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occupational therapy, speech therapy, portland oregon

Developing Early Communication Skills

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Even before children learn to talk, they start to develop early communication skills. These include looking, joint attention, taking turns and listening. These skills are key building blocks for developing language.

To build these skills, children need their parents! Give your child lots of opportunities to communicate with you. Children communicate more when adults respond to any communication attempts, no matter what it is. It may be by smiles, gestures, showing and giving objects, pointing, or making sounds.

Look for opportunities to communicate with your child! Everything can be an opportunity for talking and playing with them. By creating opportunities for communication, you will help them to learn about communication and start building their communication skills.

Most importantly, children learn through play - and parents and caregivers are a child’s favorite playmate. You don’t need expensive or specific toys - just a few minutes at a time to have fun together.

Remember these ideas to get the most out of your communication games:

  • Use simple short phrases of only 1 or 2 words.

  • Your child may only play for a very short time at first but keep trying!

  • Be face to face and at the same level as your child.

  • Offer simple choices during play by holding up real objects e.g. “Ball or Bubbles?” Use the same words each time you play.

  1. Peek a boo

    1. Put a blanket or soft sheet over your child’s face and ask “Where’s (name)?”

    2. Then quickly pull the blanket away and say “There s/he is!” or “peek-a-boo!

  2. Tickle Game

    1. Hold out your hands, look expectantly and say “tickles!” before tickling your child.

    2. Leave your hands out a little longer each time to encourage them to wait and anticipate what is coming.

  3. Bubbles

    1. Blow some bubbles up into the air then hold out the bubble wand and wait for your child to look or show they want some more.

    2. Wait a little longer each time before blowing the bubbles to encourage longer attention.

  4. Wind Up Toys

    1. Wind up the toy, hold it out and wait for your child to look or show you they want the toy to go. Wait a little longer each time you play.

    2. If your child is really motivated, only wind the toy a small amount then wait to see if they will ask you to wind more.

    3. This also works well with squeeze toys, jack in the box or spinning tops.

  5. Balloons

    1. Blow up a balloon, hold it out and wait for your child to look before letting it go. Wait a little longer each time to encourage attention.

    2. If your child is very motivated when you blow up the balloon, blow in a small amount of air only and ask “More?”. Wait for your child to signal ‘more’ before carrying on.

First Words

At around a year of age, your child may be saying a few words. To begin with, it may only be those who spend the most time with them that can understand what they are trying to say. That’s okay! Give praise and a positive response to encourage your child to try more words. Don’t worry if they do not say a word ‘properly.’ Repeat back what they said and say the word clearly. For example - your child might say “Dah” for dog. You can say “Dog! Yes, that is a big dog.” In time, their words will become clearer, and others will understand them more easily.

Here and Now

Everyday activities are interesting to your child, and they are an opportunity to talk and play with you. Just talking about what you and/or they are doing means they will hear a lot of language. Build special moments into your day that you can both look forward to. Turn off the TV and your phone and spend time together playing on the floor or looking at books.

Involve your child with everyday activities. This could be helping to make their own lunch or getting groceries. Talk together as you do the task and about what you are doing. This will help your child link spoken language to the world around them.

Take Time

Pause when you are talking, playing, or asking your child questions. This gives them time to contribute and respond. It can take up to 10 seconds for children to process what has been said.


Repeat and expand on what your child says to you. I call this the +1 rule. If they say “juice” you can say “more juice”, “yummy juice” or “juice gone.” By adding one word onto what they said, your child will learn how words can be put together to make short sentences.

Keep language at the level your child is at. Comment on and describe what they are doing during play in short sentences. For example, if your child is playing with a farm - you can say “horse eating” “pig rolling” “pig all dirty.”


Read books together! Books are an amazing way to build language. Make sure not to just read the words of the story, look at and talk about the pictures, too!

Memory skills

Make time to talk about the day. This will help your child with their memory skills. It will help them talk about things that have happened in the past that they can no longer see.


Talk about or play games involving opposites like 'on and off' or ‘big and little.’


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