20 Creative Play Ideas for Encouraging Communication
Updated: May 24
Welcome to my series of Sensory Processing blogs.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a medical professional of any kind. Or qualified teacher. I teach my children at home but they attend an SEN school. These blogs are full of what I've learned from various sources and my own experience over the last 12 years. I truly hope they're helpful and inspiring. Let's get started!
Humans are sensory creatures. So much of our lives, particularly as adults, is desperately lacking in a rich sensory diet. We can learn from our children about this! Especially children with a sensory processing difference. They are often masters of find and engage in sensory play to the benefit of their mind and body.
Sensory play is AMAZING both for children and adults. Sensory play builds connections in the brain and helps to cement learning by accessing different senses together.
When you mix sensory play with creativity the results can be extraordinary.
I have an exciting list here. Check this out!
Creativity plus sensory play:
+ supports cognitive growth,
+ hones fine and gross motor skills,
+ improves problem solving skills,
+ boosts imagination,
+ helps establish identity,
+ improves social and play skills,
+ builds communication skills
+ improves observation skills,
+ sparks curiosity,
+ develops hand-eye coordination,
+ improves focus and attention,
+ supports emotional regulation,
+ boosts memory,
+ builds self-esteem
and creates opportunities for CONNECTION
There are different types of sensory input. You'll know of course the classic 5:
Sight/visual, sound/auditory, taste/gustatory, smell/olafactory and touch/tactile.
But did you know about these?
Vestibular, proprioceptive and interoception.
Our vestibular system is how we receive and process information relating to our body's orientation (standing up, lying down, upside down), movement and balance. Examples of vestibular actions are: swinging on a swing, going down a slide or zip line, balancing on a beam/on one leg. cartwheels, hand or headstands etc...
Our proprioceptive system processes pressure and gravity and how our body relates to an environment. For example, we receive proprioceptive information when we hold someone's hand, sit on a chair, squeeze a stress ball, are swaddled/wrapped in a blanket, get pushed or pulled etc...
Our interoceptive system is our body's inner sensations like pain, hunger, thirst, itches, temperature, feeling dizzy or sick etc...
All of us have these sensory systems and they give our mind and body a LOT of information all day every day. For most of us we are able to process this information efficiently and without issue, but those with a sensory processing disorder will have areas where they are over or under-sensitive to various or all of these senses.
Hands up if COMMUNICATION is a triggering word for you?
For so many of us Autism/SEN/Neurodiversity parents communication is a really hard part of our parenting. Many of us have pre-verbal children or children with limited or intensely repetitive communication. I say 'pre-verbal' rather than the more commonly-used 'non-verbal' because 'pre' allows room for the child's development. Both my children were non-verbal when they were young but I have discovered over the years that they both have the capacity for speech.
Some of our children may never speak.
Some may only be able to speak in single words.
Some will use an AAC (Assistive and Augmentative Communication) app.
Some will be able to use sign language.
Successful communication though does not have to focus around speech. There are many ways we communicate as well as speech; gestures, vocalisations, signing, reading and writing and - what I will be talking about more a little way down the page - my version of PECs. These other forms of communication are strengthened and developed when we have a great connection with our children.
Do your children get so into the zone with a particular toy, activity, sensation that they seem to have gone deaf?! I've experienced this so many times - and not only with my children! Adults watching sports, playing video games, losing themselves in delicious food or music? I see it all the time and indeed it happens to me too. What is happening is our bodies and minds are so gloriously caught up in an experience that our ability to receive other input is greatly reduced. For our sensory sensitive and neurodiverse children they may get caught up in this zone much more intensely, for a greater length of time and due to things you might not necessarily expect anyone to lose themselves in; the soft label on the leg of a teddy bear, raindrops streaming down the car window, watching water change colour as you swirl a paintbrush around in it. You'll probably have your own examples coming to mind right now.
We have options here: You can try to snap them out of it, pay attention to you and have everything run on your schedule to your rules because that's what you know, understand and expect.
OR you can choose to join them.
Join them in that zone, try to experience that bliss, that sensation, that curiosity and wonder for yourself. I think you know what I recommend...
Let me give you an example. When my eldest was about 3 years old and newly-diagnosed he was a both a sensory seeker and avoider. One thing he really loved to do was to sit under the table surrounded by little bottles and tubes (I sold cosmetics and toiletries at the time) and explore the bottles with his eyes, hands and lips. He would do this for an hour or so at a time. I used to watch him and I'd smile and think to myself "Oh that's handy, he's occupied doing that. I'll go catch up on some tasks." That was ok. Sometimes we need to do that, of course we do. There's no such thing as a washing-up fairy! BUT. Sometimes it can be SO beneficial to put the chores away for a while and dedicate some time to pure connection. During the Autism Early Bird course there was a section about mirroring as a way to connect with our children. It's particularly good for children like my son who seem to be 'just fine playing by themselves' but ALL children react well to this. So my little chap was sat under the table surrounded by his little bottles having a lovely time. I joined him under the table. He didn't look right at me but he noticed I was there and made some sweet sounds for me; communicating his contentment. I picked up a bottle similar to the one he was holding and I copied how he was holding it and exploring it. He swapped it from hand to hand, so did I. He held it to his lips to feel the difference between the cool plastic and the paper label, I did the same. Eventually he started looking at me in the face and saw that I was smiling and having a nice time like he was and he was SO happy to be sharing his pleasure with me. We swapped bottles and tried holding one in each hand. As more time passed we had fun trying to perch the bottles on the slanted table legs, seeing how they rolled, hiding and finding them under the table top and under chair cushions.
