Four Strategies for Promoting Communication During Play

Mother teaching her little childFour Strategies for Promoting Communication During Play


Coogle, Gloyd, Hanline, and Kellner-Hiczewski (2013) outlined 15 evidence-based strategies for promoting communication in their article entitled Strategies Used in Natural Environments to Promote Communication Development in Young Children at Risk for Autism Spectrum DisorderThe strategies include: 1) following the child’s lead, 2) modeling, 3) expanding language (i.e., elaborating), 4) interspersing preferred and nonpreferred activities to promote requests, 5) providing choices, 6) contingent imitation, 7) naturally reinforcing language, 8) allowing wait time, 9) parallel talk, 10) self-talk, 11) obstruction, 12) sabotage, 13) violating routines, 14) in sight-out of reach, and 15) purposeful communication.


The researchers made an excellent point in their article.  “It is best to use the strategies in routines that are consistent with families’ — preferences and are of interest to the child” (p. 14).  Not every strategy will work for every family or every child.  Play with the strategies and determine which ones best motivate your child to talk.  If a strategy appears to be aversive, don’t use it.  There are plenty of effective, non-aversive strategies that can be implemented.


The title of the article specifies that the strategies are for use in natural environments.  Guess what?  Wherever you are with your child is a natural environment.  Natural environments are the places where you spend time each day.  Some of the strategies can be embedded in routines throughout the entire day while other strategies are best implemented during specific routines such as play.  Today, I want to highlight strategies that would be best implemented in the context of play.  When playing with your kiddo, try out some or all of the following strategies.


Strategies to Implement During Play


  • Following the child’s lead (observe your child without talking or physically prompting and engage in the activities your child shows interest in)
    • Example: If your child walks away from the blocks and sits down with a ball, sit near your child and engage in ball play together (e.g., rolling, bouncing, throwing, kicking).
      • Nonexample: Leading your child away from the ball and directing her back to the blocks. —Remember, we are working on child-directed play.


  • Contingent imitation (i.e., copy cat) (observe your child’s play and imitate appropriate play acts)
    • Example: If your child holds a baby doll, you hold another baby doll.
      • Nonexample: Taking your child’s baby doll from her hands so that you can hold the baby doll. —Find your own doll 😉
    • Example: If your child stacks blocks, stack blocks next to your child’s blocks or add a block to your child’s tower.
      • Nonexample: Taking your child’s tower down to build it differently. —If it is appropriate play and not throwing or mouthing objects, go with it.


  • In sight-out of reach (i.e., environmental arrangement requiring assistance) (place some potentially desired toys and materials in clear containers with lids or on shelves out of your child’s reach and wait for a request to access the desired item)
    • Example: Before engaging in play, put the Play-Doh on a shelf in the room while leaving the Play-Doh tools out and available for play.  When you engage in play with your child, wait for her to request the Play-Doh before giving access to it.
      • Nonexample: While playing Play-Doh with your child, you remove the Play-Doh and put it out of reach on a shelf and wait for her to request to have the Play-Doh again. —That would be using the strategy below (obstruction).


  • Obstruction (interrupting your child’s play by removing necessary items or blocking access to items to elicit a request to access the necessary items)
    • Example of blocking: Your child repeatedly puts toy cars in and takes them out of a toy garage.  When the cars are out of the garage, you block access to the closed garage door and wait for your child to request “move,” “open,” or “car in” before allowing access to the garage door.
      • Nonexample: Hiding the toy garage while your child is rolling the toy cars.
    • Example or removing: Your child is painting a picture with watercolors.  You remove the watercolors and wait for your child to request “paint” before providing access to the watercolors.
      • Nonexample: Taking the paper from in front of your child, taking the paint brush out of his hand, and taking the watercolors to elicit a request.


Implementing any of the strategies above will support your child in learning when to use language.  The great thing about implementing these strategies during play is that your child won’t even know that he is working.  Teaching and reinforcing language and communications skills during play takes advantage of your child’s interests and motivation, making it more fun and less challenging for your kiddo.  Before you go on about your day, consider which strategies would be most effective with your child.  Of the four strategies listed above, one of them could potentially serve as a punisher for your child.


Potentially Punishing and/or Aversive Strategies
  • Obstruction


Some children may not mind the use of obstruction to elicit communication.  However, for some children, obstruction may punish the desire to play with you and set the occasion for problem behavior to gain access to the removed or blocked items.  Generally, if your child is an early language learner, you want to be a giver and not a taker.  Talking is difficult for an early language learner.  Sure, you want to use the strategies in your arsenal to motivate your child to talk.  However, making your child talk by taking away items they had access to moments earlier is not the most efficient strategy.  Another strategy that accomplishes the same goal in a more positive way is to give your child small quantities of the desired item.  For example, give your child a sip of soda rather than the entire can, 2 Lincoln Logs instead of 10,  half of a chip instead of a bowl of chips, or 1 doll sock instead of the pair of socks.  In each of those examples, it is extremely likely that the child will want more or need more.  When is half a chip ever enough?  What can you build with 2 Lincoln Logs?  In giving your child small quantities of the desired item, you build motivation for your child to use language to ask for more of the desired item.  Proving small quantities of the desired item allows you to be a giver as opposed to being a taker in the obstruction strategy.  If you choose to use the obstruction strategy, be sure to do so with much consideration of your child’s behavior and their ability to cope with this strategy.


Want to learn more about play and language?  Check back with us for the continuation of play and language.  We want to know what you are doing with your kiddo in your natural environment.  Tell us what strategies you use with your child or with your clients by commenting below.