As a speech language pathologist who treats young children, I love incorporating real or pretend food into my therapy sessions. Why? Because playing with food allows for many opportunities to target specific objectives in a developmentally appropriate context.
For this guest post, I will share how to incorporate food into play routines to target particular language concepts. Specifically written for the preschool age group (children 3 to 5 years or those performing at that developmental level), I will also provide 3 reasons why we should play with our preschoolers to encourage language development and give one example of a play routine involving food.
Children learn language through experiences. For those who struggle to acquire language, or have difficulty combing words to form longer phrases or sentences (aka utterances) or omit or confuse certain grammatical structures or morphemes, like the plural –s, learning these skills via conversation or during daily routines is just not enough. Drills, flashcards, and worksheets are also not effective. Such learners need to acquire these skills with hands on, developmentally appropriate and purposefully structured play. Speech language pathologists are very effective in using play to model, elicit and promote specific responses. Want to learn how to do this? Keep reading J
First off, why play?
Here are 3 reasons:
1. Play provides a relaxed and safe context to practice new words and language structures.
2. Play can be structured so that lacking or missing language forms (such as the possessive –s or the present progressive –ing) are more obvious to children than would be in casual conversation. This is because, we, the adult can intentionally design situations that will prompt children to repeatedly produce the lacking or missing language forms. And, the beauty is that since it’s occurring during play, it’s fun and motivating. If this isn’t clear yet, hold onto your hats, an example will follow.
3. Play can be structured so the interaction is meaningful and socially appropriate. Let’s pretend that we are working with a child whose utterance length (also known in the speech world as Mean Length of Utterance or MLU) is very short and simple considering his age. Because this child speaks using limited word combinations, sometimes it’s difficult for his communication partners (family, friends, teachers, etc.) to understand his true intentions, needs or wants. Therefore, we expand his utterance length by systematically increasing certain words, like his use of attributes (adjectives) to describe desired food items. Or, we increase his use of action words (verbs). Or, we target other language concepts and forms that we think will help. BUT, to make it a truly meaningful for the child, it has to be intrinsically motivating. This means you have to devise play routines and select toys that interest him and you have to select targets that will help the child effectively and efficiently communicate his wants and needs. For example, you’re working with a language delayed 3 and a half year old whose average mean length of utterance (MLU) is only 2.5 words. Let’s call this girl, Keisha. Keisha is an aspiring baker. Her favorite thing to do is to pretend to be mommy and bake cookies in her play kitchen. However, she struggles to describe the cookies she wants to make and it’s a source of frustration. She may say “this cookie, mommy” but she is unable to tell you the type of cookie (a big cookie? a small cookie? a chocolate chip cookie?). Designing a play routine focused on baking different types of cookies and targeting attributes will be motivating for Keisha.
3 Thoughts to Contemplate When Using Real Food in Play:
When selecting food to use in play be mindful and ask yourselves the following questions:
1. Does the child have any food allergies or sensitivities?
If the child is going to ingest, touch, or smell real food, make sure he or she is not allergic or sensitive to it. Food allergies are significantly on the rise and more and more children have allergies than ever before. If the child does have an allergy or sensitivity, get clearance from the parents. Carefully read the ingredients too. My own daughter has had and still has multiple food allergies and sensitivities, including soy and apple. Soy seems to be in EVERYTHING that is processed and apple is in many more food items (juices, purees, snacks) than you would think. Check the ingredients or tell the parents the specific food and or brand you intend to use.
2. Will the child be using the food as a tool?
If you plan to use food as an art tool (and therefore wasting thefood), like using a potato as a stamp for an arts and crafts activity, consider the child’s background. If the child is from a low-income household where his or her family struggles to find a meal, it may not be sensitive to play with (and wasting the) food. If you’re uncertain, ask the parent or caregiver if it’s okay to play with food.
Lisa Murphy, an early childhood specialist and CEO and Founder of Ooey Gooey, believes that adults should use courtesy and common sense when selecting materials and making choices. She states in her blog: “If you know, and I mean know, that there are families in the program who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, then playing with beans and rice in the sensory tub is not a respectful choice. But knowing is different than assuming. And, if there really are families in this situation I would pose the following challenge: Are we assisting these families in getting the service and assistance they require or is our level of involvement making sure they aren’t “offended” by the contents of our sensory tub?”
