What does it mean to “play with purpose?” pediatric speech-language pathologist emily cohen shares her best tips!

In this episode, Ayelet sits down with pediatric speech-language pathologist and blogger, Emily Cohen. Through her blog series, “Playing with Purpose,” Emily helps parents explore how to convert play and everyday routines into activities that are both fun and beneficial for their child’s language skills.

Emily and Ayelet discuss what “playing with purpose” is, the small tweaks parents of infants and toddlers can make to get the most out of play and interaction, and specific tips for families with infants and toddlers to use in play (with concrete examples!) to maximize the developmental value.


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Ayelet: Welcome to episode 47 of the Strength In Words podcast! Today, I’m speaking with Emily Cohen, a pediatric speech-language pathologist, former special education teacher, and owner of Tandem Speech Therapy. Emily is passionate about helping parents explore the ways in which they can convert play and everyday routines into activities that are both fun and beneficial for their children’s early language skills. Emily, welcome!

Emily: Thank you for having me!

Ayelet: We’re glad you’re here. So, I’ve asked you today to come onto the show to speak a little bit about this term that you are calling “playing with purpose,” which I love, but first, let’s just hear just a few minutes about you, and what brought you to the kind of work you’re doing today.

Emily: Sure! Like you mentioned, when I went to undergrad, I studied special education, and I taught for three years in the public schools in Michigan, which is where I’m from, and then decided to go back to graduate school and get my Masters in speech-pathology. So, I graduated about 10 years ago with my degree, and eventually ended up in Austin, Texas, where I live now and where I have my private practice (which I just started about 6 months ago)! Previous to that, I worked in a bunch of pediatric clinics with OTs [occupational therapists] and PTs [physical therapists] doing all kinds of fun play-related stuff in therapy, and over the course of my few years as an early speech-language pathologist, I was exposed to SLPs [speech-language pathologists] who are trained by The Hanen Center, and their “It Takes Two To Talk” program. And I was really fortunate, about 5 years ago, to bring the program and have SLPs in Austin trained, along with myself, and that just really informed how I practice as an SLP now, and in watching my friends have children, and start to raise young kids, really seeing how valuable play can be, and how fun it can be for parents when they really get involved, as well.

Ayelet: Exactly! Yes, it’s so true. So, tell us about what it is to play “with purpose.”

Emily: Sure! So, I have to give credit to my girlfriend, Shira, who gave me the idea. She, when I was starting my private practice, was like, “you know, you have all these really great ideas for me, for the toys that I play with, with my son, why don’t you create one of those subscription boxes where you mail parents toys and you give them ideas!” And there are fantastic SLPs who have had that idea, which is great!

Ayelet: We’ve had some of them on here, actually!

Emily: Yeah! That sort of piece of business wasn’t really interesting to me – running a subscription company – and so, I morphed her idea and decided to write a series on my blog about it. Really, the idea is about… you know, I think we hear a lot in popular culture about being intentional about our everyday lives. So, it’s really about focusing in and being a little bit more intentional when you’re playing with your child, and some little small things you can do to really focus in and build speech and language skills, doing things that you’re already doing. Without having to go out and buy anything new, or do all this reading and have to learn a lot of new stuff, but just kind of tweaking what you’re already doing!

Ayelet: Yes! Exactly.

Emily: I know parents are super busy, and don’t have a lot of extra time on their hands to be thinking and figuring out and planning a ton.

Ayelet: Right. And I love what you said about how it’s just – it’s using the things that we’re already doing and already have at our fingertips, and then just making these minor changes. So, tell us about that. What are some specific little tweaks that parents can make to their interactions to make them more purposeful in their play?

