FLOOR TIME: Promoting Better Communication Skills

As you become more proficient in your role as “parent therapist extraordinaire” and your child is becoming more attentive, you’ll eventually want to move on to the next goal. The second goal in these floor time play sessions is to improve your child’s ability to communicate effectively.

(This floor time blog is the third in a series of five, teaching parents how to be their child’s own play therapist. If you haven’t read my introductory floor time blog, click here.)

During your 20-30 minute floor time play sessions, your child should now be demonstrating signs of personal interest and attention toward you. He should pause to watch you take a turn, smile with pleasure at something funny you’re doing, make eye contact, show frustration when you’re in his way, and periodically look to see where you’ve gone or what you’re doing. These are the beginning signs of a desire to communicate. Now you’re going to build upon them.

Playful Obstruction. Your goal is to challenge your child to respond to you. So, while participating in your floor time activities together, you’ll want to playfully get in the way of what your child wants to do. This playful obstruction will naturally cause your child to want to communicate. Even grunts, pointing, stomping feet, reaching, etc., are good attempts at communication. This is important whether your child has no speech or whether she can verbalize somewhat. Playful obstruction might consist of the following:

  • “Playing Dumb.” You’re coloring with your daughter, and she wants the orange crayon. She reaches for it, and you’re holding the pack. She reaches and points, but you make a confused face. “What color do you want?” Or, you’re helping your son make a pattern of blocks: square, triangle, square, triangle. Suddenly you pretend to forget the rule, and put a circle down, breaking the pattern. You act confused as he protests. If your daughter speaks but misuses words, pretend to be perplexed at what she’s trying to say.
  • Get between your child and what he wants. He wants his blanket, and you are laying on it. He tries to pull it, and you pretend not to understand that he wants you to move. Or a scarf can be used to cover up something he wants, while you ask, “Where is it? I don’t see it.”
  • Purposely withhold something she wants. If you’re taking turns spinning a top, for example, hold the top out of his reach for a moment on his turn, raising your eyebrows and waiting for him to reach, grunt, speak, or otherwise communicate his desire.
  • Use other playful antics which somehow disrupt the normal flow of the shared activity. You’ve got parental inspiration and creativity, so use it!

While using playful obstruction, do the following:

  1. Use the child’s natural instincts. As in your previous sessions, follow your son or daughter’s lead and let him select the activity. This means your child will be more motivated.
  2. Be animated. Use facial expressions, vary your tone of voice, and even exaggerate hand gestures somewhat. Don’t be embarrassed; this will help your child.
  3. Talk to your son or daughter. If your previous play sessions have been only minimally verbal, now it’s time to inject speech. Use simple, clear words. Don’t use baby-talk or nonsense words. Talk about everything you’re doing together.
  4. Use hand gestures, and put words to them. Develop a clear gestural vocabulary. Say, “Come here,” as you draw your hand toward yourself. Point and say, “there,” or put palms up and say, “where?” Nod your head while you say “yes,” and shake it as you say, “no,” etc. Keep this gestural vocabulary consistent.
  5. Reward appropriate communication immediately. If your son says, “I want the book,” during play therapy, he gets it. If your daughter points and says “want down,” help her do so. Verbally acknowledge your understanding. “Oh, you want the book? Okay.”
  6. Model good language for your child. If your daughter is stomping her feet angrily, but can’t express herself, say, “Kathryn says, ‘I’m angry Mommy! I don’t like that!” If your son is using words incorrectly, like “I want got it,” say, “You mean, ‘I want to have it.’”
  7. If your child misuses pronouns or other words, pretend to be confused. “Who are you talking about? Kyle or Mom? Kyle? Okay. Say, ‘I want to go outside.’”
  8. Continually encourage your child to improve and progress in her language skills, using the techniques of playful obstruction, playing dumb, language modeling, and positive reinforcement. Help your child move from gestures, to single and double-word exchanges, to simple sentences, and more complex verbal exchanges.
  9. Don’t cause your child extreme frustration by making your obstructions overly aggressive or annoying. Play therapy should not cause your child to dread the time together. These are to be gentle disruptions to the flow of activity, always done playfully. A little agitation is okay to promote language.
  10. End the floor time session on a positive note, by letting your child do something comforting for a few minutes, without obstructions or expectations.

As part of working towards the goal of promoting better communication, you should also have turn-taking sessions during floor time. Read my blog, “My turn! Your turn!” for tips.

Don’t be discouraged if your child seems to be stuck at a particular level of language development and you’re not seeing improvement. Seek help from your child’s teacher, speech and language pathologist, and other professionals for more advice. For specific tips on floor time strategies for non-verbal children, see my blog “Promoting Communication in Your Non-Verbal Child.”

Congratulations…you’re becoming an expert parent play therapist! As your child develops his communication skills over many weeks, months, or more, you’ll want to move to the next floor time goal: Promote the expression of feelings and ideas.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.

Floor Time is an intervention model developed by by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D. and can be found in his wonderful book, The Child with Special Needs, by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., and Serena Wieder, Ph.D.