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Playtime tips and ideas

Photo: Try to turn everyday activities into a chance to learn through play

Children develop during the first five years of their lives more than at any other time. That's why they’re called the foundation years – the building blocks for life. As parents, you play a huge part in boosting your child’s development and learning in the early years through play.

It’s very easy to become focussed on your child meeting milestones, but don’t forget about the importance of everyday play and fun.

Becky is mum to Kenzie (2), who is deaf.
“People often ask me what I do to help Kenzie with his development. My answer to this will always be the same... Kenzie and I constantly have fun and play! Every game we play, every activity we do or every walk we go on is a lesson and a great opportunity for him to learn something new.”

Why is play so important?

Making sure you provide one-to-one fun and stimulating activities with your child can really improve their emotional wellbeing, build bonds and improve their communication.

Play has so many benefits for all children. It’s an opportunity for them to enjoy, explore and express themselves. It doesn’t always need to have a purpose or be organised, it can be flexible, fluid and reactive. Allowing your child to initiate and lead their play helps them to become more motivated, independent and innovative thinkers and learners. It helps them to better understand or master what they’re learning and make connections between the different things they’re learning, and it boosts their confidence and competence when they come across that learning again. In some cases, too much adult-led activity or ‘teaching’ can actually result in children being turned off learning.

If your child uses hearing aids or cochlear implants, try to make sure that they use them as consistently as possible so that your child won’t miss out on opportunities to hear and learn from the language you’re using with them while you play together.

Maria is mum to Grace (10), who is deaf.
“Whichever activity we choose to do together, I always listen intently to what Grace is saying and relay back to her what I’ve heard. I feel it’s extremely important for her voice, wishes and feelings to be heard as she often feels excluded by other children. Grace also plays the piano which helps her to relax. She enjoys feeling the sounds rather than relying too heavily on hearing. She loves it because she can take her hearing aids out and still participate without it affecting her ability to play.”

How to get the most out of playtime

  • Be child-centred: respond to your child, take their lead with play activities and let them show you what they want to do. Your child will feel more motivated and engaged in the activity if they are in control of the situation.
  • Whenever possible, make sure your child is playing in an environment with good listening conditions. Try to find somewhere quiet with minimal background noise. Soft furnishings will help to improve the acoustics.
  • Make sure the area is well-lit, so your child can clearly see your face, and there are no distractions.
  • If you’re using speech, try to use gestures and signs to support it. Facial expressions and body language are also important during playtime.
  • Try to be on the same eye-level as your child. It may help to sit or lie on the floor. This will make it easier to maintain eye contact while playing.
  • When sharing a story, think about how you’re sitting. Can your child clearly see your face? Sitting at the same level or angle as the child can be helpful as it can help you keep your child’s attention and have good eye contact. Try to make sure there’s enough light where you’re sitting so your child can see the book and your face clearly.
  • Nearly every part of your daily routine can be made into playtime, for example car journeys, bath time, mealtimes, bus rides or going shopping. Encourage games and play that will help your child to explore these situations and make them more fun. For example, while on the bus, why not sing ‘the wheels on the bus’?
  • Play is important for children’s social development. Encourage your child to play with, or around, other children. This may be at a local park or play-group. When children play around each other, it gives them the opportunity to see how their peers do things and they can try to copy. This can also help to develop their communication skills as they learn how to interact with others.

Catherine is mum to Oscar (1), who is deaf.
“Deaf children love playing the same as hearing children, but in my experience Oscar is much more likely to be distracted by something new and exciting that he sees out of the corner of his eye. Let your child guide the play and go with the flow with whatever they want to play with, even if they move on every 10 seconds. If you can, try and sit opposite them with the toy in the middle so they can see both the toy and your face. Use lots of big gestures and pretend that everything is really exciting. Deaf children tend to pick up on your facial expression really quickly.”

