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A Puzzle Communication Routine For Late Talkers

a communication routine using puzzles for toddlers who are late talkers

If your child is a late talker, chances are you’ve heard your speech language pathologist (SLP) talk about communication routines. Even if you haven’t heard the phrase, it’s very likely communication routines are something you already do at home with your child. These routines can be anything you do (getting dressed, eating breakfast, playing with toys) where you focus on building your child’s communication. A communication routine is a play routine (or functional daily activity routine) used to build communication skills. Communication routines are an essential practice component in speech therapy and at home. In today’s post, you’ll learn a detailed puzzle communication routine for late talkers.

What is a Communication Routine?

Chances are, you might feel like adding extra routines to your day would be difficult. As a parent, you’ve got a lot going on. So, instead of adding an extra routine into your day, why not add a communication element into an activity you already do?

A communication routine can be any routine you already do. By adding a communication element into that routine, you’ve got a communication routine.

Does your child need help zipping his or her coat before you leave?

Pause, and wait expectantly for a gesture or word approximation.

Do you have breakfast with your child? 

Make comments on what you are eating, and label objects.

For today, let’s pick a simple communication routine you can use at home. Chances are, you have some puzzles lying around. Right now, most of my younger clients love puzzles. First, I’ll walk you through what you can do to recreate this play routine at home. Second, I’ll discuss strategies you can use to model language during this activity.

*Do* Try This At Home

I encourage you to try this routine at home. Yet, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention my professional caveat first. If your child is a late talker, you should see a speech language pathologist (SLP). An SLP can provide an evaluation and work on skills targeted just for your child. Also, an SLP can design specific home routines to use to help your child build his or her communication.

As SLPs, we are here to support you as the parent. We are experts in our field, and you are an expert when it comes to your child. Let’s put our heads together and come up with a great communication plan for your child!

Most important, we are here to team up with you to help your child communicate. I would encourage you to contact an SLP, especially when you have access to someone who can help.

A Puzzle Communication Routine For Late Talkers
1. Introduce the Puzzle

If you are doing this at home, chances are your child already is familiar with the puzzle. Themed puzzles (farm life, ocean life, transportation) are among my favorites.

Start with the puzzle completed. Follow your child’s lead. For example, if you are completing an animal puzzle, you may make animal sounds or label the animals using short phrases.

2. Remove the Puzzle Pieces and Play

Next, I remove the puzzle pieces and we play. If the puzzle has farm animals, we may have the animals walk, eat, drink or go to sleep. This routine can be quick. Most important, it should follow your child’s interest level and attention span.

3. Put the Puzzle Together

Put the puzzle pieces in!

This is where my graduate school mentor’s voice rings in my mind: control your materials. 

If your child grabs the puzzle pieces and puts them in on his or her own, is that communication? Not so much. You need to be a part of this routine. After all, it takes two people to communicate. If you control the materials, you can offer choices (another communication strategy). You can do this by holding up two puzzle pieces and waiting for your child to choose.

How to control your materials? It depends on the child. Sometimes, I just put the pieces in a pile next to me and hold up two at the same time. I offer the child a choice of which on he or she would like first. And remember, all communication is good communication. If a child points or gestures, they get the puzzle piece.

What about controlling materials for children who are more active? I’ve learned to put the pieces in a container that my client would have a hard time opening. One example is to put the puzzle pieces in a clear, zipped plastic bag. Another idea is to put the pieces in a clear plastic container with a snap lid. When I do this, I look in the bag (or bin) and see which items my client would like out of the container. I wait for communication (a point, a look, or a word approximation), and then bring out the puzzle piece my client wants.

Remember, this isn’t about hogging the materials. Instead, it is about presenting the materials in a way that encourages communication.

4. Clean Up

Clean up is an important part of a communication routine. This signals the completion of an activity. In addition, it provides a transition for children who need a signal that a new activity will begin. Also, clean up signals shared responsibility for the toys and the routine.

Some parents use a clean up song. Another idea is to talk about the puzzle needing a rest and putting it away. However you end your routine, remember the purpose is to provide a transition for your child.

Do I Need to Buy More Toys?

I want to address this question, since it is one I get fairly regularly.

Is the toy you are playing with important? Do you need to go out and buy more stuff? The answer here is a resounding no. The most important thing in a play routine isn’t a “thing” – it’s you! Since the toy isn’t important, remember you can use anything for a toy in your routine. A tissue? Washcloth? Blanket? Pots and pans? I’ve seen all these objects used in excellent communication routines.

A Few Strategies

I hope this post has demystified communication routines. I also hope this post has encouraged you, because I bet you already have quite a few communication routines under your belt. These routines are simple. These routines are based on activities that you already do as a family.

Even though the routines are simple, the cueing is not. As the adults in a play routine, our work is far from easy. The communication strategies you use are the most important part of the routine. That is a lot of responsibility! But instead of feeling overwhelmed, I hope this encourages you in your important role.

Thankfully, there are three simple steps to encourage communication in play. First, follow your child’s lead. Second, wait to see what garners you child’s interest. Third, listen to your child and comment on what holds their interest. By letting your child take the lead, you are encouraging their initiation in communication.

Remember, there are many play strategies to use. There are many cueing strategies to use. For now, let’s keep it simple. If you start with the steps above, you’ll be right where you need to be to get started.

Suggested Reading: Late Talkers Series

If you’d like to know more about late talkers, check out my previous posts. There you can find out more about goal suggestions for late talkers, find out if your toddler needs a speech and language evaluation, and read more about how parents can help toddlers who are late talkers at home.

Are you looking for a speech language pathologist to help your child communicate? If your child is a late talker and you live in the Rogue Valley, I’d love to work with you! I provide direct one-on-one speech therapy with preschoolers and toddlers who are late talkers. I also coach parents on how to use routines like this one at home to build communication. You can get in touch with me by visiting my contact page.