much more efficient and saves some paper too.

PicCollage Picture Schedule

Parents can use PicCollage in a similar way for difficult daily routines. For example, if your child has trouble remembering to complete all of the steps needed to get ready for bed, you can take pictures of the things he needs to do and put them in order in the collage (shower, pajamas, toothbrush, book, bathroom). Then, as he completes each item, he moves it to the trash. Once all the tasks are complete, it’s time for bed. Picture schedules are particularly helpful for children on the autism spectrum who need routine and predictability built into their day. This app provides a portable way to take picture schedules with you out of the house.

PicCollage Bedtime Picture Schedule

Another use I’ve found for PicCollage is creating interactive “worksheets.” I was working on possessive nouns with one child, and rather than using a traditional worksheet in which she would draw a line to match each object to its owner, she manipulated them on the screen and formulated a sentence like, “It is the dog’s bone.” The use of the touchscreen seemed less like work to her than a worksheet would have, but I still got her to practice the grammatical structure we were targeting. (And she got to put the pictures in the trash when she was done with them.)

PicCollage Interactive Worksheet

Here are a few other ideas for using PicCollage to support language development:

  • After a vacation, put a few pictures from your trip in sequence. Then, have your child use the pictures to help tell someone about the trip. (Skills addressed: formulating sentences, creating narratives)
  • Take pictures of the steps in a process (e.g. making a sandwich) and put them in random order on the screen. Then, have your child put the pictures in the correct order and tell how to do the task. (Skills addressed: sequencing, formulating sentences)
  • Use the web to find a collection of seemingly random pictures (shoes, car, airplane, carrot, giraffe, bird, apple, stop sign…), and then have your child find things that are alike in some way and tell how they are alike. (An airplane and a bird both fly. An apple and a stop sign are both red.) (Skills addressed: comparing, formulating sentences, identifying features of nouns)

The possibilities for using PicCollage to support speech and language development are really limitless. If you have another idea, please share it in a comment.

Bubbles Aren’t Just for Blowing Anymore

February 10, 2014

In one of my previous posts, “Bubbles, bubbles, bubbles!” I listed several speech and language skills that could be targeted while blowing bubbles with a young child. In this post, I have a few more skills that can be addressed while blowing bubbles.

Encourage your child to pop the bubbles in different ways:

  • Poking the bubbles with the index finger will encourage an isolated point, a fine motor skill. Once the skill is achieved, the child can more effectively point to indicate wants and needs and engage in joint attention.
  • Pinching the bubbles between the thumb and index fingers will encourage the use of a neat pincer grasp, another fine motor skill. Young children need this skill in order to efficiently pick up small objects and will one day use it to hold a pencil correctly for writing.
  • Stomping the bubbles while standing up encourages use of the gross motor muscles.
  • Clapping the bubbles between the two hands encourages the child to bring his hands together at the midline of the body, which requires the two sides of the brain to work together.

You can use these motor activities when playing with bubbles and integrate some additional cognitive and language skills.

  • Motor imitation – Have your child copy your action: poking like a bumblebee, pinching like a crab, stomping like an elephant, or clapping like a seal.
  • Following directions – Give your child a verbal direction without modeling the action to be done.
  • Imitating 2-word phrases – As you and your child pop the bubbles in a variety of ways, use 2-word phrases to describe what you are doing, and encourage your child to repeat them. “Pinch bubble,” or “Clap bubbles.”
  • Using verbs – You perform the action and have your child narrate what you are doing. “You poked the bubble,” or “You stomped on the bubble.”
  • Engaging in pretend play – Your child can act out how one of the animals listed above would pop the bubbles or he can think of an original one to act out.


In my previous bubbles post, I discouraged the use of a bubble machine because the key to the activity was the interaction between the adult and the child in requesting bubbles. However, for this set of activities, I think the use of a bubble machine is fine, since the goal is not requesting. The adult and child still need to be interacting for it to be effective, but a bubble machine could free up the adult’s hands for some good clean bubble popping fun.

How To Choose Toys That Encourage Development Through Play

November 5, 2013

Children learn through play, so with the gift-buying season fast approaching, I thought I’d give you some tips on what to look for in a toy. These tips apply to children of all ages, though the toys listed as examples may not be appropriate for all ages.

  1. Choose toys without batteries. The more the toy does, the less your child does. Toys that run on batteries limit your child’s ability to be creative and use his imagination during play. For example, the latest Fisher Price barn is battery-operated. When your child opens the barn door, it makes a horse sound. Not only does it potentially teach your child that doors say “neigh,” your child misses out on the opportunity to make the animals “talk” on his own. By choosing not to put the batteries in the toy, your child will have more opportunities to engage in pretend play.
  2. Look for toys that can be used in a variety of ways. Your child will be more likely to enjoy the toy as he grows older. A great example is play food. Your 2-year-old may enjoy just putting it in a play kitchen. By age 3, he may use it to feed his stuffed animals or offer it to you on a plate. A year or two later, he can use it in dramatic play, while playing store with a friend.
  3. Choose toys that are safe and durable. If your child still puts everything in his mouth, small figures are a choking hazard. A better option are Fisher Price Little People. They are big enough that they can’t fit in your child’s mouth, and there is not much kids can do to break them.
  4. Look for toys that allow your child to learn naturally through exploration and encourage problem solving. You don’t have to choose toys that are labeled “educational;” children can and will learn their shapes, colors, numbers, and letters through natural experiences. Preschoolers love the game Candyland. If you sit down and play it with your child, he will benefit from the social interaction with you and learn about taking turns, following directions, following through on undesirable activities (i.e. having to go back to the beginning of the board because he picked the candy cane), and being a good sport whether he wins or loses. And or course, he’ll get practice naming and matching colors naturally as part of the game.
  5. Choose toys that spark your child’s imagination. When you walk through the Lego aisle of a toy store, you’ll see that Legos tend to come in sets. There are picture instructions and just the right Legos in the box to complete a vehicle (or dinosaur or super hero or Star Wars scene or… you get the idea). Not much creativity involved there. However, if you got your child an assortment of Legos (like they sold them back when I was a kid), he could use his imagination to build whatever he wants.