When your child has additional needs, such as deafness, it’s easy for parents and family members to feel like they need to help the child with everything they do. Play is a safe environment for your child to take risks, make mistakes and learn their own coping strategies for tasks they will face as they get older. Allowing time for mistakes during playtime will help your child develop independence and confidence.

Individual play is just as important for children as playing with others. It allows your child time to explore objects and discover how it relates to their environment. There isn’t a correct way to play with a toy. For example, you might see a child banging a plastic phone onto a drum. Although this isn’t its intended use, the child is exploring sound and movement which is essential for their learning.

Try to follow your child’s lead and join in with them while they’re playing, so that you’re both enjoying playtime together. Let them choose toys to play with rather than choosing for them. This will give you both the best chance to have two-way communication as you read or play together. Two-way communication builds a child’s language, confidence and social skills.

Playtime can also really help your communication as a family. If you’re learning a new language, such as British Sign Language (BSL) or encouraging a hearing brother or sister to maintain eye contact when speaking, play creates a fun environment to practise this.”

Hester is mum to Harold (1), who is deaf.
“I have tried to introduce British Sign Language (BSL) signs into play, so if we have a ball (his favourite!) I will do the sign for ball to hopefully get him linking the two things together.”

The Three ‘Rs’

Where possible, trying to include the three ‘Rs’ in play with your child.

  • Rhyme: Singing poems and nursery rhymes are a fun way for children to practise controlling their voices, both in terms of volume and frequency (also known as pitch). It will also help them to recognise the intonation (the rise and fall of the voice) used in spoken language.
  • Rhythm: Songs and playing with instruments can both help your child recognise rhythm. This supports the foundation skills needed to develop language e.g. beats on a drum, pat-a-cake and clapping. Things may get loud!
  • Repetition: Repeating songs and nursery rhymes is important to reinforce language development and improve your child’s ability to take in information that is presented out loud, process it, retain it and then recall it (auditory memory). Be prepared to share the same book over and over – children love and need repetition!

Nicky is mum to Isabelle (2). Both are profoundly deaf.
“Books with repeated phrases are great to encourage joining in. We have some sound books such as Dear Zoo which we're using to help Isabelle match sounds to the source. One of the best parts of our day as a family is sharing Brown Bear, Brown Bear – What Do You See?, her current bedtime story.”

Tips for playing with babies

  • Sensory play: If you have a large tray or bowl, fill it with different objects or textures for your child to explore. This could be old clothes, plastic or wooden items, or even food (it goes without saying, make sure there’s nothing sharp or dangerous in there!)
  • Play peek-a-boo using lots of facial expressions.
  • Mark-making activities, such as finger painting and drawing in the sand or on blackboards, can help develop hand-eye coordination. Drawing faces into the sand or with paint can help when learning how to express different emotions.
  • Children love to make noise! Why not give them a wooden spoon and either a plastic box or metal pot so they can have a go at making noise themselves.
  • Sing songs like ‘row your boat’ and sign key words, for example ‘crocodile’ or ‘scream.’ Encourage your child to join in and sing or sign with you. The repetition in these songs will reinforce the words and signs.
  • Read out loud. Sit in a position where your child can clearly see your face and the book. You could even get some objects and toys that are shown in the book, so they have the real thing to explore.

Hester is mum to Harold (1), who is deaf.
“We keep playtime interactive by using different sensory experiences. For example, when I’m washing up, I’ll give him bubbles to play with, when I’m peeling vegetables, I’ll give him the peel to feel the different textures. He will be sat on someone’s lap during play so he can take part and feel the vibrations. My older daughter, who is hearing, loves making music. Harold can’t hear any of it but he can sense the thrill and fun that is being had when we’re playing musical instruments or singing and dancing about.”

