Guidelines for parents: How to play with my child who is nonverbal- Beginning play level


How do I play with my young child who is nonverbal? Expansion from where your child is at..

It is not uncommon for parents to express uncertainty about how to go about playing with young children who are not able to express themselves. These children often have a limited repertoire of toys that they are interested in. All we need for play is to identify one toy (e.g. teddy), action (e.g. jumping), or object (e.g.. car) that the child is interested in and use it as a basis for play. We want to be aware of what the child is interested in and then for us to extend what s/he does with the toy/object to expand involvement with us and the toy/object or action. 

My child is in school already, why should s/he still learn to play like this?

There is a direct link between children’s ability to play with themselves and others, and their ability to learn.  This also applies for children of school -going age. Children learn primarily through play. They make up action stories (e.g. the doggie runs in the yard, he runs fast, he sees daddy coming in the car, what does the doggie do? He runs to the car to greet daddy). In playing out a simple story like this, they learn about sequential actions and logical outcomes. If we can get a young child to play like this, s/he is  well on the way to learning. 

What toys do I use?

We need to watch carefully what toys the child spontaneously engages with. We need to observe how s/he uses the toys to develop their play skills. Allow yourself to expand play around the object of your child’s interest by adding one or two ideas that you think the child might relate to. Parents can be most intuitive in knowing what a child might enjoy – and if it doesn’t work, then you can try with another object/action/toy later on.  It is not how many times we have to try that is important, but where we are heading for!

Gaining a young child’s attention is often difficult and expanding that interest to include a slightly longer engagement with the toy can be quite difficult at first. Remember this is an activity that you and your child should enjoy together. Don’t allow a play session to change into a “teaching session”. The idea is to have fun together. Play, communication and learning can only happen when a child is interested and enjoy what they are doing with you. 

So how do I do this?

  1. Where do I start? More observation, less talking and directing: This is not about what you, the parent wants to play with, but what your child would like to play with. We can suggest certain activities, but we need to ensure that the child is in the lead here. We often times tend to be too directive in playing with our children. Rather, watch what they do and then, let’s move from there.
  2. What does your child do with the toys spontaneously? Does s/he hold the toy, throw the toy, put the toy in a box with other toys? These are important first indicators of where you can start to play with your child.
  3. How do I use these observations to play with my child?
  • Start where your child is at , e.g. If your child is holding his/her toy, that is where you start.
  • Slowly try and expand what they are doing by introducing some other ideas
  • Look, see how your child responds. If s/he loses interest, you need to try something else. Know that everything you try is positive as you get to know and understand your child’s interests better. 

An example of a play interaction : Please make sure to use whatever means of comunication your child has available. These could include manual signs, grahic symbols on a communication board or a device- or a combination of these. That you communicate during play is much more important than how you do it! Again, don’t turn this play interaction into a “teaching situation”. Rather see it as an opportunity to interact with your child in a non-pressuring, creative way.

Q:  My child only tends to hold his toy. How do I get him/her  to play with me?

One way of initiating play:

Parent: I see you like to hold Teddy? Can I hold him a bit?

Child: (gives it to you)

Parent: Teddy is a good friend. Look! Teddy is waving at you?

Child: (wants Teddy back).

Parent: You like to hold Teddy! He is your friend.  Do you think Teddy wants to play with something?

Child: (ignores utterance)…(parent puts some other toys closer – and takes the car)

Parent:  (takes the car): Hallo, Teddy, do you want a ride ? Come sit with me in the car….(Parent helps the child to place Teddy on the car) go!  See, we are going fast/slow!

Child: Takes teddy and the car and imitate the action of “go”

A short sequence of play like this, can be a major step forward for a child with severe communication difficulties. Do not under-estimate the power of these  short, but meaningful interactions.

What should I look out for?

  1. You want your children to be interested, to pay attention to you and to engage with the toys. The quality of the attention and how they play with the toys is what we want to promote.
  2. When you introduce new ideas, you have to do so slowly while watching your child’s reaction. If they lose interest and walk away – that’s ok. That is where you start. Next time, new or same toy, new play situation.
  3. It is not about how long you play together, but the quality of the joint attention that is important.
  4. Be with your child in a child-like way. What we are looking for is for you and your child to play together in a way that is joyful and meaningful to your relationship. Then we can gradually try and extend this time.

Most important: Have fun!

Being with Another: The Basis for AAC intervention?

Two people together at sunset

I recently went back to South Africa to see my mom, who is 88. She is in a nursing facility with 24-hour care, unable to walk, and at times quite confused. During the past year she had a couple of ischemic attacks, which rendered her unable to speak for certain periods of time. Recently, however, she has regained some speech, although verbal expression remains difficult. In spite of all these factors, I looked forward to our visit.

The author with her mom and her brother
The author with her mom and her brother

I talk to my mom on the phone from New York on a daily basis. Even though interactions are difficult, we are able to maintain interaction for sometimes shorter and sometimes longer periods of time. My visits with her are less focused on content and more on celebrating the joy of being together.

When in Johannesburg, I visit her at the facility twice a day for about an hour each in the morning and afternoon, depending on how my mom and I seem to be doing at the time and on a specific day. Continue reading “Being with Another: The Basis for AAC intervention?”

Spontaneous Second Language Interactions: What Can We Learn for AAC Intervention?

Two Cousins

In a recent visit to South Africa I had the privilege to be a fly on the wall in observing an interaction between two young people: a little girl who is 9 years old (Afrikaans-speaking, but also fluent in English) and a young adult in her early 30s (English-speaking, but also competent in Afrikaans, although she hasn’t spoken it for some time). These two cousins had not seen each other in a couple of years and were very happy to be reacquainted. A recording was made of their interaction (embedded below). Continue reading “Spontaneous Second Language Interactions: What Can We Learn for AAC Intervention?”

Riding the Whirlwind: Human Interactions and Emotional Resonance


On a recent visit to South Africa, I realized again the importance of traveling to bring fresh perspectives as well as new insights into human interactions.

Moral Compass: Political cartoon of Nelson Mandela by Zapiro
Truth be told, this is a difficult time politically in South Africa; and dealing with political views while visiting family can be interesting albeit quite disturbing at times. A political cartoon by Zapiro (Daily Maverick) stayed with me, as it connected to a dilemma that I encountered while visiting an elderly friend who lives on her own in Johannesburg. The cartoon depicts Nelson Mandela showing the way to go, while the current President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, is caught up in a moral whirlwind (windvane) without an escape route. The depiction of “being caught up in a whirlwind” struck me as I reflected on the situation that my 91-year-old friend finds herself in. Continue reading “Riding the Whirlwind: Human Interactions and Emotional Resonance”