Emily: Yeah. So, I think that a really beneficial thing that we teach parents about in the Hanen program is about trying to sit and engage with kids when they play, face-to-face. We know kids learn language and speech from a few different things. And one of the things that they have to do is be able to watch us! So, when we’re sitting face to face with kids, they can watch us and see our mouths, and how we’re forming words and putting words together, and that’s going to give them better acoustics for listening, which is also a really important component for learning language! But the other important thing about it is that it lets us tune into what our children are doing. And lots of kids can communicate much more subtly than we might be conscious of, and so, it allows us to pick up, as a parent or a caregiver, on maybe some of those more subtle pieces of communication, like looking at an object like they might do when they don’t have the word for it, and then that allows you to give the child feedback. It sets up that reciprocal exchange that we have. They’ve done something, we respond, they do something again, we respond.

Ayelet: Which is exactly what a conversation is! Very nice. Ok, so, great! That’s a wonderful place to start! What else can we do?

Emily: So, I have some of my stuff that I brought with me here. So, some of my favorite techniques that I teach in the Hanen Program are ways that we can “contrive” and adjust the situation to provide more opportunities for kids to communicate. One of the other things that we have to do is provide kids with lots of repetition, especially when they’re learning a new skill. So, let’s see. I brought my Mister Potato Head, which is one of my favorite toys. If you go to my blog, you’ll see my first Playing With Purpose blog post is all about him! So, one of the things that I love to do with my toys is keep everything in… you know, these are clear boxes that you can buy wherever you like to shop. This helps with a couple of things! So, first of all, this is going to help with organization and cleaning up (which is, like, a really nice thing for you as a parent!), but it also allows us to control the situation a little bit more while we’re playing with young kids, but still gives them access to the toys and the things that they want.

Ayelet: So, I just want to clarify for the people who are listening and not watching this video, we have Emily showing us a big plastic bin (or small plastic bin) in which a Mr. Potato Head type toy – or really, it could be any toy! – but this is a great strategy with something like Mr. Potato Head. There’s a little plastic bin that has a lid, and it’s closed. And you’re saying that this is a great way to sort of… that the child can see inside, that they can maybe be “incentivized” I guess you could say, to say, “ooh, I like that toy, I want that toy!” but you’re saying that when we have it inside the box, we can have a little bit more control over it. Right. Please continue!

Emily: Yeah! And the other thing, since we’re describing what it looks like, in this case, (for SLPs watching, I have a Boardmaker image on here), but what I like to tell parents to do is to have a photograph of the toy, or maybe cut out a piece of the packaging and reuse some of the packaging that it came in, and affix that to the outside of the box. That’s going to help us both with cleaning up and with helping our kids request.

Ayelet: I like that – this is the specific place where it goes, that everything has a home. Also, you can recognize it – it’s a visual support, which we talk a lot about on Strength In Words, as well.

Emily: Yeah, and I think the photographs are often better for most kids… this is just how I have mine organized. So, what I like to do – like we were saying, this box happens to contain Mr. Potato Head, but I think any kind of toy that has a lot of different parts is going to be great for doing something like this. So, a shape sorter… another favorite toy that kids I work with love to play is that Fisher Price piggy bank that has all the different coins. So, again, that’s going to provide you with lots of opportunities for repetition with either the same vocabulary or the same skill, or whatever you’re trying to work on.

And so, what I would do in that case… I would most likely keep the box in my lap instead of dumping out the whole toy in front of the child or setting the box open in front of the child. And what I would do is open the box and, in the case of Mr. Potato Head, I often give kids the potato and, like, the shoes, we’ll say – and I like picking the feet or the shoes because then it stands up on its own, and then everybody has their hands free!

Ayelet: And I like that you’re limiting the number of items that you’re bringing out, too.

Emily: Yes! And so, that’s going to provide the child that I’m playing with lots of opportunities to make a request for what they want, and me to reinforce them in some way, with however they’re communicating that request. So for maybe kids who aren’t using words or who aren’t using many words yet, what I might do is take out two of the different toys and hold them up. So, let’s say I took out an arm and the eyes, and so I’m going to offer them choices. And that’s going to help kids who don’t have many words or aren’t using words at all yet to get access to language because they have the language right in front of them, or the item right in front of them.