This was a beautiful playtime purely for the purpose of play and connection. I had no motive for any speech and language therapy goals. I didn't try to squeeze any words out of him - I barely said anything at all, mostly it was silent. I didn't ask for eye contact. I didn't ask him to play the way I thought they could be played with. I followed his lead. And do you know what the result was for that playtime and the others that followed? Communication. gestures, hand-over-hand leading me to what he wanted me to play with. visual communication using his PECS (more on those in a minute) and speech. Very simple one-word speech to begin with, but speech. He started to ask me to play. He gave eye contact to me freely and made regular attempts to communicate in all sorts of ways. Every early years child - neurodiverse or not - that I've engaged with in this way I've made a connection with and had a really valuable and special playtime with. They all look forward to me coming to play because I take the time to find out what makes them happy, curious, excited, laugh! This interaction and playtimes like this were the number one way my husband and I reconnected to our son after feeling like we'd 'lost' him around his diagnosis.
I recorded this video below of my dear brother having a go at mirror-play with Max in almost the exact same way I had only days earlier. I told him how wonderful the experience was for both of us and he wanted to try it as he loves him so much. It truly fills me up with love to watch this again and it shows exactly what I have written about.
Do you see what I mean? It's so simple, so gentle and so effective. Very often I think we can get weighed down with the different therapies and advice and tools and supplements and hours a day spent doing this and that, when actually what you really need to be doing is finding ways to connect with your child. Be led by them. Development will follow.
Now, are you wondering why I've included a blog about communication with the sensory processing series? The reason is because communication is highly impacted by our sensory system. I mentioned in the last blog on Auditory/Sound Sensitivity for example that a child may seem like they are ignoring you when actually it's likely that they have been overloaded with sound input and can process no more information by sound. This is when you reach for your visual communication techniques and resources and that's why I'm also talking today about Picture Exchange Communication or PECs.
For anyone who doesn't know what PECs are:
(1) 'PECs stands for Picture Exchange Communication. It is a system 'developed in the USA in 1985 by Andy Bondy, PhD, and Lori Frost, MS, CCC-SLP. PECS was first implemented with pre-school students diagnosed with autism at the Delaware Autism Program. Since then, PECS has successfully been implemented worldwide with thousands of learners of all ages who have various cognitive, physical and communication challenges.
The PECs system was introduced to our family in 2011 during the Autism Early Bird programme and it has been incredibly helpful in facilitating speech and communication for my sons; The Sonshines. Both my sons are visual learners to some degree; my Eldest in particular. He was helped enormously in those early years by visual communication aids. They are so wonderful because they facilitate a gentle way to communicate; eye contact is not demanded, words don't have to be said at all but if some speech is developing they are excellent for building on those skills. They can help with sentence structure and grammar in more advanced level communication and they make things like choices so much simpler.
What I learned during those first days and weeks using the small batch of cards we had to begin with is that my son responded particularly well (unsurprisingly) to highly motivating images; so the images that looked like something he found exciting. The card he loved the most at the beginning was the 'bubbles' card. He's always loved bubbles, both my sons do - and who doesn't? They're such a simple, beautiful pleasure aren't they? Eventually after a few weeks of using this selection of cards we lost a couple of them; including the bubble card! Max was very upset! He barely had 5 words in his vocabulary at this point and 'bubbles' wasn't one of them. How would he now ask for bubbles?! As I'm a creative type I decided I would draw my own PEC for bubbles. I had seen it so many times I could copy it almost exactly and Max knew instantly what it was. After this success the ball was rolling and over the next weeks, months and years I created a huge series of PECs for my sons. There are a few images below of the ones I made and examples of them in use.
As I mentioned earlier; the PECs that worked the best for my sons were the ones with images of their favourite things on; their favourite food, toys, games, songs/rhymes, books, TV shows and characters. During Speech and Language Therapy sessions there are specific tasks that children are asked to do in order to tick a box to say 'this child understands and can complete this...' One of the therapists we were assigned had a simple card cut-out post box and a selection of PECs with images of various items on; I think on the cards were pictures of a boat, a train, a ball... She asked my son to post each through the letterbox one at a time;
'Max, post the boat.' He would not.
'Max, post the train.' He would not.
And so it went on and she couldn't tick the box to say that he could do that task.
I said to her "I think if the pictures were of things he was interested in he could do this."