3. How will the child’s senses react to playing with food?
Some children crave sensory input and will touch, mouth, rub, squeeze, sniff and bang everything put in their little hands. Other children may cry or tantrum if their hands get dirty, sticky, or wet. These are all things to consider when selecting foods. .How will my child react to the smell of vinegar? What will he do if he tastes a sour lemon? If a child’s sensory system is particularly sensitive, it’s wise to carefully and slowly desensitize their system by gradually introducing different textures. To learn more, check out this helpful post by Therapy Street for Kids
Play Routine: Making Lemonade to Produce the Missing Present Progressive -ing
In my book, My Toddler Talks, I created 25 play routines to help develop toddlers’ language skills. Quoting from my own book: “A play routine is established when participation in a fun activity follows a predictable pattern or sequence.” In the play routine that follows, I use a similar format found in My Toddler Talks. However, there are some key differences. In my book, the play routines are flexible and emphasize following the child’s lead. However, preschoolers (those chronologically or developmentally aged 3 to 5) are capable of following along in adult directed play, so this routine is a tad more structured.
3 to 4 Lemons (cut into wedges)
1 cup of pure sugar cane (an alternative to white sugar)
5 cups of water
A wooden spoon
A spoon or scoop (for the sugar)
Ice Cubes (Optional)
Gloves (optional) but I highly recommend washing hands before handling food J
Paper towels (for cleaning)
Since this play routine focuses on the present-progressive tense, they’ll be lots of opportunities to produce –ing while acting out various actions.
Target sentences may include: Vary or add verbs based on your preferences and the abilities of the child.
· I’m squeezing the lemon.
· I’m scooping up the sugar.
· I’m pouring the sugar (into the pitcher).
· I’m pouring the water (into the pitcher).
Tip: The length of your sentence will vary depending on the needs of the child. For a child, who is struggling to combine longer sentences you do not have to repeat the words in the parentheses.
I show the materials and ask, “What do you think we’ll make today.” This gets them thinking and focused. Usually, the responses are hilarious and include cookies and cakes. If they can’t provide the correct response, I give hints like – “It’s something you can drink?”, “It’s sweet” “It’s made from lemons…” It’s called lemon _______” then I pause and see if the light bulb went off. I also give the child his or her own lemon wedge so he can smell or even taste it. It’s fun to see the sour looking faces!
I start by squeezing a lemon wedge into the pitcher and while I’m squeezing, I say “I’m squeezing the lemon.” Then, I give a fresh lemon wedge to the child and say “It’s your turn to squeeze the lemon. Make sure you say, “I’m squeezing the lemon”. If the child does not say the targeted phrase, you must model it. The turns repeat until all the lemons are squeezed. At each turn you are encouraging repetition of the target sentence: “I’m squeezing the lemon”. Next, I scoop a spoonful of sugar from a sugar bowl (or bag) and say “I’m scooping up the sugar” then I pour the sugar into the pitcher. While I’m pouring I say, “I’m pouring the sugar (into the pitcher). The child can then have a turn. The turns repeat until all the sugar is scooped. Then, I take the water and pour the majority of it into the pitcher (this way decreases spills), while I’m saying, “I’m pouring the water (into the pitcher). The child can then attempt to pour the water into the pitcher while saying, “I’m pouring the water (into the pitcher). Once all the ingredients are in the pitcher, it’s time to mix or stir! Depending on the child, I alternate between saying mixing and or stirring (“I’m mixing the lemonade” or “I’m stirring the lemonade”). Alternating the verbs shows the child that mixing and stirring have the same meaning (or are synonyms).
Taste the lemonade! Ask the child to taste the lemonade. While the child is tasting, vary the pronoun and say “You’re tasting the lemonade.” This is also a great opportunity to talk about its flavor. If the child likes the lemonade, you can practice sipping, gulping, or slurping. Have fun with it! Children learn verbs by performing the actions!
Juice lemon halves using an old-fashioned citrus juicer. BUT, if you choose this method, you’ll have to use a verb to replace squeezing.
Read picture books about making lemonade! Two of my favorites are from this list.
Have a picnic.
I hope you have enjoyed this post!
To purchase Kim's book My Toddler Talks, click on the link below!
Kimberly Scanlon, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a speech language pathologist practicing in New Jersey. In addition to running a small private practice, Scanlon Speech Therapy, LLC, she is a devoted mom, wife and dog lover. She blogs at www.scanlonspeech.com andwww.mytoddlertalks.com. Recently, she published her first book My Toddler Talks: Strategies and Activities to Promote Your Child’s Language Development and has started her second.