Tips for playing with a toddler

  • Every part of your day can be transformed from routine into playtime – describing things you see around you, repeating words and phrases, and making funny faces.
  • Point to objects as you go through your day; name them, sign them, make up a silly rhyme about them, sing nursery rhymes and do actions to match. This will help to reinforce your child’s memory of objects and the things around them.
  • Children love to be creative and make noise. You can try making musical shakers from empty plastic bottles filled with rice grains or dried pasta shapes. Blow into an empty plastic bottle or cardboard tube to make trumpets, rattles and toy horns. Decorate them with paint or coloured paper and make sure the lids are tightly secured. You could also try mouth organs, castanets and tambourines.
  • Play a matching game, using photos of objects or a variety of facial expressions (for example, happy, sad, scared, angry) cut out from magazines, then sign a word and ask your child to choose a matching photo.
  • Play ‘I spy’ using signing.
  • Tell stories using speech, sign and gesture. You can also use visual memory clues such as photos, pictures and objects to prompt your child’s memory.
  • Blow bubbles. The movement and blowing pressure needed for blowing bubbles will help build muscles in the face and mouth, which are essential for communication and language development.

Becky is mum to Kenzie (2), who is deaf.
“Kenzie’s so interested in everything, wants to know how everything works and what sounds he can hear and why. So I spend my time exploring the world with him. It doesn't matter how many toys your child has, you can work with what you have and make even the smallest thing fun and interesting. Kenzie loves role-play games and getting to show off how clever he is, praise is really important when he does something well.”

Go to Becky’s blog to read examples of role-play games she plays with Kenzie.

Tips for playing with a young child

  • You don’t have to be at home to play. If you have a spare 10 minutes you can develop your child’s auditory memory by playing memory games such as ‘I went shopping and bought…’ where you list items and they have to repeat them back to you, adding one each time.
  • Encourage active play, particularly outdoors, to get children fit and build their confidence in the world around them.
  • Make simple finger puppets with scraps of material and then draw different faces on each finger, showing different emotions. These can be used for lots of activities such as storytelling or singing songs.
  • Encourage children to control their voices through role-play by exploring different pitches and tones. Try different voices, gestures or facial expressions. Why not pretend a phone needs answering or there’s a knock at the door. Ask or sign ‘Who’s there?’ and role-play the visitor.
  • ‘Simon Says’ is a great game to practise listening, observation and copying skills.

Emma is mum to Joe (3), who is deaf.
“We use the same toys and games we’ve had for Joe’s older brothers but try to be clearer with teaching vocabulary while playing. Lots of our games have also come from our Teacher of the Deaf but are still fun to play ourselves or with Joe’s brothers. We use playdough, naming the cutters, colours and shapes. We do the same when painting and colouring.”

Toys and games

  • You don’t need to find different or specific toys for deaf children.
  • Check the age warnings and recommendations on toys to find ones that are appropriate for your child’s age and level of development.
  • Toys which make noises may be useful for your child to learn about different sounds, which can help develop their listening skills. This can also be beneficial for awareness, attention, differentiating and recognising sounds.
  • It can also be important for children to recognise themselves in the toys they’re playing with. Various toys on the market now have cochlear implants or hearing aids, such as Just Like You Dolls. You can also take a look at our range of children’s book which feature deaf characters and sign language.
  • You could even make your own additions to toys. Try using a cardboard box and cutting out the shape of a cochlear implant. Add a magnet to the card and to the dolls head. Your child can then have a toy with a cochlear implant, like them. This could be something you make together with your child and you can have fun decorating it and exploring different textures and colours.

Hester is mum to Harold (1), who is deaf.
“As so many toys are geared towards having access to hearing, we’ve tried to gather a range of different sensory toys. Harold loves lights and patterns and so we sometimes put on hand puppet and shadow plays with a torch. I’ve bought light-up toys as well.”

Sara is mum to Charlotte (7), who is deaf.
“When the sand table first arrived, it was all about building sand castles and digging holes. Now, it’s about building caves and ‘hideouts’ for little figures to play in and it’s become a base with many wars played in the sand over the last few weeks. The detail in the building has developed to such a high level and it’s clear there’s a lot of thought behind each build.”

Make Time 2 Play is a not-for-profit campaign helping to give a little inspiration so that everyone can make time to play.