Ayelet: Yes. They can make a choice, they can say what they want, without actually verbalizing – before they can verbalize! And how… how does that shape into language, Emily?

Emily: So, giving choices is really great because, like we were saying, it helps kids access language super easily. So, I like to describe it as… if you think about your brain as a giant filing cabinet, you’re not having to sort through a million files to access something – you have two things right there in front of you to access. And you know, this is just coincidence that I picked the arm and the eyes, so these two words happen to both start with vowels, which we know are easier sounds for kids to attempt to imitate, or maybe early sounds that children develop. So, maybe your child’s looking at this yellow arm and going, “ah” because they heard you say “aaarm,” and they produce that “aaah” sound – and so, you can immediately reinforce that communication. So a lot of it’s about also providing that immediate reinforcement so that the child has that “ah-ha” moment so that the child has that feedback like, “oh! I did something that mom or dad or grandma really liked – that got a positive reaction from them because they were really happy and excited, I’m going to do that again because I like that response!” And so that’s going to help shape sounds and words and things like that, as well.

Ayelet: Beautiful. Alright, let’s just take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors, and then we’re going to hear a few more specific examples from you, Emily, about how we can do this. Ok!

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Ayelet: Ok, Emily! Let’s get back to it.

Emily: Alright! So, I think another great tip that, after I started telling parents to do this when they play and engage with their kids, I realized how often I actually did it myself. And I think I probably just learned it from seeing other speech therapists with other children… but one thing I love to do, and this is another great reason why it’s important to be face to face or at eye level with the kids that we’re working or playing with, is that I like to often hold toys right up by my mouth! As I mentioned before, kids learn by watching and by hearing, and so when I hold the toy up by my mouth, it’s going to draw their attention or the thing that they really want, and it’s gonna kind of trick them into also seeing my mouth, where I’m providing them some kind of verbal stimulation or model. So, I think that’s a super easy thing to do just kind of when you’re playing.

Ayelet: That’s great! Yeah, and it’s such a simple little hack. And something that I think most parents wouldn’t think about!

Emily: Right! And so also, I do it a ton especially when – sometimes we have to help kids build their eye contact skills, and so I love to use (I’m not going to blow bubbles because I’m actually in the library right now) but bubbles are a really great activity to do this with! So, as you can see, my bubbles are in another container! That also helps with keeping my therapy bag clean! So, what I like to do with bubbles is blow them and then try and catch the bubble on the wand (not always the easiest thing, because I’m holding the bubble wand and the bubble’s sitting on top of it, and then just kind of holding the bubble up by my face, and sort of directing the child’s attention. And, as soon as they look at the bubble, maybe I pop it or I blow it again to give them some immediate feedback that they responded or interacted with me in the way that I was hoping, that they looked at me and looked at the object that we were playing with.

Ayelet: Right! It’s so funny that you mentioned that exact example. I just gave this, in a recent podcast episode, about how you can – even with a teeny, tiny infant, you can have that bubble right on the wand and encourage them to reach for it, to look at it, to make eye contact with you… there are so many things you can do just with that bubble idea! I love that. And the encouragement of them either pointing to it or verbalizing something… It’s great because infants and toddlers, again, they learn holistically. When you are engaging that visual-motor perception, that communication development, you know, you’re both attending to the same thing, and also encouraging this gesture of reaching towards something. This is something you can do with a 4-month old! Or an 18-month old! It’s wonderful! I think a lot of times, we get questions as speech pathologists or other professionals, like, “what’s the right toy for my child at this age?” And I think what you’re talking about, Emily, is so important because it is all about using these open-ended type materials that you can use, really, at any age. And it’s about meeting the child where they are.

Emily: Yes. And I just want to address – one of our visitors [from the SIW Community LAB] who’s tuning in with us left a comment which I want to address. She said, “that’s great, I always have her sitting in my lap, facing away from me!” about her daughter. And that’s true, that is a really nice way to interact with your child – there’s a loving, warm feeling about having your child sit in your lap, but I definitely (and I think this is especially important when we’re reading books with kids!) but we really want children to have that visual of our mouth so that they can learn and see speech.

