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Language on the Road: Think Outside the Screen

It occurred to me this morning, driving about an hour north to visit family and about four bars into what was probably my tenth iteration of 'Old MacDonald has a Farm,' that car rides are a beautiful opportunity for language stimulation for kids. How often do I get uninterrupted one-on-one time with a toddler who is sitting still? Generally, if my son is sitting quietly at home, it means he is doing something terrible: drawing "letters" on the hardwood floors, unspooling rolls of toilet paper, or seeing if my cell phone will float in the dog's water dish. But in the car, he's not only forced to sit still, but I have his complete attention- another rarity!

As a parent, I know exactly how tempting and easy it is to hand my child a cell phone or tablet to occupy his time and minimize tantrums on the road. But as an SLP, I know that excessive use of these gadgets has been linked to attention and learning problems, and that no matter how careful I am to download "educational" apps, kids learn better from people than they do from screens. But, seriously, I can only repeat my son's favorite five songs so. many. times. So, I decided to compile a list of some creative activities that will not only occupy our time on the road, but boost language development for my son without pushing me over the edge.

1. Put Old MacDonald to work - We love coming up with farm animals for Old MacDonald's farm. But switching it up and giving Old MacDonald a new job can be a fabulous opportunity for kids to learn about semantic categories. For instance, after your child has exhausted all the typical farm animals, ask him/her to think about zoo animals for Old MacDonald's zoo, then ocean animals for Old MacDonald's aquarium. You could then sing about Old MacDonald's house (think: "Old Macdonald had a kitchen, E-I-E-I-O. And in that kitchen, he had a dishwasher..."). Learning word categories is an important step in building a child's vocabulary and word-retrieval skills. And, inventing wacky sounds for different animals, appliances, and furniture can be really fun!

2. 20 Questions - Kids love asking questions and keeping secrets, and that's what this old game is all about! Pick an object and have your child ask questions to figure out what it is. This game encourages problem-solving and allows for lots of practice formulating and answering questions!

3. A, my name is Alice... - This game is great for developing phonological awareness skills in older kids. By ages 5-7, children start to be able to list words beginning with different sounds. In case you've forgotten the rules, each person has to generate a name, a place, and something to sell, all beginning with the same sound. ("E, my name is Edgar, I live in Eugene, and I sell eggs!")

4. Shopping Card Memory - "I went to the store, and I bought an apple, a banana, a carrot, a dog, and an elephant..." This is THAT game! Each person has to repeat all the previous items in the shopping cart, and add a new item. There are so many ways to change up this one, though- get creative! With my students, we use this game to practice target sounds (e.g., all the items have to begin with the /s/ sound,) rhymes (e.g., all items must rhyme,) and categories (e.g., all items have to be desserts/furniture/things at the beach).

5. I like to eat, eat, eat... - My son has just figured out how to play this game, and it is so fun watching him figure out how to manipulate sounds in each verse. In the unlikely event you haven't heard this song come up on your Pandora kids' mix, here's the classic version:

I like to eat, eat, eat, apples and bananas (x2)

I like to ate, ate, ate, aypples and baynaynays (x2)

I like to eat, eat, eat, eeples and beeneenees (x2)

... and so on. Not only is this a funny song for kids (they especially love intentionally mispronouncing 'bananas' for some reason,) but the whole point is phoneme manipulation - another component of phonological awareness. This is another great song to change up, too! I provide the verb, and let my son fill in the objects, a vocabulary-building exercise. For example:

Me: I like to hug, hug, hug...

Son: Mama and Daddy!

Then we get to manipulate the words he provided, swapping out the vowel sounds. Maymay and dayday, meemee and deedee, moomoo and doodoo. Toddler hilarity ensues.

You get the idea- it doesn't take the creative genius of Raffi or, dare I say it, Barney, to create fun, educational word games; just think of little twists on the games and songs you and your child already know! He will benefit from the linguistic tasks built into the game and your language modeling, and, let's face it, it doesn't hurt us drivers to have a little mental stimulation on those long drives (highway hypnosis, anyone??).

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