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Working with non-verbal children can present a unique set of challenges. It is not uncommon for Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, and Special Education Teachers to encounter non-verbal children in their therapy jobs. Therapists’ resources are often limited in the variety of activities to engage this audience. Luckily, there ARE several activities you can incorporate into your therapy job – here are 15 of the best!
1. Routines Boards – Use visual boards with single-step actions to help clients learn common routines. You can create a board for brushing teeth which includes Get Toothbrush, Wet Toothbrush under Faucet, Apply a Small Amount of Toothpaste, Brush Front of Teeth, Brush Back of Teeth, Brush Sides of Teeth, etc…include as much or as little detail as the individual client needs to complete the task. Other visual boards might include Packing Backpack for School, Doing Homework, and Cleaning Up After Dinner.
2. Red Light, Green Light – Non-verbal children will often struggle with basic commands. Use games like Red Light, Green Light to encourage them to follow directions in a way that can be carried over to the home environment. Use rewards for positive responses. To play Red Light, Green Light, line the children up in a straight line. Explain to them that, when you say Green Light, the children move forward. When you say Red Light, the children must stop. The terms “Red Light” and “Green Light” can then be used for other actions as one of their basic commands.
3. Practice Sharing – Play is an important activity for non-verbal children, and school-based therapists can facilitate this activity by practicing sharing. While the child is engaged in play with an object such as a toy car or tea set, occasionally take the toy from them. Then help the child learn ways to communicate that they would like the toy back. This may be through the use of sign language, or body language.
4. Daily Journals – Even non-verbal children have something to say, and journaling can be a valuable tool that school-based therapists can incorporate. Journals can be written, or simply pictures and illustrations for children who are unable to write. Use writing prompts to stimulate ideas. Prompts might include Favorite Foods, I Feel ____ When ____, My Best Friend Is ____.
5. See and Say – For younger children, animal sounds is a great way to introduce verbal communication. Use toys such as, “See and Say,” to help children identify animals by their sounds, and begin to verbalize those sounds. Simple animal toys can also be used to facilitate this activity.
6. Modeling – Using pictures of emotions such as sad, happy, angry, and hurt, the students take turns modeling the emotion shown on the picture. This helps non-verbal children recognize emotions in others, and learn how to display those emotions so that they can be recognized in them.
7. Hide and Seek – Using a toy or other reward, a therapist’s job is to hide an object in the room and encourage the student to use functional communication to locate the toy or reward. Sign Language, PECs or body language can be used to seek answers to the location of the object.
8. Sensory Bags – Sensory bags are a great way to help non-verbal children develop coordination, learn concentration and use multiple senses while exploring their environment. Sensory bags can be made with a variety of materials including rice, flour and water and even hair gel. Create bags that allow clients to draw or search for treasures.
9. Playing House – For younger students, role play type games can be an excellent way to help them learn words for common household items or social interactions. Other ideas for role play include restaurant, school or store.
10. The Name Game – Non-verbal children often struggle with recognition of their own names. Speech and language therapists can play the Name Game to help them identify with the sound of their own name and respond appropriately. Play this game in small groups of 3 or 4 students calling out names at random including the names of the students present. Whenever a student’s name is used, have the other students point to that student and have the student whose name was called, stand up. When the student stands, provide a small reward such as a sticker or small piece of candy.
11. Textures and Feelings – While non-verbal children struggle to communicate with the spoken word, they do not lack a sense of touch, and certainly have a full range of emotions. School-based therapists can put together a box of materials with different textures to help identify emotions that “feel” like the textures they are touching. Sand paper might be frustration, while cotton balls might be love. Use pictures or word queue cards with emotions.
12. Build a Sandwich – Therapists can help non-verbal children learn steps and details through the use of pretend assembly play. Using materials to create the ingredients for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or S’mores is a fun way to teach students the importance of steps, and how to navigate directions.
13. Face Puzzles – Use Face Puzzles to allow children to show what emotions they may be feeling, or to help them identify what emotions would be appropriate in various settings.
14. Experience Books – When a child goes on a field trip or has a unique experience, that activity can be utilized as an ongoing teaching tool through the use of Experience Books. During the field trip, take lots of pictures of the things the child sees and does. Then print those pictures out with short sentences that help to recall and describe the experience. Picture books can help children to identify objects and emotions they may not experience on a daily basis, but that they can recall and are familiar with.
15. Same and Different – Sorting, matching and classifying are beginning steps to communication, whether verbal or non-verbal. Playing activities – such as Same and Different – allow the therapist to integrate these skills with more advanced levels of communication. Same and Different activities come in the form of worksheets, card sets and even iPad apps.
Whether teaching children the beginning stages of becoming verbal, or working with students who do not have the ability to become verbal, we hope these activities help to expand your list of tools, and make your therapy job easier!