Less Tech, More Talk: Fostering Speech Development in Kids
Tech-free activities for real-life interaction to improve language skills.
Posted January 25, 2018
A quick Google search of “technology speech delay” yields countless news articles about how technology use by young children contributes to speech delays. A recent study of almost 900 children showed that those who spent more time using screens experienced delays in a variety of areas of language development such as the number of words used or using langauge to get attention. Screen time replaces in-person interactions with parents, and this is why screen time is detrimental to healthy development for young children.
Research suggests that environmental contexts are key in shaping language development. Parents can support children’s language development by being responsive to children when they attempt to communicate through language or noises. Also, sensitive parenting, or responding to the emotional and physical needs of the child, is related to growth in both receptive and expressive language. Receptive language is the child’s understanding of the language spoken by you, while expressive language is the child being able to communicate using language.
Language development occurs in stages, starting with babbling and recognizing names of objects in infancy, to responding to their name and understanding simple questions at 1-2 years old, to naming actions and having a vocabulary of 1000 words by 3 years of age, to being able to follow conversations and use future and past tense as well as proper pronouns later in preschool. This chart is helpful for a more detailed account of developmental milestones at various ages.
For 1-year-olds, the more sensitive (being warm, reading child’s cues and responding appropriately) mothers are, the more children’s vocabulary will grow. By the time children are 3 years old, though, providing stimulating activities for children contributes more to child vocabulary than sensitive parenting. Parent-child interaction is certainly one type of stimulation helpful for language development, but engaging, child-friendly television shows or games on technological devices may be another consideration. The American Academy of Pediatrics created new recommendations for screen time, or time engaging with technological devices (i.e. time spent on iPad, on adult’s cell phones, watching TV, or using a computer), for young children in 2016, which include no use of screen time for children younger than 18 months, minimal screen time and only of high quality programming with adult involvement for children ages 18-24 months, and up to 1 hour of screen time per day with adult involvement for children ages 2-5 years. These guidelines are in line with research that sensitive parenting is most important in toddlerhood, but by 3 years of age cognitive stimulation plays a role as well, with screen time possibly providing some stimulation, but only when parents watch with their children and engage in discussion about what is being watched. The quantity and quality of parent-child verbal interactions are strongly associated with language development, and when these interactions are characterized by responsiveness and positivity, children can learn even more and are encouraged to reciprocate verbal behaviors. Talking to, reading with, and engaging children is important for language development, but these language-filled interactions are most effective when they are sensitive, responsive, and positive.
Reducing your child’s risk for speech delays may benefit other areas of development, too. Children who experience speech delays often have trouble in social interactions because language is the foundation for such interactions. If children with speech delays do not catch up to their peers, they may struggle with following instructions in school and understanding social situations, making it difficult for them to make friends. This can contribute to lower self-esteem and a lack of confidence.
If you suspect your child may have a speech delay, seeking services early on can help him catch up and reduce the risk of further delays in development. There are government-funded Early Intervention Services available for children with speech delays. Although specific details for how to receive these services vary by state, a description of this program and the steps typically involved to get started can be found here.
Parents should reduce the length of time their child spends engaging with technological devices to prevent speech delays. Although research has yet to show that speech delays caused by technology are specifically due to decreased human interaction, we do know that parents play a key role in supporting their child’s language development. So, parents may want to consider replacing the time children used to spend engaged with devices with quality time engaged in parent-child interactions. By talking to children, explicitly teaching them new words, and creating a shared dialogue through activities like reading books and playing, language skills can be fostered. For some parents, however, it may not be easy to immediately begin engaging in these types of interactions with their children. Some suggested activities to replace screen time and support your child’s language development are:
- Story Time. Reading supports many areas of child development, but the conversations you have while reading are what really make a difference for language development. When parents describe characters, ask children to predict what might happen next, or periodically summarize the story’s plot, children develop more advanced language skills. “Reading is Fundamental” provides guidelines and tips for engaging children of various ages in story time. E-books can be similarly positive for children when conversations occur in the same manner, but watching videos and using apps on an iPad usually does not come with the same kinds of questions and depth of involvement as reading, making them less helpful for a child’s language development.
