Speech and motor skills are two of the most important developmental milestones for young children, and most develop appropriate skills as they age and learn. However, some children struggle with certain elements of language development or motor skills, and speech and occupational therapists are standing by with a stockpile of strategies to help.
When it comes to speech and motor development, why not take some tips from the insiders who know best? Every child can benefit from the information that clinicians, therapists, and other experts have to offer!
Each time your child cries, smiles, or coos, he's building communication skills and developing speech muscles that will help him say his first words. Those early speech and language skills affect later learning, so its important to start early. “Oral language skills are the foundation for written language skills,” says Diane Paul, director of clinical issues in speech and language pathology with the American Speech and Hearing Association.
How can parents help every child with language development? Take these tips from Paul to strengthen and develop your child’s communication skills:
- Read Every Day! Start reading to your child the day they’re born—read the newspaper aloud, show him board books, talk about pictures in magazines. As you read, name objects, and talk about how you’re using the book—turning pages from front to back, reading from left to right, using illustrations to learn more about the story.
- Follow Their Lead. When your child is an infant, imitate his sounds and facial expressions. When he looks at or reaches for an object, talk to him about it. “Oh, you want your sippy cup? You must be thirsty.” You’re teaching your child how to take turns, respond to interactions, and focus on one topic or person at a time.
- Start a Conversation. Research shows that parents who talk more to their children have kids with a better vocabulary, says Paul. As you go about your day, talk about what you’re doing, name the objects that you’re using, and talk about what you’re watching on television or reading.
- Model Language. Some baby talk is okay, says Paul; it tells the child that you’re focusing on them. But, overall, use correct, simple sentences that teach kids correct grammar and pronunciation.
- Make a Vocabulary Scrapbook. Create a scrapbook of people, places, and objects in your child’s world. Read your book by identifying colors, counting objects, and naming items that go together (all the animals, or all the things that move). Talk about how you use objects, how things feel, and which items are opposites. Include family photos and retell the story that goes with each picture.
Fine Motor Development
As you child grows, she’ll strengthen and refine her upper body strength, developing the skills to grasp, point, hold crayons, cut with scissors, dress herself, and write with pencils. Give your child opportunities to develop stronger fine motor skills with these recommendations from Sandra Schefkind, OTR/L, Pediatric Coordinator of the American Occupational Therapy Association:
- Strengthen the Upper Body. Think about developing strength and control of your child’s entire body, not just his hands. Playing games while in a variety of positions will challenge your child. For example, have your child lie on his tummy and color, or kneel for a ball toss. A game of Twister or Simon Says that encourages your child to reach across their midline (hand reaching across the body) also helps to build trunk and shoulder strength and coordination.
- Feel It. Help your child learn to manipulate a variety of objects with sensory rich activities such as finger painting, water and sand play, or by hiding objects in a shoebox filled with dry rice.
- Extend Upwards. Introduce activities that encourage wrist extension such as writing on a slant board or putting a notebook binder on its side. The slant will extend their wrist, making it easier to hold crayons or pencils. Tape butcher-block paper onto the wall or use an easel for writing and painting, which also helps with wrist extension.
- Build Finger Strength and Control. Placing coins in a piggy bank, squeezing a small water bottle, playing a board game, and pretend play toys (dolls, dress up clothes) that have buttons and zippers all encourage manipulation and dexterity. Pretend play and puppets are a great way to strengthen hand muscles while building social and language skills.
- Build for Success. When playing with your child, Schefkind recommends choosing activities that are appropriate for his current level of development. Pay attention to the cues that indicate that your child is frustrated or fatigued. “The child should be challenged and engaged in the play but not overwhelmed or stressed,” Schefkind explains.
- Keep the Big Picture in Mind. If your child is struggling with his daily routines, and occupational therapist can evaluate a child’s level of performance including his fine motor abilities and, if necessary, recommend an individualized program to promote his development and participation in his activities such as self care, play, and school activities (including both academics and social skills).
Encouraging your child's language and fine motor skills will not only ensure that he keeps up with classmates and the so-called "developmental milestones" of early childhood: it will pave the way for future success for life.