Using Play as a School SLP to Build Speech-Language Skills in Children and Adolescents

Play is a natural part of development for children that do not have learning delays. However, many of the students we work with in speech-language therapy have underdeveloped play skills. Play skills influence cognitive, social, communication, and language development. Speech-language pathologists are an important part of the school team that can help facilitate children’s and adolescents’ growth of the three main types of play: functional, symbolic, and game play. During structured speech-language therapy sessions, we can provide opportunities for children and adolescents to develop these essential skills while using strategies to increase their receptive and expressive language skills. Children can build functional and educationally relevant communication skills through play based activities.

Most speech language pathologists who work with preschoolers naturally incorporate functional and symbolic play based activities in therapy sessions. They do a great job of going in the classroom during center rotations or incorporating play during a circle time activity with their bag of fun toys. Young children learn how to build a tower with blocks, put a basic puzzle together, build Mr. Potato Head, and blow bubbles.  They practice labeling nouns, expressing actions, making requests, and waiting for their turn during play. Speech-language pathologists may help preschool children engage in dramatic or pretend play with toys while eliciting communication skills.

As children get older, it is important to remember that SLPs can still play a role in facilitating functional, symbolic, and game play skills in elementary and middle school aged students. When you incorporate play in therapy sessions, students are typically more motivated to participate and initiate communication.

Here are 4 tips for elementary school SLPs to use while still addressing students’ IEP goals and objects:

1) Use toys as a reward after completing a speech/language task. Try using a First/Then chart with minimally verbal children. They should first participate in a structured activity such as listening to you read an interactive book and then play a fun learning activity such as sensory bin, puzzle, blocks, or play-doh.

2) Use Vocabulary, Grammar, or Social Skills Chipper Chat. Kids love earning tokens and playing with the magnetic wand. They practice turn taking skills with their classmates while working on their IEP goals.

3) Use learning games such as HedBanz, Blurt!, Vocabulary BINGO, or Jeepers Peepers to practice speech-language skills.

4) Play I Spy game in the speech room to work on following directions, speech articulation, identifying objects and describing objects using attributes.

Here are 4 tips for middle school SLPs to use while still addressing students’ IEP goals and objects:

1) Use a standard board game and language task cards that require them to problem solve, use context clues to explain meanings of words, explain cause/effect, make inferences, state fact/opinion, etc.

2) Play games such as Madlibs to work on parts of speech and syntax.

3) Play traditional games such as Apple to Apples, Jenga, and 20 Questions for kids to build skills.

4) Watch video clips about social scenarios and talk about the perspective of others, expected behaviors, and unexpected behaviors. Have your language students role play scenarios and you record them in action.

You may also use seasonal/themed open-ended reinforcer games to increase engagement of children and adolescents (e.g. basketball, St. Patrick’s Day theme, spring). I encourage you to think about how often you incorporate play based activities in your speech language therapy sessions. This is a valuable strategy that should extend beyond early intervention SLPs to those working with school aged children and across disability areas as well.  If you work with students with Significant Developmental Delay (SDD), Autism, Moderate Intellectual Disability, Specific Learning Disability, or Speech Language Impairment only, incorporate play-based activities in weekly therapy sessions. They can build functional and educationally relevant communication and language skills using play-based learning activities. Kids will have fun and learn new speech-language skills too!


Here’s a link to a Google document about Types of Play and Social Stages of Play.

Here are links to free madlibs to work on parts of speech:

You can purchase madlibs here (*Note: This specific madlib book seems appropriate for adolescents, yet others on website may not be kid or school friendly.):

History of the World Mad Libs

Here are links to free social skills videos:


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