How To Help A Child With A Speech Delay

How Pretend Play / Imaginative Play Can Help With Speech Delay

سْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ 

Photo by Chayene Rafaela on Unsplash
Disclaimer- I am not an expert in Child Development or Speech Therapy. This article is purely based on my own experience. Always seek professional advice.

What is Speech Delay?

Speech Delay is when a child isn’t developing speech and language at an expected rate. It is a common developmental issue that affects around 1/5 of children. There are many different reasons why some children are delayed in speech compared to others. Some of these reasons are more complex and need further investigations from medical experts. Sometimes there is no actual cause for the delay and your child will just speak when they are ready.

My Experience with Speech Delay

Around the time my son turned two years old, I noticed that he was not saying any words and I became extremely concerned. Not only because of the speech delay, but I felt that there were behavioural issues which were probably due to the fact that he was unable to communicate with me.

I was told by family, friends and everyone else that this was perfectly normal – mainly because my son was my firstborn- so he didn’t have any siblings to speak to and play with and because of the fact that he was a boy. Boys usually take longer to start speaking than girls. Also and most importantly – he had spent most of his life living in a pandemic with lockdowns, restrictions, closed parks, play-centres and people avoiding meeting one another. Yet, that did not give me the reassurance I needed. I still wanted to do anything I could to help him develop speech. I did my own research and spoke to other mums who have had similar experiences and they gave me the same advice;

‘Talk to him more’

‘Read to him more’

‘Take him to nursery-he needs friends his own age to talk to

Use flashcards to help him communicate’

Take him to see the GP

‘Speak to the health visitor

‘Teach him letters and sounds because letters and sounds become words

I tried every single suggestion above (I am not disapproving of the above methods, I am sure some work for other children) however, I didn’t see much improvement in my child’s speech and like all other mums, I was very desperate to try anything that anyone had suggested. I put my son in nursery part-time and when he was at home I began using flashcards to help him communicate. I thought that he may need visuals of items to match with the words. After a while, I could see there was a slight improvement in his speech.

I then started reading more books with him, hoping he will pick up some of the vocabularies. Still a very minimal improvement. One day I got a call from my son’s nursery asking if the Educational Psychologist could observe him and then meet with me. I agreed and was very excited to get feedback from the Educational Psychologist on ideas on how to help my child.

My son’s educational psychologist has been working with young children with speech delays for over 40 years and he gave me the best advice I could ever ask for.

The Advice from the Educational Psychologist

‘Put away the books, put away the flashcards, put away anything educational and PLAY with your son. PLAY with him all day every day. PLAY, PLAY and PLAY with him more.’

He couldn’t emphasise the importance of playing with him enough to me. He emphasised on PRETEND PLAY and IMAGINATIVE PLAY and told me to use facial expressions, hand gestures, be animated and model role play to my child.

Examples of Imaginative Play / Pretend Play

Pretending that it is cold and that you are shivering ‘Oh, it is so cold!’, get a blanket and try to get your child to join in and copy the action of shivering. This helps your child develop problem-solving skills.

Pretend to be sleeping. Yawn, get a pillow. Say ‘I’m so tired. I’m going to sleep. It’s bedtime. Mummy’s going to bed. Yawn, yawn. Try to get your child to pretend to sleep too and pretend to yawn. This will help your child read and copy facial expressions and process the emotions linked with speech.

Get an empty cup and pretend there is a drink in there and make the sounds of someone gulping from the cup, pass the cup to your child and get them to pretend to drink too. Say ‘your turn to drink’.Now, it’s mummy’s turn to drink‘. This teaches them turn-taking which is necessary for speech development.

Use any object in the house and pretend that it is something else for example pretending that a toy is a phone and speaking on it. ‘Hello, who’s there? Is that daddy on the phone? How are you? Pass the toy to your child. let them pretend to speak. This teaches them how to take turns when having a conversation and prompts them to pretend to speak. Even if they babble on the phone, that’s great!

You don’t need to spend money on extravagant costumes or expensive props. If you can – then go for it! however, with pretend play you can use anything you already have lying around at home and pretend that it is something else. A cardboard box can be a pretend car. A crayon can be a mobile phone. It is all about creativity!

Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash

Benefits of Imaginative Play


At first, I did not understand how imaginative play could help my child with speech development. It didn’t seem very logical to me but my son loved to pretend play. He was giving me much better eye contact than he had done before. He was seeing a playful, silly, comical side of me and that helped him become more focused on what I was doing and encourage him to interact with me more.

Imaginative play gives children the opportunity to learn practical life skills,  This gives them more confidence in daily activities and improves their cognitive skills.

It provides an opportunity for kids to practice and develop their language and social skills by merely being with and talking to other people.

In imaginative play, you can make sounds and gestures that are usually easier for your child to imitate than words might be for your child. For example, if you pretend to eat and then rub your belly and say ‘Mmmmm’ – this might be easier for your child to copy in comparison to them copying you say the word ‘food’ or ‘lunch. This helps children build the basic foundation needed for speech.

Flashcards and books can restrict vocabulary.

For example, if you have a flashcard with a baby’s picture it will just say ‘baby’ and that is what the child is faced with just the word ‘baby’. However, if you pretend you have a baby or act like a certain toy is a baby you can increase the vocabulary for example you can role play with a doll and say ‘Oh no, the baby is sad. Let’s put the baby to sleep! The baby needs her bottle. Shhh…. the baby is going to go to sleep. Shall we sing a lullaby to baby?’ A lot more vocabulary can be deduced from role-playing in a more FUN way for the child. Which helps children develop language.

The above are just some of the endless benefits of pretend play which I would recommend all parents to do, even if your child doesn’t have a speech delay. It helps build a wide range of skills that all children can benefit from.

From a parent’s perspective, imaginative play with a young child can sometimes become tedious and repetitive but always remember the benefits and if your child seems to enjoy it, then it definitely will not be time wasted.

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