She wasn't very convinced (or supportive to be honest) but I was determined to try. So I went home and I created a cardboard cut out of a robot with an open mouth, he had googly eyes and bright colours and mock buttons. He was fun-looking and Max liked him. I got out the PECs I'd made for some of his favourite things a matchbox car, Woody (from Toy Story), 'bubbles' and a PEC he LOVED which was 'tickle'. I set up the activity in the same way the speech therapist had but this time I was asking;
'Max, post the car for robot'.
He did it.
'Max, post Woody for robot'.
Again he did it, and he did the whole lot without hesitation.
The next week I brought the activity along to our speech therapy session and Max completed this slightly amended version of her task (with her asking him, not me) and she saw that he could do it and was able to tick the box.
The lesson here is that we need to know our children and be willing to be flexible and adaptable in our approach to teaching. Max was cognitively able to do the task, he was just not motivated by the content he was offered first time around.
Can you think of an example for your child of this sort of 'selective learning'. Where it seems like they can do something in a certain circumstance but not others? All children deserve to feel motivated, excited and eager to learn and engage with what we're asking of them and Autistic children in particular need to be facilitated to learn on their terms. The reason the activity example I gave here was successful was because I went the extra step to CONNECT with my child. I showed him I knew him and that I wanted this to be fun for him. It was a simple thing and required very little effort but it communicated to him that I respected him.
Below is a video of my youngest son, Tristan. He was 4 in this video and had been working with PECs for about a year. This shows the beginning stages of sentence-building with PECs and it comes after your child is comfortable with the basic exchanges of one PEC at a time, but I wanted to show you this as an idea of where PECs can lead. For those who've not yet read our 'About Us' section, this little man was actually less verbal than my eldest until about 3.5 years old.
There are a load of videos online showing examples of PECs so do go and explore them yourself and have a go.
The next system I want to mention here is Colourful Semantics which is a system developed by Alison Bryan and is used frequently in SEN schools and a great tool to help with sentence structure if your child is developing their speech. It is another way to use visual processing to aid learning for communication. If your child is pre-verbal due to age or cognition/development then don't worry about this yet. Here is a great little video explaining the system and demonstrating its use so you can see if it might be a good choice for you. You can also also ask your child's nursery/school.
Now here are some activity ideas for you try:
Mirror Play! (As described up in the blog here)
Fuzzy felt story boards - lovely, multi-sensory play that will likely be blissfully nostalgic for many parents!
Finish the picture - draw half a picture and have child try to draw the other side to match.
Turn taking painting/drawing - You draw a line, they draw a line, you make a mark, they make a mark, you swap colours, they swap colours etc... The painting 'Pond' was created in this turn-taking fashion and the result is absolutely gorgeous!
Take photos to tell a story - try taking a series of photos showing a beginning, middle and end. This can be really fun and silly! For example - a selfie with a neutral expression, then pulling a silly face, then laughing at the silly face. You can turn these into Gifs really easily on your smart phone by selecting the images together in the order you want them and your phone should present you with an option to make a Gif. This can lead to all sorts of fun and is a great opportunity to use single words to describe what you're seeing.
Take photos and try to copy all or part of them.
Design your own choice/story cube (colours, numbers, actions, characters etc...)
Nature trail art idea: create a picture from what you find: wildflowers, leaves sticks, feathers, seeds, berries etc... Take photos.
Lego play! Lego can be a really fantastic way to build communication. It's one of those activities where you get really into the zone creating; either if you're a follow-the-instructions or more 'master builder'! You can ask one another for pieces and talk about what the creation you're in the process of looks like. Keep the language simple, particularly if your child is young and/or pre-verbal/learning disabled. "Red brick" "man" "roof" "wheel" etc...
Playdoh emoticons - we always add googly eyes because we love them!
Basic flick books for super simple animations.
Toobaloo - this is a super simple and genius invention and so good for helping children hear the sounds they're making. I don't normally share external links to shops but I think this is worth trying for all of you who are trying to encourage your child to vocalise.
Lollipop stick figures/characters.
Felt finger puppets/sock puppets.
Recordable sound buttons. You can buy these online. They're large buttons you can record a few seconds of sound onto then when you press the button it repeats the sound. This is really brilliant for pre-verbal children who are at the stage of vocalising ahead of speech.
Use a mirror or selfie mode on your phone to have your child really watch while you (and then they) make shapes with your mouth to make sounds. Really exaggerate and make it funny.
Mirror dancing - like mirror-play but with funky moves! The best way I think is if you copy THEIR moves!
Simon says! An oldie but a goldie!
Join the dots pictures (and say what you see if they are verbal)
I have created a couple of board games for my sons over the years. The latest version I have tested at the boys' schools and their teachers and the other students really enjoyed it so it is my plan to try to get the game published, though I appreciate this is a complicated journey so will take a long time if it happens at all... Subscribe to the mailing list to be kept up to date with the release - button is at the top of the page.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your children's communication and sensory processing system reading this? I'd love to know if you'd like to share! I've learned so much about myself over the years raising my special boys. Aren't our bodies just fascinating?!
Feel free to share this blog if you like but please share it directly from this page.
Thanks so much and have a wonderful time exploring fun activities!
*(1) Quote from https://pecs-unitedkingdom.com/pecs/