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"Let's Build!" - How to Boost Communication Initiation in Play

Updated: Jan 31, 2019

Communication starts with an intention, an urge, a desire; and there's a need within us to communicate. We are social creatures, no matter how shy or withdrawn we may feel. This is what we evolved to do. Even our desire to be left alone has a way to communicate it so others know to back off.

Initiation is that first step in getting our message across. Maybe we should think of it more as a second step though? There's an urge, or temptation, that pulls your child close to you, and that is the true first step. It occurs prior to initiation and it can be created by you.

According to Dr. Stanley Greenspan, we can think about communication as circles. Initiation opens a circle of communication and our response closes that circle. Our circles of communication should flow from one to the next as our conversation continues. This results in a continuous pattern and an engaged flow between you and your child.

So what can you do if your child struggles to initiate?

There are several tricks you can use around the house, such as putting things out of reach in hopes your child will pull you over, point or ask and putting treats in clear jars that require help to open. PrAACtical has some other excellent tips and tricks to use during your daily routines to increase communication initiations or temptations.

But what about during playtime?

First, let's think real quick of a few reasons why our children could want to initiate, or open a circle of communication with you. First, maybe they need help and you are a tool to reach, open, push, etc. Second, perhaps they want to stop or change what's going on. Third, they want to share their emotions with you because who wants to be mad alone? Now, let's put those reasons to use in a specific task.

Building An Obstacle Course

Here's our pendulum obstacle course during articulation practice

I like construction as an activity to work on initiation. Take out the blocks, pillows and sheets, cardboard boxes or whatever you may have around. These tools allow for big muscle movements, spatial processing, object exploration and even pretend play. Start to construct your building or course and monitor what your child does. Leave a few blocks out of reach as temptations for later. With pretend play, I like using my toy toolsets, so keep your tool belt handy and see what tools your child will tell you to use next. Be silly and put things in the "wrong" places. Act as if you cannot reach things to gain their assistance. By modeling how to ask for help, you are indirectly teaching them how to ask for help! Not to mention it's a great confidence booster when you get to help a grown up. And instead of just reaching up higher for something out of reach; bounce your child up, up, up and reeeach! Got it!

Even if your child has limited verbal communication, they can help you construct a fun sensory obstacle course. Arrange a few of their favorite sensory activities around the room. Watch where he goes first and as he crawls through the tunnel, block the exit so he needs to push you out, say "MMM" or "move!" Give an exaggerated "Where next?" look and follow his lead to crashing on the couch. Crash with him and hold him tight, see if you can get a wiggle for "let go!" or "squeeze me tighter!" If you're still holding him, swing him around then stop and wait for his next gesture of "go!" or "down!" As you put him down, again give an exaggerated "Where do we land?"

As you follow each step, pause before providing all actions. Wait for that wiggle, gesture or word before you give what you already know your child needs. On some of these activities, it might be better to block your child from accessing and wait for the "move!" or "gimmie!" Each time, you are waiting for your child to initiate his or her desire for what's going to happen next.

Before you know it, your child is communicating with you where to go next, how to move, and how to help. Many of these will be on his own initiation if you give him time and space to respond. Obstacle courses are fun, but when you make it an interactive experience, they are outstanding! Next thing you know, your child will be initiating play by saying "Let's build!"

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