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Interaction games for toddlers

If your child is older than 18 months and is not yet using any words it's important to look at how they are trying to communicate with you. If they are not consistently responding to their name, struggle to shift attention from an object they're focused on on and/or are not showing interest in requesting objects or attention from you then they are probably not ready to use words functionally.

Children need to have a reason and a motivation to talk before we can expect verbal language to develop. We call these skills 'social communication' and at this basic level the focus is on joint interaction.

If you are concerned your child fits this description you may want to speak to your GP or health visitor who can refer to a Paediatrician and NHS Speech and Language Therapy services. It's also important to check your child's hearing. If your child is in a nursery setting also chat to staff there about how he or she is playing, requesting, and how they are interacting with other children. There may be strategies, for example Makaton signing, that the nursery use which you can also use at home. These difficulties interacting are often seen in children on the autistic spectrum but difficulties in this area does not necessarily mean your child is autistic - speak to your paediatrician/SLT who will be able to do assessments to look at your child's communication and other areas of their development in more detail.

If you child is interacting in their own way just not yet using words then it is likely they are just delayed in their acquisition of language; the games below will help them but you would also benefit from strategies to help them to learn to use more words - this isn't the remit of this article but a speech and language therapist will be able to help you; is also a useful website to get you started.

Some Games and Strategies to Develop Interaction -ideas from the Hanen Centre, and me!

Use high-interest objects or toys with your child e.g. Balloons or bubbles

  • With bubbles, blow a few bubbles towards your child; once his/her attention has been captured, close the container and wait for a response before you blow any more. Ideally you would like him/her to look at you but reaching for the bubbles or passing them to you would also be developing signs of communication. Say the word 'bubbles' as your child requests.

  • Blow up a balloon and then let it go so that it flies up in the air. Then blow up a balloon part-way and wait for a response before blowing it up fully. Remember a response does not have to be verbal - if you child is not yet talking, their response may be smiling at you or looking and reaching.

Follow your child’s Interests in Play and try to find a way to interact

  • Remember your child may not play with a toy the 'correct' way. It's natural to want to correct them but when working on interaction it's important to follow your child's lead. Start by sitting back and watching how they play and listen to what sounds, if any, they make before trying to join in. Below are some ideas; you'll need to adapt these to fit your child's interests:

  • If your child likes to run you can run alongside him/her copying their running, if your child giggles you could try stopping and see if they notice you stopping. You could help starting a running game with ready steady...go!

  • If your child likes cars and they are getting them out and lining them up, you can join in the activity by handing him/her a car one by one.

  • If your child is building with bricks, you could try and add a brick to his tower.

  • If he/she is scribbling a picture you could scribble next to theirs on the page or try and hand over a different colour crayon.

Build this up slowly until your child is comfortable with you joining in. If your child lets you join in you can start to slightly extend on the play e.g. making it more purposeful, modelling symbolic play such as a doll ‘kicking’ a ball, or building a bridge or toy climbing the brick tower, driving a car to the garage...Be careful not to lead the play and lose your child; it's important to follow their interests and only extend a little once their attention is gained.

Use very simple language when you play alongside your child, naming objects and/or commenting on play in 1-3 word phrases. Simplicity and repetition is key. Don't feel you need to fill every moment with sound though - pauses are important so you can see how your child fills the quiet and it gives them a chance to copy you.

If your child is not keen on you joining in focus on Imitating instead using another set of similar toys.

Imitating play

The aim here is to imitate your child’s actions (and words or sounds if he uses any). For example, if your child bangs a brick on the table you copy them using a different brick nearby (as close as your child is comfortable with) - the idea is that your child will be drawn by what you are doing. Imitating is how we learn to say words so it is an important skill.

If you child makes noises or says any words you can copy these too e.g. ‘pop pop’ with bubbles. You can try adding a word for them too and expand it to help them develop longer phrases e.g. ‘pop, pop bubbles'.

Your child may try and copy you too; if they do, you can add a second stage to the action e.g. bang two bricks or bang the brick and then drop it in abox. Your child will likely gradually start to copy your extended action which is another early exchange of communication.

Do not worry if your child's play doesn't seem like traditional play to you. If his or her interests are sensory such as hand flapping, spinning wheels etc you can still copy these. You will probably want to avoid dangerous behaviours such as jumping on the table or head-banging so look for things your child enjoys that are safe or take them somewhere open, e.g. to the park and see how they play there and copy that.

An excellent website which gives useful ideas for games to develop social interaction and communication can be found at:

This is also a useful site with ideas to develop interaction and play in children with autistic features:

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