Last fall, in my post Top Toys for Toddlers, I listed several toys that meet these criteria. Another toy I’d like to add to this list is nesting cups or boxes. This is a toy that truly can be used in a variety of ways.

nesting cups

Of course your child can work on problem solving while trying to figure out how to nest the cups. He can also stack the cups upside down and knock them down and learn about “up” and “down.” He can match the colored cups or use them to sort other toys by color. The cups can be used in pretend play in a kitchen. Many plastic nesting cups have raised pictures or shapes on the bottom that can be used as stamps to use with Play-doh.

The most important idea to keep in mind is that the more your child has to use his own mind and body while playing, the more he benefits from playtime.

Adapted from Cari Ebert’s seminar – The Power of Play: Effective Play-Based Therapy and Early Intervention

Red Flags in Speech and Language Development

July 23, 2013

When I was approached by Lauren’s Hope, a medical ID jewelry company, to write a guest post about red flags in speech and language development, I jumped at the chance to share this important information.


It can be difficult to know whether or not your child’s speech and language development is on track, whether it’s your first child, and you’re just not sure what “normal” is, or it’s your second or third child and he just doesn’t seem to talk as much as your first child did at a particular age. It’s important to note that there’s a great deal of variation in what is considered normal or typical when it comes to speech and language development. Here are some answers to common questions about communication development.

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laurens hope

Language development? There’s An App For That.

July 8, 2013

At the end of a recent speech and language therapy session, I was allowing a preschool-age child to use my Android tablet as a reinforcer for having worked hard throughout the session. I opened an app that I recently added for my daughter to use and suddenly had a great idea. The app, PBS Kids Photo Factory, can be used to target location concepts, facial body parts, and size words.

Here are the steps to follow once you’ve downloaded the app:

  1. Tap the camera button in the app.
  2. Select “Take Photo” to take a picture of your child using your phone or tablet’s camera.
  3. Once you’re satisfied with the photo, tap the checkmark.
  4. Tap decorate, and select a show your child enjoys.
  5. Choose one of the characters by tapping it.

To target the comprehension of location concepts and facial body parts, you can have your child move the character around her face to different spots you tell her. Examples include:

  • Put Elmo next to you.
  • Put Elmo under your nose.
  • Put Elmo on top of your head.
  • Put Elmo between your eyes.
  • Put Elmo below your chin.
  • Turn Elmo upside down.

For the expressive use of these concepts, the adult can move the character around and ask the child, “Where is Elmo now?”

Elmo between the eyes

The characters can be made smaller or larger by either pinching or stretching them. Then, they can be used to work on size words. To target receptive language, you could give commands like, “Make Super Why bigger,” or, “Make Clifford smaller.” For expressive language work, the adult would change the size and ask the child, “Did Caillou get bigger or smaller?”

The one caveat is that your child cannot just be left alone with the device and expected to learn these concepts. As always, it’s the interaction with another person that counts. The device is merely a fun tool.

This activity is appropriate for older toddlers and preschoolers, as well as elementary-age children with language delays.

This app is available for iPod Touch, iPhone, Android phone, Android Tablet, and Kindle tablet.

What other apps do you know that can be used this way? Leave a comment to tell us!

Mr. Potato Head in Action

June 13, 2013

A few months ago, in my post A Great Toy for Language Development, I listed a few concepts that could be taught using the classic toy, Mr. Potato Head, and detailed ways to use it for teaching children to make requests. Here are a few more ideas for ways to use Mr. Potato Head to enhance language development, either in the natural routine of everyday play or in speech and language therapy.

Mr. Potato Head

Once Mr. (or Mrs.) Potato Head is put together, use it to teach verbs. Mr. Potato Head can easily spin, flip, fall, stand, walk, and jump. To target these words receptively, you could give a command for the child to carry out, such as, “Make Mr. Potato Head jump.” If the goal is expressive use of verbs, the adult would manipulate Mr.Potato Head and ask the child, “What is Mr. Potato Head doing?”

Using extra pieces or other small toys, Mr. Potato head can also perform some of these actions in combination with a location concept. Some examples are:

  • walking around the glasses
  • standing next to the shoes
  • jumping over the hat
  • jumping into a box
  • falling off of a chair

Have you thought of any other ways to use Mr. Potato Head for language development? Leave a comment here to tell us about it!