- Board Games. Parents can use board games to ease into interacting with their child and to engage in problem solving discussions. By validating your child’s approach to the game, and teaching them what to do if they get frustrated, you are being responsive and sensitive to their needs. Moreover, you can ensure the game is cognitively stimulating by encouraging them to count spaces, strategize, and follow rules. Toddlers love games like Lucky Ducks that are interactive and with easy-to-follow rules. Some classic games for preschoolers are Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders, which also allow children to demonstrate their expressive vocabulary of colors and numbers while playing. As children enter elementary school, they begin to enjoy games with more complex rules such as Sorry or Trouble.
- Pretend Play. Pretend play can help you understand your child’s view of the world, and can highlight emotional needs your child may have difficulty communicating directly, which will allow you to be more sensitive to his needs. Pretend play is also a different form of cognitive stimulation than board games, encouraging your child to engage their imagination and think creatively. Pretend play involves transforming an object to represent something else, such as using a stick to represent a spoon, and role playing, such as playing house with one person acting as the mom and one as the baby. So, if you’re struggling to get started, simply grab a stick and use it as a prop and let your child guide you from there!
- Take a Walk. A walk is a great way to increase your child’s vocabulary and foster skills for social interactions. You can point out new things you see along the way and ask the child questions, teaching new vocabulary such as colors, types of animals, or types of cars you encounter. You can also engage in an ongoing conversation with few interruptions to increase the fluency of your child’s speech and his ability to maintain an interaction. If you aren’t sure what to talk about, create a scavenger hunt of things you might encounter on your route to keep the conversation flowing.
- Car Talk. While driving, rather than turning on your child’s favorite video, talking is a great way to enhance language skills for your child. Similar to a walk, the car provides a relatively uninterrupted environment for talking with your child about his/her day, pointing out things you pass along your route, and asking questions to engage your child in conversation.
- Sidewalk Chalk. You can direct your child to draw shapes or use specific colors of chalk to increase receptive language, and you can have your child draw and tell you about their drawing to increase expressive language. For older kids, you can also write words and sound out the letters involved as you go. My nephew loves to write the names of his favorite Toy Story characters, and we use this as a time to sound out letters and to discuss each character in detail, which aids his expressive language skills. This could also be done on paper inside, but sidewalk chalk makes everything more fun!
All of this being said, sometimes parents just need a break, or are cooking or doing another activity where it would be safer for the child to be away from the parent, in which case a few minutes with a device certainly will not hurt the child. Speech delays and other negative effects of technology occur when the device becomes a replacement for parent-child interaction. It is easy to be misled because children love playing with iPhones and tablets, but just because they seem to enjoy it doesn’t mean it is the best mechanism for their development. When you do feel like you just need your child to be out of your way for a few minutes, electronic books or word learning apps can have positive effects on language development, so encouraging your child to engage with those specific types of applications briefly may be the best approach. However, if you have a safe space where your child can play with toys individually while you take a break or complete a task for which the child cannot be near you, encouraging them to play alone for a few minutes can be even more beneficial for kids than devices. By learning to play alone, children learn important self-regulation and can even improve language skills by engaging in self-talk.
Additional suggestions for parents of children with autism:
Although this is not a comprehensive review of promoting language development specifically for children with autism, some adaptations to the ideas presented above can assist in implementing similar strategies with children with autism.
- For board games, parents may want to adjust rules to match their child’s developmental level. If your child struggles with structured board games, a matching game may be another way to achieve similar goals. You could even create your own matching game with cards relevant to your child’s specific interests, lowering the barrier for conversation that may already be especially difficult for your child. Any game that involves turn-taking is helpful for kids with autism to practice the give-and-take of social interactions, too!
- Children with autism typically have deficits in pretend play. Because the goal of these activities is to replace technology use with activities that will support your child’s language development, you could start by engaging in functional play, such as rolling cars and trucks across the floor, to encourage interaction without the added demand of pretending.
- Some additional strategies for improving speech in children with autism can be found here.
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