Could Better Communication with Your Children be as Simple as Relearning How to Play?

“Sometimes you just need chicken nuggets!”

“Let’s Play!” is more than a brand for speech pathologist Susan Morgan—the exhortation is central to her approach to communication therapy and goes a long way to explain why her patients adore her.

“In some ways, I’m a big, giant kid,” Susan says, explaining her uncanny ability to build instant rapport with her patients, who typically range in ages 1-6 years old. (She’s qualified to treat youth as old as 18 but feels a pre-school age range represents her “sweet spot.”) Don’t be fooled into thinking hiring Susan is like hiring a playmate, however. She added a Master of Science in communications sciences and disorders to a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is certified by the American Speech-Hearing Association. She is a Provisional Greenspan Floortime Therapist and is trained in the Beckman Oral-Motor Protocol.

But, if anything, being trained in the science of speech and non-verbal communication has reinforced Susan’s belief that, “play skills and problem-solving is what leads to language.” Being so expressive herself also helps her draw out even the painfully shy. Her sense of fun radiates from an infectious smile, sparkling eyes and expressive hand gestures. Because she comes to children’s homes for their sessions, her subjects already feel comfortable, and she quickly ends up on the floor involved in whatever form of play makes children happiest.

Depending on the age range, her next move may well be to encourage her young charges to play with their food.

Say what? “Yes, I absolutely encourage kids to play with their food!” Susan says. Children’s most lasting memories often involve food—the taste, the smell, the texture and the sense of wellbeing and satisfaction that results from eating foods they enjoy.

“Touching food, tasting it, saying, ‘crunch, crunch, crunch goes the carrot,’ or finding out what’s squishy or splashy involves both physical and emotional sensations. Expressing how you feel about those sensory experiences leads to learning about how sensations impact behavior,” she explains.

“Behaviors are a byproduct of your sensations like feeling hungry or being upset, surprised, angry or happy,” Susan says. “All of us have such feelings, but not everyone understands the appropriate way to express behavior in response to those feelings.”

This, in turn, helps explain why disruptive “acting out” in their children most frequently leads parents to call Susan. Being a picky eater could be a trigger to bad behavior or a symptom of other physical issues. “They could be asserting their autonomy,” Susan says. Or it could be even simpler. “Sometimes you just need chicken nuggets!”

Regulation and engagement are key. Regulation is the process of understanding your physical and emotional behavior in reaction to your sensations that help bring you back into a calm state. Engagement is looking at someone else and figuring out how they can help you achieve regulation.

“This is as basic as pointing at what you want and then asking someone to hand it to you,” Susan says. Or, with a less verbal child, it could involve shaking the chains on a swing when you want to be pushed higher. “Modeling words on top of gestures they’re already using is a way of building language,” she explains.

It would take a book to better describe how Susan helps kids become more fulfilled and expressive, and it’s definitely more fun to hear her tell it, but here are a few concepts that help to explain her process.

  • Observing how the children communicate and asking more open-ended or “how” questions can improve communication in the home as much as focusing on helping children better express themselves.

  • Silence is an opportunity. We all crave filling in silence with our words, especially when we’re trying to get our children to speak. But the more adults talk, the less opportunity the child has to feel the urge to fill the silence themselves. Take a breath, count to 10 and then count to 10 again before you speak.

  • Relearning how to play may be the best way for parents to help their children communicate, but toys are not always the answer. Toys are great and give our play inspiration, but they can distract from engagement if your child is more focused on the toy than you. Instead, become the toy! Put it on your head, drive it across your arm then across your child’s leg. Toys are really just tools upon which to build play. 

  • Exaggerate your movements and vary your voice. See what type of animated movements and sounds get your child giggling and laughing, or even hiding! It’s okay to get startled, just acknowledge his fear and help him feel brave for the next time the “big bear” comes out.

  • Avoid explaining rules; your child hears that enough. Let them explore the bad guy role in a safe story so later he can stand up to the bad guys during the day.

  • Sign language and body language are important, and too often overlooked, forms of communication. Reintroducing gestures—including alternatives to saying “no,” or “enough”—can go a long way toward helping kids feel more in control of their emotions and their environment, and it can help them be more willing to engage more fully with others.

Because this is our kids and pets issue, we’ll add that Susan also is a self-described dog mom to Muki, a certified therapy dog who manages a custom dog bandana company through Etsy. Muki’s favorite things include nose bumps, tug of war and fresh baked cookies. Muki may have the opportunity to play with Susan’s patients or, to the extent that interacting outside the home becomes a focus of her therapy, she’ll often lead parents and kids to We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym in Sterling for a healthy romp, which also feeds into her goal of helping families relearn to play at all ages.