There are lots of activities we do in our Toddler groups that help children to develop communication skills. Here we highlight these activities, explain how they help and suggest ways we can encourage parents and carers to continue these activities at home.

Did you know that 75% of brain development occurs in the first two years of life? This means that developing children’s communication skills as soon as they are born will give them the best start in life and prepare them to start school.

Unfortunately, one of the lasting effects of limited social interactions through the pandemic has been an increase in the number of children experiencing communication delays. So, now that we are socially interacting in our groups again, what can we be doing to aid children’s development in this area?

As toddler group leaders there are lots of activities that we already do in our groups, which help with this – maybe things that we hadn’t even thought about. Carrying out these activities during our sessions will provide opportunities for children to develop their communication skills. It will also build parents’ and carers’ confidence as we model how they can continue these activities at home, especially if we talk about how the activities help children’s communication development.

1. Singing, rhymes and musical activities

These are great ways to help babies and toddlers learn to talk and read. Incorporating a singing and rhyme time into our session can help children to develop word recognition and rhythm, and understand volume and pace. Even babies quickly learn to recognise rhymes and know what comes next, giving them confidence to join in. Even before they can participate verbally they will follow an adult’s face with fascination and try to communicate back, for example by sticking out their tongue, smiling, cooing and moving their mouth or kicking with glee. Using action songs also assists with word recognition and helps children to begin to follow simple instructions.

Encouraging parents and carers to practise the songs and rhymes at home will build confidence and help children to memorise them. It also provides an opportunity for children and carers to bond, especially if the rhyme or song includes physical contact.

2. Play

Interacting with children while they play enables adults to ask simple questions or give a running commentary of what they are doing, which helps children to associate words or signs with objects or actions. Imaginative play is particularly important for developing word association and language understanding. For example, if the child is pretending to make a cup of tea, communicating, ‘I love how you are lifting the blue teapot carefully and pouring tea into the red cup,’ is helping them to recognise a wide range of language. Play allows opportunities for adults to encourage children to try out simple verbal sounds or actions or to extend language, for example if a child picks up a ball and says ‘ball’, we might reply ‘yes, that is a red ball’. Playing simple games like peek-a-boo or games that involve turn taking also helps children to learn that communication is a two-way thing and that one person communicates while another responds.

Taking time to talk to the children and their parents and carers about the different play activities, and model how to communicate with children through play, will help build parents’ confidence in this area too.

3. Story time

Encouraging children to develop a love of books aids communication skills tremendously and will prepare children to start school. Even the youngest child can learn how to turn the pages gently, and observe how we read from front to back and left to right. Stories with repetition allow children to join in, and non-fiction books will open their eyes to new things in the world around us.

Having a regular story time in our session will demonstrate the benefits of reading with children. It will also help children to develop listening and concentration skills. Using large picture books or encouraging the children to participate in repeating certain words and actions helps develop language, especially when there is repetition and rhyme in the story. It can be challenging at times to tell stories to wriggly young children but we’d be surprised by how much they take in and how beneficial it is to their language and communication development.

Encouraging parents and carers to read regularly with their children will develop emotional bonds as well as a love of reading. Setting up a reading area or lending library within our group or encouraging parents to visit your local library can help with this. Not everyone finds reading easy, but the National Literacy Trust and Read Easy are just two of the many amazing organisations which provide resources and information for adults looking to develop their reading skills.

4. Talking

Talking to babies and children is so important. It doesn’t matter whether they understand what is being said to them. From a very young age children will listen to the words and tone that adults use as they communicate with them and others, and will watch facial expressions, actions and body language. As they develop children will try to copy this. It’s easy for us to be distracted by our phones, but providing children with eye contact is really important from a very early age. Looking at a child as they feed, mirroring a child’s facial expression or verbally copying noises infants make all assists with communication development.

Encouraging our volunteers to model talking to the children, as well as the adults, can be really helpful. If we have new-borns and babies attending our group, maybe we could set up a specific area for this age group and assign a volunteer to chat to the babies and their parents or carers.

5. Listening

Developing listening skills underpins language development. After each activity, it’s good to ask the children what they remembered about the story, what their favourite song was or what they made during craft time. As we move down to their level, give them our full attention, face-to-face contact and listen to their response, they will feel valued. Even if we cannot understand what they are communicating, we can show we are listening by responding to them with our words, actions and facial expressions. If we can understand what the child has said repeating this back to them shows we have listened.

Modelling this to parents and carers shows them that we care about and are interested in their children. It also provides opportunities for them to see this done well, which may build their confidence if needed, or encourage them in the busyness of having a young family, to make time to remove distractions and listen well too.

If any parents within our groups are concerned about their child’s communication development, pointing them towards their health visitor for help and support is important. They will be able to make referrals into the relevant statutory health services that assist with early intervention speech and language delay. The Speech and Language UK website is also useful for providing information about the different ages and stages of speech, language and communication development and what parents and carers can do if they are concerned.

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