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How to Make a "Touch a Truck" Event Into a Social and Language Development Opportunity

Today is "Touch a Truck" Day in our small coastal town! I can tell you right now, there is a large group of kids who are waking up this morning more excited for today then they are waking up on Christmas Day or their Birthdays.

Whether your child is 2 years old or 14 years old there is just something magical about police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, and the heroes who drive them. If I could pick any place to have an impromtu Speech or Language Therapy Session it would be at a "Touch a Truck!" event. The sights, the sounds, the ability to be hands on, and the willingness for these professionals to slow down and explain to our children what they do on a daily basis and how their "trucks" help them to accomplish their jobs.

Today is about having fun and experiencing the event, most importantly. However, we know that children learn and retain best when they are participating in an activity that is stimulating and meaningful to them so seize the opportunity and build in a little Social and Language Development!

Language Building:

* Label, Label, Label:

Buttons, hoses, lights, ladders, - So many objects in 3D form that we typically just see in photos or on toys. (We already naturally label with our children but as I tells my kid's parents, if you label an object 10 times a day bump it up to a hundred! Pretty much until you drive yourself crazy! For example: "A ladder! I see a ladder! Look there's a ladder! Let's go over to the ladder! Touch the ladder! The ladder goes up. The ladder goes down!") - Many of our little ones are struggling with object / label attachment and this is how to help!

* Self Talk:

The key to this strategy is to say those thoughts we naturally say in our head to ourselves, out loud. This helps with building vocabulary, developing deeper thoughts, and strengthening language. For example say out loud: "Look, here's a red button. I wonder what happens if I push down on this red button? Oh wow! When I push the red button it makes the lights and sounds on the car start. Those lights are bright and that sound is loud. I wonder if I push the button again if they will stop..." A great way to follow this up is to repeat the activity and use the same or similar self talk a second or 3rd time.

* Receptive Language Building:

Receptive Language refers to what we and our children are able to understand. When you label an object do they look to find the object? When you say their name or the word "look" do they turn to see you or what you are pointing at? When you give a simple one step direction are they able to follow it? The "Touch a Truck" Event is a perfect place to practice receptive language skills.

- Directions: "Walk over to the big red fire truck. / Push the button. / Sit down to wait your turn. / Put the fireman's hat on your head. Can you put it on my head?" For older kids or kids who are developmentally ready, you can practice two step commands. This is where you join two individual directions together. For example: "Give dad your backpack, then go line up to touch the fire truck."

- Identifying Objects When Labeled: This is the perfect time to make a game out of finding objects: "Where's the fire truck? Where's the police car? Where's the ambulance?" Make a silly game out of finding the truck or add in a motor component. "Run to the fire truck, then run back and high five me!" For older kids, or kids who are developmentally ready, play I SPY and take identifying an object to a higher level. For example: "On this wall of buttons, I spy a big yellow square button." - If they struggle to identify what you are labeling increase the support and repeat the language used. For example: "The big yellow square I am looking for is in this area up top (gesture to the area)."

* Initiating Social Contact / Greetings:

A lot of times as parents we anticipate the needs of our children and we often navigate social situations for them. Today, at this event I challenge you to pull back just a little and encourage your child to initiate themselves. This doesn't mean you leave them to it themselves, it just means you alter the way you are supporting them. For example, if you typically go over to a person and say, "Jonny would like to climb into the truck. Can he?" Instead go over to the fireman and crouch down next to your child. Say to your child: "I see a fireman. Let's say hello to the fireman." (Pause) If your child doesn't initiate, cue again. "Say, hello fireman." (Pause) If your child doesn't initiate move on. Turn to your child and let them know it'd be fun to climb into the truck. Then encourage them to ask, "Can we climb in?" By crouching next to your child and slightly behind you are making them the key communication partner with the fireman. Naturally the fireman will most likely follow your cues and crouch as well or lean down to your child and engage them. Depending on the age of the child modify the language you expect them to use. Level 1: "In?" / Level 2: "Climb?" or "Climb in?" / Level 3: "Can we climb in?"

*** Initiating and Social Engagement can be very scary for some of our little ones. Model, encourage, then move on. Don't force or pressure because ultimately we are supporting our children but also respecting that some things they need to do in their own time. If they refuse to engage the fireman on the first attempt then perhaps the goal is that by the 3rd or 4th truck they are simply saying hello to the policeman or EMT. Or if the fireman is their favorite truck, stop by that truck 2 or 3 times and each time repeat what you did above and they should become more and more comfortable with the fireman as he becomes a familiar communication partner.

* Commenting:

An area of social engagement that always gets left behind is commenting. It is important that we talk about what we see, how it makes us feel, and also that we comment on the actions of others. Here's where you can do a little more modeling and self-talk. For example: "That's awesome when the lights go on!" / "I don't like how loud the siren is. It hurts my ears." For some of our little ones, especially kids on the Spectrum, they benefit from support in this area because commenting is how we initially bond with others. For example if a child is playing with a ball and another child says, "That ball is awesome! I like red balls too!" The child playing with the ball is much more likely then to say, "Oh, do you want to play ball with me?" and social engagement occurs.

* Theory of Mind:

Theory of Mind is the idea and understanding that different people have different thoughts from each of us. I may find something cool while my friend may find something scary, and that is okay. A great way to work on Theory of Mind is to tie in emotions. For example: "I noticed when you pushed the button you smiled. You liked hearing the loud sirens. I also noticed when you pushed the button that baby began crying. They looked sad. They must not like the loud noise. Different people like different sounds." During "Touch a Truck" this is a great opportunity to develop Theory of Mind by talking with the men and women who work on the trucks. Before approaching the fireman ask your older child, "Firemen have to go into burning buildings to save people. How would that make you feel to go into a building that is on fire?" After your child responds ask them how they think it would make the fireman feel. Then together go and ask the fireman. Encourage your child to ask, "How does it make you feel to run into a building that is on fire to save people?"

My final suggestions for the day are:

- First:

Always, stay away from "Yes" and "No" questions - ESPECIALLY WITH TODDLERS! Yes and No questions lead to reduced language and often put you the parent into a spot of then having to convince or negotiate with your child. Use choice making or open ended questions. For example: "Do you want to see the fire truck or the ambulance." If they choose something outside of the choice you can gently remind them of the choice. "We are all done the police car. Go to the fire truck or go to the ambulance? Which one?"

- Second:

Leave 30 minutes before you think you are going to want to leave. Burn-out is real! Knowing when to pack up and call it a day is key!

Today, go out, enjoy "Touch a Truck" and when you return home you'll have lots of wonderful memories. If possible try to incorporate some of the speech and social strategies listed above. Remember that the key to learning is learning through touch, multi-sensory input, and modeling. When children are having fun they learn more because what they are hearing, seeing, and doing is meaningful to them. If you set a goal for your child and your child struggles to meet that goal today, reduce the goal. The most important thing at an event such as "Touch a Truck," is to have a successful outing as a family and to just have fun!

(If you have any additional suggestions for families visiting a "Touch a Truck" event please leave them in the comments section! We'd love to hear them!)

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