Community Helpers and Pretend Play in Speech and Language Therapy
Using the Community Helpers theme in therapy is a fun way to improve your student’s speech and language development and open their minds to one day considering a job as a local hero. The thought of playing with future firefighters, teachers, police officers, nurses, and farmers is so rewarding and just cute! What an honor we have.
A recent study revealed that Community Helpers play, specifically pretend play, is also an Evidenced-Based Practice that is beneficial to speech and language development. The authors of the study Promoting Social Pretend Play in Preschool Age: Is Providing Roleplay Material Enough? exposed that there are two important variables in promoting social pretend play. The two variables are:
- Materials for children to encourage role playing
- Adult involvement during play provides crucial prompts, cues, and models
So, how can speech-language pathologists support this new evidence? Let’s increase the quality of pretend play in therapy. Here’s how to elevate pretend play and target speech and language goals:
|Play Theme||Potential Speech and Language Goals||Materials||Adult Involvement|
|Veterinarian||Body parts, multi-step directions, multisyllabic words, etc.||Stuffed animals, doctor’s kit, clipboard to mark off pet names.||Model asking to check body parts based on concerns like, “Can you check my dog’s tummy because I think he swallowed our remote?!” then switch roles!|
|Farmer||Sequencing, vocabulary, categories, etc.||Sensory bin with beans for dirt and another with grass.||Prompt and model planting seeds, water, and harvest crops. Categorize fruit, vegetables, and other crops.|
|Chef/Waiter||Multi-step directions, requesting, perspective taking, etc.||Play food, play knife, menu.||Cue turn taking for waiting on each other/peers. Model requesting and describing foods. Model following multi-step directions with memory strategies like repeating the order out loud.|
|Firefighter||Environmental sounds, multi-step directions, vocabulary, requesting, etc.||Play house with action figures for smaller scale or costumes with a giant cardboard box into a house for a larger scale.||Prompt rescuing members of a house. Model using objects like a helmet. a ladder, a mask, and a hose (all could be imaginary). Cue the child to help you with the function of an object.|
These social pretend play themes can be easily targeted across a variety of settings:
- 1 on 1 therapy
- Small group therapy
- Pull-in inclusion model
- Caregiver in the therapy room
- Teletherapy with parallel or observed play with child’s commentary
Tip: Invite the student’s caregiver to observe you play with their child. If that is not feasible, get a video release and record yourself playing with the student! Sometimes we take for granted that all parents understand not only the importance of, but the how of playing. Take into account each families’ lifestyle and culture. Provide small goals for caregivers like, “Try to play for at least 10 minutes on the floor with Jade this week and use your playhouse! Pretend like she is a firefighter coming to rescue the family. Let me know how it goes!”. Use a theme that you recently targeted in therapy so the child will feel more confident in a different setting.
So how do you get started? It might feel unnatural and awkward if you are not used to social pretend play, but you can get started by:
- Suggesting a thematic focus, “Let’s play school!”
- Introducing each object and names of the community helpers involved. Explain how the objects can be used like, “Look how cool! A stethoscope! The nurse’s stethoscope is used to listen to their patient’s heart and breathing”. This is called the Planning Phase.
- Playing! This is where you will prompt, cue, and model pretend play. Then fade those models. You might prompt a student to grab a piece of paper and use it as a menu during a pretend play restaurant theme. This is called the Play Phase.
The article concludes that educators and caregivers should provide the two variables and to be conscious of the balance of self-initiated and creative play with social pretend play. Keep in mind that according to ASHA, cooperative creative social pretend play is a developmental standard for a 4 year old.
Tip: A great time of the year to purchase role play materials is right after Halloween when costumes go on clearance! That’s usually where I have found my stash. Another great idea is to ask caregivers/staff to consider donating their gently used costumes. Lastly, the party section in stores is also a great spot since they have party themes like pirates, safari, circus, etc.
These are some of my favorite Community Helper Materials:
- Clothesline Clues to Jobs People Do Book (I have the companion kit linked below on my TPT)
- Play Doh Doctor Drill and Fill Playset
- Learning Resources Pretend and Play Doctor’s Set
- Melissa and Doug Star Diner Restaurant Play Set
Some community helpers companions from my TPT shop are linked below. These are a great way to bombard vocabulary and well, just keep the theme going!:
- Community Helper Preschool Language Packet
- Interactive Vocabulary Books: Community Helpers Print and Boom Decks!
- Clothesline Clues to Jobs People Do: Speech and Language Book Companion
- Firefighter for a Day: K Sound BOOM Cards™️ Distance Learning Speech Therapy
- Color & Play: Dentist BINGO
- Trashy Town: Speech and Language Book Companion with Google Slides
- Sound Police: Community Helper Lift the Flap Game
The argument for increased pretend play only reassures the importance of our jobs as speech language pathologists since we know play is a building block to language. Share how you elevate or plan to elevate your pretend play with community helpers— who knows, maybe you’ll spark a job interest in a future community helper!
“Kalkusch, I., Jaggy, A., Burkhardt, B., Weiss, B., Sticca, F., & Perren, S. (2020). Promoting social pretend play in preschool age: Is providing roleplay material enough? Early Education and Development.
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