It has been a fury of rain here in North Carolina for over a month now. We have had a few sunny days, but overall it has been one of the rainiest springs that I can remember. I usually don’t mind the rain, but with two young children, I’ve never prayed more for sunshine. There is only so much splashing in mud puddles that excites them. Now that we have a glimpse of the sun and warm weather, we are gearing up to spend a lot of time outside. Many people think of speech and language learning as something you would do inside or while sitting down across from one another. While you can definitely target speech and language indoors, you can stimulate language development anywhere. This is one of the main takeaways that we want parents to understand. Language can be used anywhere and anytime and you don’t have to come up with fancy activities to really engage your children. Some of the best speech therapy sessions I’ve had have been outside using toys and activities the family already had. Here are some of my favorite and simple ways to target speech and language outdoors.
This is one of my kids very favorite outdoor activities. They ask to do it ALL the time. This requires no planning or special toys, just you and your kids on a walk. Talk about all of the things that you see: trees, squirrel, sun, clouds, leaves, flowers, etc. If you child finds a leaf, talk about the colors, shapes, the texture, what sound it makes when you step on it. These are hands on ways to target descriptive words and build vocabulary. If you are a planner, you can make a list of things beforehand that you want your child to find: 1 bird, a red flower, a green leaf, a furry animal. This is a fun way to get them engaged and also to target their understanding of vocabulary. My kids enjoy the spontaneous and the list version. Now that my daughter is 4, she enjoys coming up with the list herself to see if her younger brother (age 2) can find them. This is a great way to work on speech and language as a family and involve older siblings.
Water Table/Baby Pool Play
Kids love playing in water, especially when the weather is nice. My kids love to break out the water table or baby pool in the backyard. This is a fun way to target opposites (wet/dry, empty/full, hot/cold) and also water specific vocabulary (boats, whales, fish) and action words (swim, splash, float). We get their water animal figurines out and have them go for a swim or take their boats and submarines for a race. We talk about the different types of animals and water activities. I will take an animal and ask them to tell me what they are doing. For example, I may take a whale and make it jump out of the water. Then I ask my son, “What is the whale doing?” There are many basic concepts you can target as well as vocabulary building activities you can do with water play.
Pictionary with Sidewalk Chalk
If your house is anything like my house, all of your outdoor furniture and patio is covered in sidewalk chalk. We have chalk everywhere. We are always grateful for the rain to give us a nice looking patio again, only for it to be covered with colorful pictures as quickly as it disappeared. While chalk can be messy and annoying, it is also a great way to build vocabulary and understanding. One of my favorite ways to play with sidewalk chalk is to play a game of Pictionary. I will draw something and ask the kids to guess. Then we pass around the chalk and give everyone in the family a turn to draw and guess. My youngest usually draws a snake every time, but he still loves to participate. This activity is great for targeting colors, shapes, receptive vocabulary and expressive vocabulary.
We recently got a sandbox from a friend and my kids have played in it every day since it arrived. Besides making a huge mess, they have enjoyed digging for “treasure” or other hidden objects. I’ve hidden animal figurines, small cars and other small objects in the sand and then had them dig them up. We name each object and talk about them. If it’s an animal we would name it, talk about the sound it makes and where it lives. If it was a vehicle or an object, we talk about the color and use of the object. For example, if they found a key, we would talk about how it was silver, shiny, and used to unlock doors. This is a great activity to target vocabulary, describing words and use of objects. It’s also a great way to encourage multi-word phrases. If your child says “car” you can expand upon what they said and say, “red car”. Then give them the opportunity to imitate you.
What kid doesn’t like bubbles? I know mine are obsessed and I’ve had many clients say their first words to request bubbles. Words associated with bubbles: “pop”, “more” and “bubble” are perfect for first words because they use bilabial sounds (sounds produced with the lips) and these sounds are usually the easiest for young children to produce. Blow a few bubbles or turn on your bubble machine for just a minute or two to get them interested. Then stop blowing and wait for them to indicate they want more. They may just grunt or gesture toward them. Model the words “more” and “bubble” and give them plenty of wait time to imitate. If they don’t imitate you right away, that’s okay. Model the word one more time and then begin blowing again. Then stop blowing or turn off the bubble machine again and repeat the process of waiting for them to indicate they want more and modeling “bubble” or “more”. I also like to say the word “pop” repeatedly as the bubbles pop during the interaction. Usually they will eventually imitate. Be very exaggerated in your models and REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT. If your child is not yet using verbal language, you can also practice using the sign for “more” during this activity. If your child is already using single word utterances, you can work on multi-word utterances. For example, you could model, “More bubbles” or “I want bubbles."
We hope these ideas have been helpful and given you some ideas that you can use with your own children. Targeting speech and language development doesn't require fancy activities. You just need an engaged parent and things you already have around your house or yard. Hopefully these activities have encouraged you to get outside with your little ones this summer!