Ayelet: Yeah! And not only that, but also so they can see our faces, our facial reactions, and read our emotions as we talk about things. But yeah, that’s such a great point, Emily. Thank you for that. Do you have any other specific examples?

Emily: Yeah! Definitely. So, one other tip. And this is sort of a tweak on something Maria Montessori had written about a long time ago, and I loved this idea. So the idea is, I know, especially with the holidays coming up, a really popular gift or popular toy for kids is a kitchen set. Whether that’s some bigger thing that has a refrigerator or stove, or just play food and some plastic plates and forks. But thinking about the placement of where we have toys in our home for kids. So, your child is more likely to glean more vocabulary and have a slightly more enriched experience if that item is near or in your actual kitchen. I’ve seen parents do everything from finding a little corner or the bottom cabinet, maybe move some of their pots and pans out and have things for their child that, again, are that play food or their pretend kitchen stuff, in the kitchen. So, that way while you’re in the kitchen cooking or cleaning up for dinner or getting ready for breakfast and you’re talking about what you’re doing, your child has opportunity to use that language in their own way. So, you can, if you are a reader and you like to sit in a particular spot in your home, you know, you have a chair where you read, have some of your children’s books in that same area, so you guys can engage in and interact in your own activities – in each your own level, but in the same space.

Ayelet: Beautiful! And it’s true. A couple of things about that, I think number one, absolutely, putting things in their “homes” and also having a space for your child to interact directly with the objects of everyday life, and also that those are often the best toys. We often think about, “oh, I have to get my child a kitchen set because he’s going to love it.” Well, yes, you can absolutely do that, I have a wonderful kitchen set of my own for my children, but you know what gets played with much more often even than their kitchen? My kitchen items! And I have, actually, an entire blog post about that, you know, what some of the best, unique birthday presents are for a one-year old? Kitchen items.

Emily: Yup! Their own wooden spoon and plastic Tupperware.

Ayelet: You know, nesting bowls and stacking cups! These are the toys that we buy, but in their own natural environment! So, wonderful, that’s great, and I love the reading nook or reading corner idea. That’s very nice. What are some of your other favorite resources, Emily, for parents interested in learning more about playing with purpose or using every day routines, and really maximizing their time with their little one?

Emily: Yeah! So, I write the series on my blog, and so you can find my blog on my website, which is tandemspeechtherapy.com. There’s a whole series about playing with purpose. I think I’m up to about 12 posts. Each of those is about a specific either toy or type of toy, or like a routine. So, I have a post on bathtime, the post that I finished last week was about family mealtime, about the holiday season and how you may have more time or time with all different family members sitting around the table and things that you can do. And in those posts, I try to think about different ages that kids might be, so really young children, all the way up to maybe elementary aged kids who maybe are working on a specific speech sound in speech therapy with a speech pathologist. I am a major proponent of the Hanen Center, and I love their website, I love their resources and their books – they’re written for parents to read, which I think is what I love most about their website. They have tons and tons and tons of blogs and articles written about all kinds of different things, all play-related.

Ayelet: Yes, and that’s h-a-n-e-n for those of you who are just listening. And we’ll of course link to those in the show notes, as well

Emily: Yeah, and I believe that Hanen is a .org, because they are a non-profit organization, if you’re looking them up. Yeah! And I think that there are tons of other resources and books about play that I really love. There is one that I was just reading that of course I can’t think of the title right now, but I will look it up so that we can share it with the listeners as well.

Ayelet: Yeah! Perfect! Well, thanks so much, Emily, and thanks to all of our Community LAB members who are here listening live, we are going to continue the discussion and open up for a Q&A session with you guys in just a minute, but for everyone listening from home or on the go, thanks so much for joining us and we will see you next time!